During a recent appearance on NBC’s Today, singer Janelle Monáe performed her songs ‘Yoga’ and ‘Tightrope. Along with several labelmates (including Jidenna, Roman GianArthur, Deep Cotton, St. Beauty, and George 2.0) she also performed a new song, ‘Hell You Talmabout’. ‘Hell You Talmabout’ is an amazingly powerful song. It literally gave me goosebumps. The song is a protest song in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. It features a series of chants naming many African-Americans who have had their lives stolen as a result of systemic racism. Eric Garner. John Crawford III. Trayvon Martin. Emmett Till. Freddie Gray, Jr. Michael Brown, Jr. Walter Scott. These are some of the names featured in the song. I’ll be honest, while the song affected me powerfully, I was worried for a few minutes that the focus would only be upon African-American men. It is a significant concern because the deaths of African-American women as a result of police brutality are often downplayed in the media. I’m happy to say that several minutes into the song, the names Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Sandra Bland, Miriam Carey, and Sharonda Coleman-Singleton were also featured, which allayed my fears, and allowed me to enjoy the song without regret (because funny me, when I say Black Lives Matter, I’m talking about *all* black lives and last I checked black women are part of that group). I can’t embed the video of her Today performance, but it can be viewed here. Here is a YouTube video of the song at the kickoff night of the Eephus Tour at Union Transfer in Philadelphia, PA (it’s fine, but I prefer the Today version).
On Instagram, Monáe shared her thoughts on the meaning of the song:
This song is a vessel. It carries the unbearable anguish of millions. We recorded it to channel the pain, fear, and trauma caused by the ongoing slaughter of our brothers and sisters. We recorded it to challenge the indifference, disregard, and negligence of all who remain quiet about this issue. Silence is our enemy. Sound is our weapon. They say a question lives forever until it gets the answer it deserves… Won’t you say their names?
At the close of ‘Hell You Talmabout’, Monáe gave a short speech-
“Yes, Lord,” she said. “God bless America. God bless all who’ve lost lives to police brutality. We want white America to know that we stand tall today. We want black America to know that we stand tall today. We will not be silenced.”
While she was giving this short speech-literally in the midst of it-the camera pans away from her and a Today host began to speak over her, saying “We’ll have much more from Janelle Monáe … coming up.” This is a massive slap in the face not only to Monáe and her fellow artists, but to all African-Americans and their allies who support the Black Lives Matter movement. To say I was ticked off when I learned of this would be an understatement. If there’s a better way for the establishment (and yes, NBC is part of the establishment) to say “we don’t care about black lives”, I’m hard pressed to come up with one. The indifference they showed in speaking over her was callous as hell. But that wasn’t the only screw up on the part of NBC.
On the Today website, several segments of her performance were featured. Conspicuously absent though, was ‘Hell You Talmabout’. Nada. Zip. Zero. If NBC was trying to send a message about their apathy regarding black lives, they were successful. So much so that they inspired me to send them a message:
I am writing to express my extreme displeasure over singer Janelle Monae being cut off following the conclusion of the song ‘Hell You Talmbout’ during her recent performance on Today. The message she was speaking was an important one: Black Lives Matter.
In case you were not aware, the Black Lives Matter movement began in the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the execution of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. It began as a hashtag created by three women: Patrice Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi. In the wake of the extrajudicial execution of Michael Brown, Jr at the hands of ex-police officer Darren Wilson last summer, the hashtag evolved into a protest movement across the country (it has even expanded outside the United States). The Black Lives Matter movement seeks to address the systemic discrimination and racism black USAmericans face in this country.
Discrimination and racism such as:
The high levels of police brutality and harassment faced by black USAmericans at the hands of law enforcement officials-the same LEO’s who are charged with serving and protecting all citizens of this country. Additionally, black people typically are treated more harshly than white people for the same offenses. Black people are slain at the hands of cops over crimes that white people barely get a slap on the wrist for. Policies like ‘Stop & Frisk’ and ‘Broken Windows’ also disproportionately target black people.
But that is far from the only focus of the Black Lives Matter Movement. The focus of the BLM also includes:
-the treatment of black lives by the entire criminal justice system and society at large.
-the disproportionate presence of black people in prison-far higher than their percentage of the populace.
-harsher sentencing laws for black people than white people.
-racist police departments (many of which have become havens for members of racist organizations like the KKK).
-the War on Drugs-a war that has disproportionately targeted African-Americans, despite the fact that blacks use drugs at roughly the same rate as whites.
-the devaluation of black bodies as seen in the constant referral to black people as thugs.
-the demonization of poor people by politicians, many of whom think poor people are all black, lazy, and mooching off government assistance.
-those politicians who fight to reduce federal funds for government assistance programs.
-discrimination in the housing and labor markets.
-discrimination and systemic racism in the entertainment industry.
-the school-to-prison pipeline, which criminalizes black bodies from childhood.
-the punishment African-American children face in the school system-punishment which is worse than what white children receive for the same offense.
-the efforts to disenfranchise African-Americans through Voter ID laws.
-the efforts to demoralize African-Americans through drug testing requirements for welfare.
In short, the Black Lives Matter movement is focused on the plethora of ways the United States government and US culture sends the constant message that black lives don’t matter. This is a message that has existed in this country since its founding. There has never been a time when Black USAmericans have been treated by the government and fellow citizens as full citizens of this country with the exact same rights, equal opportunities, and equitable outcomes as white USAmericans. At every step in this country’s history, black people have been ostracized, oppressed, marginalized, discriminated against, and treated as if their lives do not matter by both individual citizens and the United States government.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, while you featured her songs ‘Tightrope’ and ‘Yoga’ on Today’s website, you did not feature ‘Hell You Talmbout’. The absence of that song-a song that directly speaks to the ongoing systemic discrimination and racism faced by African-Americans at the hands of law enforcement officers across the country-that sends a message. It tells African-Americans that NBC doesn’t believe that Black Lives Matter.
It was bad enough that you silenced Monae at a critical moment during her short speech. To compound that by not including her song-an ode to the Black Lives Matter movement-is egregious and offensive. In so doing, you demonstrate, whether intentionally or otherwise, the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement.
And you’ve pissed me the fuck off.
Yes, I used profanity.
No, I do not care if whomever reads this takes issue with that bc the lives of black people matter infinitely more than the hurt feelings of people who become apoplectic over coarse language.
NBC owes all African-Americans an apology. And I mean a *real* apology. I’m well accustomed to hearing faux apologies that take the form “We apologize if anyone was offended…”.
DO. NOT. DO. THIS.
A true apology recognizes that harm was done. A true apology does not couch itself in terms of ‘IF people were offended’. A true apology does not hem and haw. A true apology says “We are sorry for our actions”.
In addition, given that NBC is a huge corporation, with power and influence beyond that which is wielded by an individual, you owe it to African-Americans to do more than simply say sorry. You need to demonstrate a commitment to black USAmericans. You need to show them that you do not condone or support racism. You need to show that you oppose racism in the criminal justice system and society at large. And you need to make an ongoing commitment to this. You cannot just apologize and then go back to ‘business as usual’ two weeks later. Perhaps you could produce a series of specials that highlight the racism in the criminal justice system. Or perhaps a special that examines (with a critical eye) the history of racism in the United States. Or you could create a series of specials that delves into the various manifestations of racism in society (this would have the added benefit of informing viewers that racism is far more than just discrimination or bigotry directed at an individual based on their actual or perceived race or ethnicity). Oh, and donate. NBC has money. Donate to Black Lives Matter organizations. That ought to be the first thing done.
You also need to apologize swiftly. Do not wait a week. This happened on Friday. A statement should be issued within a few days. As of this writing, on Sunday, August 16, there has been no public apology made. It is my hope that NBC will issue one tomorrow.
Of course all of the preceding is predicated on NBC executives actually feeling apologetic, which may not be the case. Given the history of racism in this country, as well as the dismissal of the concerns of African-Americans, it would not surprise me if the people in charge of NBC were apathetic, but I do hold out hope that this is not the case. I hope that you will do the right thing and apologize quickly, without any reservation, and commit to supporting black people in this country and the fight to eliminate racism. It is the right thing to do and I’m sure NBC strives to do the right thing.
I encourage others to share their displeasure with the network.