New Blackness: Pharrell, Kanye and Jay-Z and the Spectre of White Aspiration
During an interview with Oprah last Spring, producer and rapper Pharrell Williams dubbed himself “New Black”. In his words: “The New Black doesn’t blame other races for our issues. The New Black dreams and realizes that it’s not a pigmentation; it’s a mentality. And it’s either going to work for you, or it’s going to work against you. And you’ve got to pick the side you’re gonna be on.” Pharrell’s remarks floated around ideas about being black—”our issues,” our “pigmentation,” our pesky way of “working against” ourselves. These ideas put the onus of racism on black people. While Pharrell likely believes he was imparting wisdom, rather than being condescending, his words still stunk of the familiar “pull up your pants” stench.
When entertainers open their mouths to talk about something other than themselves, there’s always tension. The tension is there when Kanye “rants”; it’s there when Azealia Banks talks about black feminism in one breath, and utters Bill Cosby rape apologia in another; it’s also there when the exceptional Pharrell veers into Ayn Randian bootstrapping territory. While he may have reached a higher plane of enlightenment via New Black re-invention, for many black people it’s more complicated, and hitting refresh on their blackness does not change anything.
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