For Black Comedians Making Art in 2020, Existing Is Itself a Form of Protest

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Art has a powerful role in the shaping and dissemination of messages during social movements, especially in Black America’s struggle for freedom and equality. More than 50 years before Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 song "Alright" was adopted as a protest anthem by protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, Langston Hughes’ reflective poem "A Dream Deferred" warned of explosive consequences for the oppression of Black people. 

Many times, Black artists are looked to during such movements to provide a guiding voice, or an endorsement of the movement. The roots of this practice is two-fold: Because they have often been thought leaders via the message and impact of their art, some turn to them in hopes that they will be a vanguard of progress. 

At the same time, Black artists and athletes have the most prominent platforms of all Black Americans, advocates have said, noting that those lanes are some of the few through which white America has allowed Blackness to flourish. Much as America took the fruits of physical labor from enslaved Black people, it readily consumes culture and entertainment that Black labor produces, oftentimes without paying mind to what it took for those artists to get the positions they’re in. Black people in America have long said that to be heard, they must be able to give America something it can’t get anywhere else.

In the wake of long-simmering anger, unrest and distrust of police boiling over after the murder of George Floyd, there has been a rush by people to consume anti-racist and racially-educative content, as evidenced by the surge in books about race climbing the best-seller charts in the weeks after Floyd’s death. There has been clamoring for a checklist of texts, videos, music, art and philosophy that proves the sincerity of benevolent allies.

Lauren Michelle Jackson’s recent piece in New York Magazine begs the question “What Is an Anti-Racist Reading List For?” Some people are truly invested in learning and opening themselves up to new ways of thinking about how the society around them operates. But some are more performative, and will gladly consume content as long as it is easy to ingest and easy to share evidence of their having “learned” something. Some, it can sometimes appear, are more interested in consuming Black stories as entertainment, which are often re-traumatizing to recount. Whether that desire is conscious or subconscious denotes the line between active and passive cultural colonialism.

Singer, songwriter, and activist Nina Simone said “an artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” That sentiment may well be true, but that is more of a liberating mantra than a guiding principle. To whom does the artist have a duty to reflect the times to? How soon, how loud? How much should that reflection be aimed at broad ideas like racial equality, or specific ones like defunding the police? What does the artist owe their intended audience, their incidental audience, and the people and movements that make up the subjects of their work? 

Or does an artist have a duty to make art reflective of their times at all? After enduring the peaks of rage and valleys of indifference that followed the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Philando Castille, and so many others, do Black artists have more or less responsibility to speak through their art in the wake of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd’s killings?

Has too much weight been placed on the shoulders of Black artists - who are first and foremost Black people - to speak up and provide info-tainment, doing the work of teaching people about oppression while also crafting it into a fun, consumable package? At what toll on mental and physical health does such work come?

More importantly, what does a world where Black artists can express themselves freely look like?

"We Had No Choice but to Sit in It."

When concerns around the coronavirus started mounting in early 2020, stand up comics dealt with the social and personal anxieties around the disease the same way they deal with anything else - by making light of it. “If they don’t fix coronavirus, and we just live with it, shaking hands will go away,” said Josh Johnson on a March 13 episode of “This Week at the Comedy Cellar.” “When our grandkids shake hands, that's gonna be like third base,” Johnson said, as the audience guffawed at what, then, seemed like a silly premise.

While jokes about coronavirus were aplenty onstage in the lead up to the first lockdown orders in California and New York, offstage, some comics feared the for the future of their profession as the fate of comedy clubs and other venues came into question. Terms like “non-essential business” and the shut down of professional sports loomed large over a sector of the entertainment industry that hardly generated any revenue in comparison to the NBA. If the forces invested in LeBron James weren’t going to let him go to work, what hope did stand up comedy have?

"I've got to see in my city real, steady progress, even to start to think about relaxing some of those social distancing standards even a little bit," New York Mayor Bill De Blasio told CNN on April 15. For comics— whose workplace consists of people packed shoulder to shoulder, releasing droplet-filled laughs in the direction of the performer between sips of the drinks that keep the club funded— the potential of any sort of return to normal was distant at best.

On the first day of New York State’s lockdown, “The Daily Show” correspondent Roy Wood Jr., warned comics to prepare for the worst.

“When the pandemic started, I actually didn't mind a rest,” said stand up comedian and actor Lil Rel Howery during a virtual roundtable of Black comedians, brought together as part of Inside Edition Digital’s The Issue. Howery, who starred in Netflix’s record-breaking "Bird Box" after achieving widespread popularity for his role as TSA Agent Rod Williams in Jordan Peele’s 2017 "Get Out," was in the midst of shooting scenes for a new movie in Puerto Rico when COVID-19 arrived in the United States. 

The film’s production was scheduled for a stint of filming in Atlanta, but almost as soon as he arrived for what he anticipated to be several months of work away from his current home in Los Angeles, he said actors were told production was on hold. “We get to Atlanta and it's, ‘go back to L.A., you have to stay there, go to your home,’” Howery recounted. “So it was like, oh alright, I'll just go home for a few weeks.”

At first, some Black people kept fears of the coronavirus at bay with humor. “We was joking about it,” said Howery. “‘Oh, we’re too black to get the coronavirus.’ Then you started seeing our community be really affected. In my life, I lost my aunt who was the matriarch of our family.” Howery described the tragic and surreal experience his family had, waiting in the hospital parking lot for a call from his aunt’s doctor. 

“That’s when it got real to me,” he said. A socially distanced funeral and burial only cemented the gravity of the situation further.

Stuck at home as the world outside grew more dire, Howery joined the ranks of thousands of comedians who were trying to deal without one of their primary forms of coping: getting on stage.

“Our outlet has helped a lot of us get through. It’s so therapeutic to do stand up, to be honest with you,” Howery said. “I feel bad for a lot of my friends because a lot of them are crazy, really depressed,” he continued, expressing dismay for his peers. Many comics will be the first to tell you about their own depression, anxiety, or other afflictions. Comics often build their lives around gigs, sometimes packing in as many as 10 “spots” in a night to work out material. Suddenly, evenings reserved for honing their craft were filled with a gnawing void. 

“This is a time where everyone is just doing a lot of self reflecting,” said fellow roundtable participant Sydnee Washington, a New York comedian who has performed on Comedy Central and co-hosts “The Unofficial Expert” podcast. “And even though self-reflecting is positive, a lot of us, we have untreated mental illness.”

“When have Black people ever had time for self care? This is extraordinary to me,” posited roundtable participant Janelle James, who was the handpicked opening act on Chris Rock’s “Total Blackout” tour and Amy Schumer’s “Growing” tour. 

She underlined how the pandemic impacted Black people specifically: “As far as comedy, I am pleasantly surprised and pleased that I don't miss it that much. I’m okay with a break,” she explained. “This is maybe, too, the first time that Black people have had time to sit down and think, ‘Oh, we have mental issues.’ That's a whole new thing that we had never had time to have a conversation about or think about.”

A mysterious virus that had once seemed to attack older white people most viciously was now ravaging communities made up of mostly Black and brown people. Life as a whole was on pause until further notice, and the trajectory of the virus was inauspicious. Stand up, one of the most important tools available to a comedian for their mental -  and in some cases, financial - well-being, was cancelled, and it held no high position on the totem pole of reopening.

This was the lens through which these comedians watched the United States, and then the world, split open in the wake of George Floyd’s killing under the knee of then-Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin.

“It made everybody sit still,” Howery said. “And that’s why when the George Floyd situation happened, you couldn’t run from it. We had no choice but to sit in it.” 

While the video of Floyd’s fatal arrest is horrific and heartbreaking to watch, the incident itself was a tragically familiar series of events, the panel said. “It seemed like almost every week, a new person getting shot by the cops or a new Black man being shot. And so this particular one wasn't that different. It's just that we had to pay attention because we have nothing else to do,” James said. 

But a unique combination of circumstances— years of resentment and fear of police brutality, pent up frustration from months under lockdown spent watching the government repeatedly fumble its coronavirus response, and massive unemployment as the Institute for Policy Study found that billionaires have raked in record profits in 2020— had stoked the embers of unrest.

In the weeks leading up to George Floyd’s death, video showing jogger Ahmaud Arbery being chased down and shot had gone viral, and news of Breonna Taylor’s shooting death inside her apartment, while she was sleeping, at the hands of police executing a no-knock warrant, had saturated Americans with a sense of social injustice. Seventeen-year-old Darnella Frazier’s video of Floyd’s killing was the match that lit a revolt primed to burn long and hot. 

"Systemic Racism Isn’t New, They're Just Learning About It."

“It's just a very tense, stressful time. For not only comedians, but I'm sure for anyone who has sense,” James said with an anxious chuckle.

“I wanted to just focus on making sure I'm taking care of myself. Watching all these traumatic images online all day, all night, everybody's opinions” took a toll, Washington said. The abrupt halt to live performances had left many artists— especially comedians and musicians— looking for new ways to reach audiences, and stay relevant despite losing one of their primary platforms. 

“If I can't be on stage for whatever amount of months, does that mean I'm not a comedian anymore? Does it? Can I not be funny? You're feeling pressure from all ends,” Washington said. “Because as a Black entertainer, you feel like, ‘Oh, it is my job. It is my job to speak on everything and create it at the same time, and take care of my family and take care of everybody around me and be this strong, powerful person.’ When it's like, no, this is a moment of weakness for everybody, And it's okay to be honest about like, ‘No, I need help. I cannot be this activist. I can’t be this—’”

“Strong Black woman?” James interjected.

“Yeah,” Washington replied.

Black people have long been tasked by their white acquaintances with explaining racism. And Black people are exhausted from walking white people through all the ways that they’ve been oppressed, veteran NPR correspondent and editor B.L. Wilson said. “Asking Black people in the United States to discuss race is asking them to relive every moment of pain, fear and outrage they have experienced,” Wilson said.  

Part of that oppression is being asked to explain things to white people in a way that won’t hurt their feelings, make them defensive, or harm the Black person’s status at work. White friends, white family members and white employers have all been reaching out to the Black people in their orbit in search of answers and reassurances, the panel said.

“So specifically about white people checking in— [saying] ‘How are you doing? How's it going?’ As if this is something that we haven't been dealing with our whole life— systemic racism isn’t new, they're just learning about it,” James said. “It's on the backs of white people to fix it. Not us.” 

James is glad white people are waking up to racial realities, but her act won’t need much adjustment to stay relevant, she said. “I've always been talking about this in my act, so it's not like now I have to pivot and talk about something else. I've always been talking about it.”

In a stand up clip entitled “Telling White People They Can’t Say the N-Word,” Yedoye Travis compares white privilege to the “X-Men” character Magneto’s power to make bridges appear under his feet as he walks off of cliffs. 

“You know, when you go somewhere you’ve been before and suddenly there’s infrastructure? That’s white privilege,” Travis said during his routine.

Travis, who participated in Inside Edition Digital’s The Issue roundtable, is a comedian, writer and actor who can be seen in “Russian Doll” and “Search Party.” He also created and hosted the podcast “Dark Tank,” where white people pitch solutions for racism to a panel of Black and brown judges. Though he’s seen posts online citing the podcast as a helpful resource to learn about anti-racism, he’s quick to dispel its educational value. “To that, I say no. It's a comedy podcast. Stop it with this bull****.”

When asked if he agreed about the role of art in social movements, Travis said he’s an optimist at heart. “I feel like the value of art is to paint a picture of what is possible,” he said. But Travis has been less worried about the specifics of his jokes, and more concerned with the structures within which they exist. 

“I feel like this period has been a needed period of rest for me and reassessment and just rethinking and reeducating myself,” Travis said. “Why are non-performers deciding who gets a platform to speak on stage and all this stuff?” he pondered, reflecting on Hollywood’s gatekeeper culture. 

“A [late night talk show] booker told me that my jokes were too ‘Black versus white’ to be on late night. And then within a year, the host was apologizing for doing Blackface," he said. "I'm like, why is that the person deciding whether or not I get to speak?” For longer than film and television have existed, Black stories have been largely filtered through the judgement of white executives, he said, noting “Even if you do have a Black showrunner, you’ve still got a white network above him.”

The ways this impacts the purity and realness of Black expression can play out in ways that might seem insignificant to white people, but that come off as truly bizarre to Black people and those in the know. “I remember when I had my show and I had to argue with Fox about just wanting to change her hair every week,” recalled Howery, referring to his co-star Jessica Moore on his sitcom “Rel,” which ran for one season on Fox. “Because they felt a Black girl should just have one hairstyle for a whole season. I'm like, well, Black women change their hair all the time. That's weird, let her change her hair. It's just these little arguments that.” 

As small grievances often do, the dispute reminded Howery of the larger power struggle at hand.

"It's Okay to Tell Different Types of Black Stories."

Much in the way that the Black Lives Matter movement has striven to achieve equality for people of all kinds, Black artists today are focused on putting the power to control their own narratives into their own hands. “I just think people are starting to wake up and just understand their power,” Howery said. 

The aim is to allow the creation of more honest, accurate, and diverse portrayals of Black life. Terms like “the Black community” create a false monolith of what it means to be Black, and such a notion is dated, James said.

“It's not only a wrong term, it’s the old term," she said. "That's when we all used to live in the same place, that's where it came from. We did have a community that we built ourselves. But again, every community that we have had successfully, and we've had many in the United States, was dismantled and destroyed by white people.”

Clumping together all forms and experiences of Black culture makes it easier for non-Black people to think of Black people less as individuals with their own hopes, dreams, and traumas, and more as part of a large “other,” that can be demonized and used as a scapegoat. A review of social science literature shows that how people are portrayed in the media plays an important role in shaping the non-Black view of Black people.

“Hopefully people realize that it's okay to tell different types of Black stories, too. I don't want to see only these themes - protest, police stories. I want to see more Black love stories. I want to see, ‘it's okay being a quirky Black person,’” Howery said. “Let's be okay with putting out more diverse content that shows different types of Black people. I think the more we do like that, the more, hopefully, we're just looked at just as Americans.” 

Part of validating the identity of Black Americans is showing that their existence is not dependent on the presence of white characters. And ideally, Travis said, the goal is to get away from catering to and centering on white voices in general. “I feel like the power of film is to show a world where black people are just living their lives, and not even thinking about white people,” Travis said.

When the CEO of JPMorgan Chase publicly demonstrated his support for Black Lives Matter in the same way that got Colin Kaepernick allegedly blacklisted by the NFL, it couldn’t have been more abundantly clear that the paradigm has shifted dramatically. Large numbers of white people are now introspecting to analyze their privilege and reflecting on their past behavior; even more are attending and supporting protests.

“I'm glad to see so many white people at the protest. That's excellent,” James said.

“Not even just not there, but saying ‘Black Lives Matter,’” Howery replied. 

Washington was more hesitant. “I'm going to say that I think that a lot of it is performative, though. They feel like they're bullied into what is going on right now.” 

James let out a laugh. “‘Whatever it takes,’ is what I say,” she said. “Get out there. Get out there standing performatively. Stand in the front. Get the tear gas canisters right to the face.

“I feel like even if you're going out there performatively, what you experience, how they treat us and how we're being treated for protesting, you might come back on some different levels,” she continued.

Indeed, advocates say, one of the powers of protest is the empathy-inducing, unifying effect it has on its participants. “A lot of people are shocked that they're running over and killing white people as well,” James said. “They never thought it would be them.” 

But while weekend marches and corporate statements of solidarity are all nice to see, the gestures don’t necessarily translate to structural change, the comedians said. 

“I know white guilt is at an all time high, so I've taken advantage of that,” Howery said, in respect to several deals he has negotiated in recent months. “And nobody's arguing with me. They let me pick who I want. And I don't know how long that's going to last. So I'd rather get everybody in there where they should be. Right? So we can start this at an even playing field.”

Many in the industry have said nepotism and “who do you know here” politics have long been standard practice in Hollywood— launching careers of questionable talent to vaunted heights. Citing an instance in which a production’s catering service was notably subpar, Howery posited, “It's just somebody they know, right? And at this point it's like, can we just get the best people to do whatever?” Not only does hooking up a friend with a job block new talent from entering the field, but it often means the quality of the production suffers, whatever level that may be on, many have said.

The quest for more Black representation across the entertainment industry comes from a desire to be better understood, artists say. With more understanding in the workplace, comes more freedom to take risks. Those risks include reimagining what kind of lives Black people can and should lead: “For me, it's important to think about what Black people can be, as opposed to what I've seen them be for my entire life,” Travis said. “Because I feel like that's what we're pushing toward.”

Washington agreed. “We should be able to think and have whatever perspective, regardless of what we look like.”

"Our Existence Is a Form of Protest."

Those risks can also mean creating art that might alienate some people. Does that make comedy by people like Washington, who is also openly gay, a form of protest?

“[M]e creating something for white people to feel good? No, it's not necessarily something that I am trying to do,” she said. “This is for me to feel good about what I want to laugh at, and the people around me, my community, the comedians that I enjoy. But yeah, I don't think me putting out content is an act of protest.”

But James felt differently. “I will say I disagree with her in that everything she's doing is a form of protest,” she said.

Addressing Washington directly, she continued, “The fact that you exist in this space as a gay Black woman and you're out about it and you're just speaking and making a living doing your art is a form of protest. This is something that is very new. 

“Your existence, our existence is a form of protest,” James went on. “The fact that you're doing something that makes yourself happy is a form of protest. These are things that we never had the option or ability to do. But your existence and your art and the fact that you're pursuing something that was previously like a wisp of a dream, is a form of protest.”

Washington hopes she can inspire future generations to be themselves and express themselves freely through their art. “I just want to put out stuff that someone who's younger than me, that thought that it wasn't possible, to say, ‘Oh, I see that,’” she said. In quarantine, she has pioneered at least one frontier: cooking Sunday dinners in haute couture on Instagram Live, while interviewing guests simultaneously.

As for James, she feels rightfully comfortable on her course, and sees history as indicative of why her act may be evergreen. 

“It's funny to look back on Black art and find out that we've been talking about the same s*** over and over,” she said.

“To watch old stand-up, to watch old movies, we've been talking about police brutality. We've been talking about inequality forever. So maybe it's a time machine… showing that we've always been aware. Other people haven't been paying attention.” 

Her powers of observation and self-awareness have served as a guiding light on her creative and personal journey. 

“I'm just going to continue to be myself, which I think is subversive,” she said. “And again, an act of protest in that I am a Black woman in America who is happy with herself.”

For more of The Issue, click here