Sean "P. Diddy" Combs isn’t the only one launching a video revolution this year. We recently launched our premiere digital-video hub, The Root TV, which features a juicy concoction of relevant news clips, provocative Web series and compelling interview segments that we produce in-house. All of the original and curated video content pushes the envelope and sheds light on the myriad layers and levels of the black American experience.
So it should come as no surprise that we tracked down Duke University professor Mark Anthony Neal (shout-outs to my alma mater and favorite black studies professor!) to produce a special segment of his weekly webcast Left of Black especially for The Root TV. It will run every Friday and dish out a “contrarian view of blackness.” Professor Neal will chat, in his boogie-down-Bronx-meets-black-intellectual manner, about everything from the symbolism of Jay Z’s death in his 99 Problems video to how black masculinity is "illegible." The series unpacks pop culture and puts a microscope over a range of topics in a way that gets black Twitter talking and makes Ph.D. students’ eyebrows furrow.
In addition to using social media to bring the ivory tower down to wider audience, professor Neal has successful carved out a niche for himself as the go-to-guy for connecting the dots that emerge in black music and the broader culture. Trust me, his shrewd analysis of R. Kelly and Ron Isley’s "Contagious" video during my Af-Am class back in the day at Duke had the entire class gaping.
In an e-mail exchange, The Root caught up with Neal to talk about how the webcast came to be, the love affair between black pop-culture intellectuals and what he calls the “mobile Diaspora” and what our viewers can expect from the Left of Black webcasts on The Root TV.
The Root: You once described your work as a sort of interventionist critique. You inject your analysis and expertise every now and then into trending topics, to encourage folks to apply a critical eye to what’s going on today. Can you think of any recent examples where you felt really happy and proud to be doing the work that you do?
Mark Anthony Neal: In terms of my own work, I continue to be amazed by the number of folk who are impacted by the work that I’ve done as a pro-feminist black male. Eight years after the publication of my book New Black Man, I’m genuinely surprised when young men in particular tell me that it helped them work through some things. But to your other point, there is an absolute hunger for information, and the willingness of black scholars to occupy digital spaces and social media has been an important step in many folk seeing that black studies remains a vital resource. I began to use social media, in large part, because students and former students wanted to continue the conversation we had in class.
TR: What did you set out to accomplish with the Left of Black series?
MAN: Left of Black has been a work in progress that has been continuously shaped by my own intellectual curiosity and the attention to detail presented by the show’s producer and director Catherine Angst [of the John Hope Franklin Center at Duke]. Initially, I was primarily hoping to create a Charlie Rose-styled space for black thinkers and activists. Growing up in New York City in the 1970s and 1980s, I was fortunate to have access to the work of the late Gil Noble and his public affairs program Like It Is. These days the show has become more streamlined, a little less academic—though scholars and academics are still the primary guests.
I really want the show to be a space where guests come on and know that not only do we find value in the work that they do, but that it’s a space that truly loves and appreciates “the work” which so often goes unnoticed and unrewarded. And yet it’s still about making connections, so … we talk about Left of Black being “black studies for a ‘mobile’ Diaspora.”
TR: When did you know that you had a passion for black American music and wanted to study it critically?
MAN: My passion for black American music comes directly from my daddy. Music was his haven—his space of recovery, the place that helped him navigate the long hours he spent working the 60-75 hours a week he often put in. My first life lessons were really sitting there on Sunday mornings watching him as he listened to the Mighty Clouds of Joy, Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, Jimmy Smith and Bobby "Blue" Bland. The desire to study black music came much later when I thought about being a music journalist like Greg Tate, Joan Morgan and Nelson George in the late ‘80s, before deciding on an academic career. Yet, my dad, who passed five years ago, remains my critical guide—still measure what I like by whether my dad would have liked it. Dad would have dug Gregory Porter and J. Cole.
TR: With initiatives like Nas’ Harvard Fellowship, your working alongside 9th Wonder and GZA’s work with science education, did you always envision that black music, particularly urban music, and the academia would become bedfellows, as they are increasingly becoming?
MAN: I entered grad school 20 years ago at a moment when so many questions where being asked of black scholars and academics about black culture, particularly hip-hop. This was in the aftermath of the post-Rodney King unrest in Los Angeles, where rap music seemed the clear soundtrack. As things like cultural studies and popular music studies began to get a foothold in college curriculums, it was just natural for urban music and the academy to be connected.
When I think of the work of my Duke colleague Wahneema Lubiano or other scholars like Tricia Rose, Todd Boyd and Michael Eric Dyson, the idea of the Nasir Jones Fellowship at Harvard or Dr. Dre’s [Andre Young] $70 million gift to USC or the Sampling Soul course that 9th Wonder and I have taught the past few years, and the brilliant work that Christopher Emdin and Martha Diaz are doing around Hip-Hop ED—it just seems like a natural progression. I suspect that one day soon Jay Z and Steve Stoute will offer a course on building urban brands at the Wharton School or Tuck School and no one will blink an eye.
TR: You’ve been hosting the Left of Black webcasts for three years now. Any moments stick out in your head? Favorite guests? Unexpected moments? What can The Root TV viewers look forward to?
MAN: We’re now in the fourth season of Left of Black, have shot more than 100 episodes, and I remember virtually every show. One moment that still stands out is when Randall Robinson joined us in-studio talking about Haiti and the influence of Harry Belafonte. My favorite guest was perhaps newly minted MacArthur Fellow Carrie Mae Weems, who also joined us in-studio, and just disarmed me with her charm and—how should I put this—winsomeness. My favorite show featured the vocalist Lizz Wright and filmmaker Julie Dash [Daughters of the Dust]. Though Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson and Melissa Harris-Perry have been on the show, in my mind having Ms. Wright and Ms. Dash on the show announced that we had arrived.
I can say the same about when dream hampton joined us or when I’ve had the opportunity to just cut up on-screen with Bomani Jones, Marc Lamont Hill and Kiese Laymon. My favorite moment, though, came away from the studio, when a dude just putting in his shift at KFC stopped me to tell me how much he dug the show. Think my dad would have dug Left of Black also.
A Left of Black episode appears every Friday on The Root TV.
Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele is an editorial fellow at The Root and the founder and executive producer of Lectures to Beats, a Web show that parses those compelling topics in your favorite TV shows, songs and movies. Follow her on Twitter.