Shortly following this year’s VMA ceremony, Chance the Rapper tweeted a red carpet photo of himself dressed in khaki overalls, arms outstretched like a human airplane and knees bent so that he came, at most, to half of his normal standing height. The caption read simply #blackboyjoy. The hashtag, having now been used hundreds of times, first appeared as a natural and necessary counterpart to the more established #blackgirlmagic. Both are meant to create a space for black people to celebrate themselves outside of the projections society has placed on them. Stripped of the personas that have been layered on for centuries, the angry black woman and thuggish black man, black people now have a common medium in twitter to present themselves as they are. The renaissance for black portrayal often returns to the medium of hashtag.
What stands out in both hashtag titles is their having been relegated to childhood. Many great figures, both historical and contemporary, have either put into words or acted out the deteriorating effects of what it means to be black in America. The acclaimed Black American 20th century novelist, James Baldwin, gave a famous interview in which he discusses the surprise that falls on a black child arriving to full consciousness who realizes that for every black individual, “the flag to which you have pledged allegiance has not pledged allegiance to you.” Baldwin often discussed blackness in the visual field as a state that is in many ways constituted by being ignored and made invalid by white counterparts. So in the hashtags, blackboyjoy and blackgirlmagic, you have black people not only creating a space to be seen, but also pledging allegiance to themselves, their greatness, their value.
To relegate the titles to childhood is to acknowledge that once a black person, and especially a black American, has reached adulthood, there are sorts of “magic” and “joy” that simply cannot be reclaimed if he or she is at all conscious of reality, a reality that has become increasingly inescapable with the practice of sharing police executions of black citizens on any given twitter or facebook timeline. Chance the Rapper is no longer a boy by most standards; he is 23, a father and a businessman. But still he invokes the energy of boyhood to define himself.
In contrast to the virtual space of the hashtag, Chance the Rapper’s presentation both in daily life and as he performs, is largely consumed by white audiences. And might this detract from the freedom of expression that underlies the hashtag’s meaning?
I attended a concert for Rae Sremmurd, the two person rap group comprised of brothers, Slim Jxmmi and Swae Lee, on October 9th thinking that they might exhibit some #blackboyjoy and bring me closer to an understanding of how it plays out in Chance’s field. As I watched from the crowd, nuances of childhood and blackness were in almost every aspect of the show. The giant monitor’s visuals were themed in the style of retro video games for most of the performance. Actual black child dancers, no older than twelve, came out to give background support on at least three separate occasions, doing all of the dance moves made viral by Instagram and twitter. At one point, Swae Lee spilled at least eight bottles of water, seemingly by accident, only to dance slide his way across fifteen feet of stage floor.
The energy of the room which was thick and intense with flashing lights, jumping and a continuously booming bass line, seemed to make it almost completely void of the outside world. It was certainly an escape into childhood or #blackboyjoy, but one that for better or worse invited white audiences to join in every aspect. From recording the dancing black children to singing “know some young niggas like to swang”, there seemed to be an inherent danger to escape. If one risks neglecting the consciousness that Baldwin once described, he or she is left vulnerable to society’s ugliest forces, those that allow for the consumption of black joy while dismissing some of life’s most bitter sorrows.
If there is any desire to learn why #blackboyjoy has been successful, one need only look to Black Twitter as a whole which has now existed for years as a source of entertainment and commentary centered on what is universal to the black community. There was a dearth of expression for black boy joy before the hashtag came about, and what was present was not yet synthesized. Rapper Kid Cudi’s public acknowledgement of severe depression spread into a larger campaign, again on twitter, for black men to confront struggles with mental illness. Perhaps these are all steps within a larger plan. Just as #blackboyjoy followed #blackgirlmagic, it is possible that the next great rap album by a male artist will be the natural counterpart to Solange Knowles’ A Seat at The Table– an album that so skillfully framed self-care and black female struggle that it resulted in a record first time that two sisters had number one albums in the same calendar year.
The album’s probable most important song, F.U.B.U., commands attention in the search to answer the question: is uncensored black joy best left in hashtags and safe-spaces if there is any desire to preserve it? Solange starts by addressing who the song is intended for. In that way, there can be no mistaking her audience, “All my niggas in the whole wide world/ All my niggas in the whole wide world/Made this song to make it all y’all’s turn/ For us, this shit is for us”. She continues in her first verse to say, “When you know you gotta pay the cost/ Play the game just to play the boss/ So you thinking what you gained, you lost/ But you know your shit is taking off, oh/ When you driving in your tinted car/ And you’re criminal, just who you are/ But you know you’re gonna make it far”. With this she speaks in large part to the rappers who perform black boy joy. They pay the cost having every piece of themselves appropriated for the privilege of knowing that they’ve “made it” in a sense. They have the strange position of knowing that being successful and having fans that sing their lyrics also means having the n-word screamed at them by largely white audiences. As they drive in fancy cars, the condition of being black and male and naturally criminalized must not escape them. Still there is a sort of allegiance pledged to self when “you know you’re gonna make it far”.
To answer the question of whether or not uncensored black joy is best consumed in greater seclusion, it seems the answer is no. Rather, black people and black artists must constantly strive to produce content for themselves and occupy as much space as is possible. Space that is both physical and mental, with no walls to trap them in. If every piece that came out of the black community was metaphorically watermarked, as in the song F.U.B.U., with its origins and its intended audience then there would be no way for black boy joy, black girl magic, or any other product of blackness to be taken and distorted into anything less than its original intent.