By Tayllor Johnson
I use to pride myself on how much I didn’t know about pop culture. Someone would ask me about a show, new album, or latest twitter beef and I would turn my nose up and say, “NOPE! Sorry, I don’t have time to entertain such things!” Years of being called an “old soul,” I started to neglect the pop culture and social media phenomenon evolving right in front me, moving full speed ahead since I was born. Some witnessed the first man on the moon but only one generation can say they witnessed the birth and death of Myspace.com; the birth and empire of Facebook, and the takeover of Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat. However, I still could not see the benefits of having platforms to share opinions, random photos, and thoughts among millions when you could’ve said it to the wind and it would have the same effect. Who can really commit to a cause when you see only a glimpse of it? There is an understood and acceptance of fear of committing too long in the social media world. Facebook filters change after every tragedy, hashtags of fallen Black people to the hands of police. It’s all passing, I thought, where’s the substance? Then came #BlackLivesMatter, #NoDAPL, #BringBackOurGirls, #Ferguson, #NotMyPresident… I had no choice but to pay attention, as an activist. As a Black woman in her early 20’s, I am existing in a world where the internet serves more purposes than just a procrastination aid. Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram are my newsrooms and those same platforms serve as my storefronts for my own business; there is no way for me not to engage. Social media ebbs and flows freely throughout all our lives with the trivial and the urgent. I can no longer justify social media as a waste of time. It has become as complex as the human condition and I, like everyone else in this world, have a seat at the table to listen, learn, and contribute. So, when Kendrick Lamar dropped his single “Humble” and the outrage from women of color poured into the twitter-sphere regarding his misogynist comments, and the infamous and an insensitive Pepsi ad featuring Kendall Jenner surfaced, I had no choice but to tune in, because what is the point of having a seat at the table if you are not going to show up?
What Kendall and Kendrick have in common is a complex existence made plain. A world of action, resistance, intersectionality, and violence are too heartbreaking, inspiring, tiring, historical, and urgent to be solved by one White face and a Pepsi. My heart dropped watching the commercial portray a protest of many diverse faces joined together for “peace,” only to see the focus put on Kendall Jenner confidently walking through the crowd to give a police officer a Pepsi as the crowd celebrates. I was not sure what they are celebrating. Immediately I was reminded of the images of protesters in Ferguson with milk tears running down their faces and bandanas around their mouths. I was reminded of the gas masks and pepper spray, dogs and water hoses. My mind was brought back to the historic footage of my home city, Los Angeles, being burned alive in 1965 and the clip that I will never get to un-see: A Black protester passed out on a Los Angeles curb, beaten, with soiled pants, still being frisked by a police officer, surrounded. This attempt at a commercial hurt. The art of protesting was now a marketing tool, when for so many, including me, it is part of a necessary strategy to fight for our lives and our rights. The many times I put my safety on the line to speak up; the many times I was too afraid to. I do not get a check for showing up for my people and the people I support. My drive, my protest, is mandatory to thrive in this country and thanks to the infinite table with infinite seats in social media, Pepsi and Kendall Jenner got to take a seat. They both get the chance to learn about responsibility and we, The People, get the chance to hold them accountable. The conversation is not limited to anyone and neither is the critique. Social media can make very complicated matters easy to digest and Pepsi was fooled. Fighting injustice is nowhere near two minutes long. It’s more like a 400-year battle, give and take a few hundred years depending on how you identify. I am grateful for Black Twitter and social media for consistently offering the opportunity to keep companies, public figures, and Presidents in check.
Kendrick Lamar is no exception to critical commentary either, no matter how beloved. His single, “Humble” ignited a tidal wave of debate regarding his misogyny, internalized racism, and sexism embedded in his lyrics, specifically:
I’m so fuckin’ sick and tired of the Photoshop
Show me somethin’ natural like afro on Richard Pryor
Show me somethin’ natural like ass with some stretch marks
I was not sure what to expect when my friend pulled up the music video for me to see. The Kendrick Lamar in “Humble” was indeed a different Kendrick. He was still from L.A., a force of nature rhythmically and lyrically. But… there was something that changed; a switch was turned on. His face even looked different. What I saw in “Humble” was a battle between two different parts of one man. On the one hand, I saw a young Black man who definitely sounded similar to almost every other rapper, flaunting money, sex, and exclaiming “I’m the best!” Then I heard a chorus that called for humility, for a sit-down, a bowed head, and a shut mouth. I saw a question within the imagery: Who could Kendrick be? Would he be allowed to be a humble Black man? Would he be allowed as a Black man to celebrate and flaunt his success? Who can Kendrick Lamar be? I saw a juxtaposition of Black and White in what Kendrick Lamar was wearing in the video. I saw a Black man at the last supper with a zip-up jacket with other Black men having a good time. Is that even allowed? I saw Kendrick Lamar in clergy attire. I saw an illustrated battle of images–of types of manhood. Did I like the line: “Get the fuck off my dick, that ain’t right” when I know how toxic hip-hop has been and is toward the LGBTQ community? No. Did I appreciate the amount of times bitch was said in the song? No. Did I like that he expressed wanting to see women without Photoshop and stretchmarks? Yes, as a person who has never tried contouring and has many, many, many stretch marks, I found it refreshing because the song seemed more like an inner battle than a commentary or press release for or against a cause. We all had a seat at the table of “Humble”, to see it, to offer a perspective, but we are mere observers of a narrative that seemed to me, quite personal, and I am more inclined to observe Kendrick Lamar’s evolution—as messy as it may be as he navigates his career—than I am to be called a “boujee” bitch with no hair and a fat ass with no value, as I am referred to and represented as throughout the Industry, which rarely leads to debates like the one “Humble” ignited.
I think it is easy and comfortable to offer critique to public figures and celebrities who are developing their consciousness for the world to see and through their artwork. Beyoncé is one of the prime examples when she co-opted the word “Feminist” for her Beyoncé Tour. Some were outraged and expressed that she was not a true feminist because of one reason or another. All I could think was: Am I even a true feminist when compared to the expectation of the “woke”? I did go to an all-women’s college and took gender studies and feminist theory. Was it enough? My evolution as a feminist, activist, and woman has been a process where I can control the audience. Celebrities and world-renown artist do not have that luxury. When Kendrick Lamar is expressing two sides of his identity and career or Beyoncé considers the women’s movement, I am less compelled to assess their artwork outside of what it is, art. My poems do not always speak to a movement cause; sometimes my poems are a prayer, a riverbed, a plea, or an apology to the unspoken and private. I am more interested in those voices hiding under rocks with their misogyny, their sexism, their racism, their homophobia, their transphobia, their -isms. They seem to get passes too often because we are comfortable. Those are the folks I want to especially invite to the table. Companies like Pepsi, and privileged folks Kendall Jenner do not have to think twice about the reality they are playing. Sexist and toxic figures like Bill O’Reilly and President Trump are also invited. Those are the people I’d like to open a chair for, ask them to take a seat because the world is watching….
The cyber community, like any other community, will not always agree, and I have learned with hashtag after hashtag, that is going to continue to be the case. There are going to be people who will never listen to Kendrick Lamar again and the #BoycottPepsi hashtag is already trending and taking on a life of its own. The conversations will continue to evolve like technology and humans have done. Social media represents the social consciousness in all its messiness, comedic genius, compassion, and power. In those spaces, easy definitions among the millions of perspectives are hard to find but it does not matter what time I sign off or sign in, I can always find love, justice, hope, and understanding in some corner of the cyber-sphere. We, as The People, still choose to show up to the table, not only to fight, resist, laugh, cry, feel, but also to connect. And we will continue to show up, I will show up, because it’s my responsibility and privilege to connect to a global community that is never silenced.