Some months ago, I was listening to an episode of a very popular podcast hosted by a very popular person. This particular episode was about a very popular Black movie that featured some very popular Black people. The very popular podcast host, though, is not Black, though he was joined by Black people. In any event, as part of a conversation about the career achievements of some of the movie characters, the host pointed out that he felt like the movie was the high point for one in particular—don’t worry, this will all make sense shortly—and the Black co-hosts pointed out that, perhaps, that wasn’t true seeing as this individual hosted a late night talk show that was (mostly) beloved in the Black community. The host more or less dismissed this notion and they all ended up moving on.
I, however, could not move on. I was stupefied that the host, IMHO, more or less dismissed the co-hosts point that this individual, quite obviously Arsenio Hall, and his show The Arsenio Hall Show could be a higher rung of achievement, essentially, than his role in Coming to America. Maybe it’s debatable, but that’s a debate for our community; apparently, the host didn’t realize the cultural significance of The Arsenio Hall Show, or what it meant in the ’90s, or what resonance it still has for various reasons—so much so that it got an attempted reboot almost 20 years after it went off the air.
Cultural influence is an understatement; all manner of individuals went to The Arsenio Hall Show, and it was one of the few shows that felt like it had the burgeoning hip-hop culture in mind. Coming to America, while easily one of the greatest movies of all time to me, and an absolute monster, is part of the Arsenio Hall story. Again, I couldn’t let it go.
And it reminded me of the fact that though the Black community is indisputably the arbiter of what is cool and hip worldwide, the specific of that swag, the catalyst for that cool is often relegated to the background in favor of an attempted proxy aesthetic on the part of “mainstream” society. But here’s the thing: “Mainstream” for America and “mainstream” for Black America are two different things. You see, almost everybody I know and grew up with knows Jet Magazine (and page 43 specifically) and can recognize when it’s time to end the party by the song playing—Maze featuring Frankie Beverly’s “Before I Let Go”—or when it’s time to do the “Electric Slide”—or when Cameo’s “Candy” comes on. And I don’t think we care if other communities, or the “mainstream” society at large, is up on that. In fact, I personally prefer that they aren’t. I’m just fine with for us, by us.
This brings us to this project, The Black Mainstream, a weeklong journey through essays, videos and art where we celebrate parts of our culture that influenced the world whether the world realizes it or not. You see, Black culture is ubiquitous and to be celebrated, so it is imperative that we do so. If we don’t, who will? And if we—platforms with an ability to celebrate in ways others might not be able to—don’t do it, where are we going to discuss our culture in a way that sparks joy? So what’s about to happen here? I’m glad you asked.
Let me break it down so that it can forever be broke—most of you (of a certain age, anyway) recognize that quote. Over the course of this week, there will be seven editorial pieces and three videos, all curated with the intent of celebrating Blackness. Are we going to cover the entirety of the Black experience? Of course not, but we did pick some aspects of our culture that don’t always get their due. Today, you get this introduction and then writer, essayist and DipSet apologist Shamira Ibrahim will break down an ode to Dip Set, a Harlem movement that changed hip-hop forever. You will also get a video about Black haircare products because ain’t no convo about Black culture that doesn’t include Black hair.
On Tuesday, Damon Young is going to explain to you why he thought Georgetown University was a historically Black college because, well, John Thompson kind of made it feel that way through the basketball program. Demetria Lucas, who has literally checked off every box you can as a creative, is also going to break down the love and presence of Sister Souljah’s ubiquitous novel, The Coldest Winter Ever. On Wednesday, Law Ware will break down one of the best and realest video shows ever in Video Soul, and you’ll be treated to a video about folks who are ‘Black Famous.’ On Thursday, writer Shanita Hubbard will break down the world famous “around the way girl,” and what she meant to and represented for Black girls everywhere, and I’ll revisit The Arsenio Hall Show. Last but not least, on Friday, newly Emmy-nominated Blackness expert, Michael Harriot, will treat us to a story about the Black national anthem, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” and we will cap it off with a video about Black television theme songs.
And the capper, each piece of digital art for the entire series was illustrated by a woman whose art you probably know even if you don’t know you know it, Rachelle Baker. Rachelle’s illustrations dot various corners of the Black-osphere as well as book covers you own and see wherever Black books are sold. This is, in effect, another Black experience. We welcome you to the journey, we welcome you to the week of Blackness.
We are Black Excellence, and this is The Black Mainstream.