Black famous The politics of celebrity, community and crossing over

Rumbidzai Savanhu
Rumbidzai Savanhu
WordsMichelle Kambasha

For a Black celebrity in the West, finding favor with white audiences is a prerequisite for mainstream success, bringing higher-profile projects, cross-cultural clout, and the lucrative paychecks that can come from both. But that success can come at a cost—both for the individual and the Black community at large. Here, writer Michelle Kambasha explores the tensions of crossing over.

Artwork by Rumbidzai Savanhu.

There was a time when the parameters of the culture we consumed were more easily defined. Our worlds were smaller and our experiences were insulated—Caribbean food was eaten by Caribbeans in the Caribbean; Hindi cinema was watched by South Asian people in South Asia. 

But as we’ve moved to multicultural societies, shaped by socio-political and demographic changes, those boundaries have blurred—our cultures are shared by people who aren’t native to it. For many people (particularly in the West) multiculturalism is innately good—a move away from the horrors of imperialism to a more equitable society where differences are appreciated rather than reviled. 

But others aren’t exactly amenable to complete change, and ask what is gained and lost. 

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Is there anything Black folks get to keep for themselves, without the inevitable threat of white domination?

Historically, white people have had the power to dictate the terms of these cultural exchanges—so much so that today, Black culture can be found at the root of many cultural touchstones that on the surface appear “white.” Elvis Presley’s catalog, for example, is broadly recognized as a doctored pastiche of the music created by his Black contemporaries; while it’s accepted that Madonna and other white pop stars took from Black and brown queer ball culture in the 1990s. 

Similarly, house music and its derivatives are a direct result of the rejection of Black and brown queer people by the white mainstream in the 1970s and 1980s. Creating their own spaces at nightclubs like L’uomo in Detroit, the Warehouse in Chicago, and Paradise Garage in New York City, these communities safeguarded themselves from white disapproval and intrusion, with music serving as a sacred language to bond them together. 

As news of these enticing and progressive sounds being played in these spaces spread, white kids slowly snuck into the scene (literally and figuratively) to make room for themselves, with the intention to commune rather than take over. And in many instances, white people and racialized people alike were beguiled by the multicultural project, the rainbow nation, that required some cultural give and take, a sharing of elements to find common ground. 

But such is the pervasive and insidious power of whiteness that the threat of it taking over often isn’t realized until it’s already happened. Electronic music as a whole became—and remains—predominantly white. The biggest tragedy of this? A newer generation of Black people not knowing their part in its history, and just seeing the music through an imagined white lens. 

With this in mind, recent discussions about race and popular culture have centered on a reclamation and correction: increasingly, the contributions of Black artists are being rightfully exalted and prioritized. Stars like Beyoncé and Drake are infusing their version of pop music with electronic subgenres like New Orleans bounce and Detroit techno, using their global influence to pay homage to their Black and brown forebears. 

While this notion of voluntarily sharing is all well and good, it begs the question: Is there anything Black folks get to keep for themselves, without the inevitable threat of white domination? 

The question was recently explored on Twitter, as such things often are, with a conversation around the notion of stars who are “Black famous”—those who, as author Michael Harriot put it, exist in “the gap between Black stardom and white anonymity.” The conversation was centered on Jordan Peele’s recent film “Nope,” which starred Keke Palmer. A former child actor, Palmer’s early films—including “Akeelah and the Bee,” “Barbershop 2: Back in Business,” and “Madea’s Family Reunion”—were successful with Black audiences. Though her career expanded to Disney, prior to “Nope,” many white fans only became familiar with her after discovering her meme potential in 2019. Similarly, Sheryl Lee Ralph, who was recently awarded her first Emmy, for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for her performance on “Abbott Elementary,” recalls being asked by a producer on a different set “So tell me, what have you done?” despite her 40-plus-year career on the stage and screen. (She originated the role of Deena Jones in the Broadway hit “Dreamgirls,” and earned a Tony nomination in the process.) 

“I would say that ‘Black famous’ would be a person who largely presents the cultural priorities of Black people,” says music critic and author Craig Seymour. “They never fake the funk; their soul has never left their body.”

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Such is the insidious power of whiteness that threat of it taking over often isn’t realized until it’s already happened.

Seymour uses “funk” and “soul” purposefully. In his 2021 book, “A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance,” poet and critic Hanif Abdurraqib describes performers who, in Black communities, are enchanting in their aggression, ceremonial in their sexuality, and overt in their histrionics—take the buoyancy of the Black church, the snake-like hips of Josephine Baker, or the carefree joyousness of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. This is Blackness embodied through performance. It can’t be emulated or done by half measure (and Black audiences know when this is the case). 

Historically, Abdurraqib writes, white people have seen these displays as shameful, or maybe even felt threatened by its unattainability. And those performers who have refused to pander to or be censored by white audiences have often been sequestered to Black spaces. 

In America, such spaces proliferated during periods of what’s known as white flight. As Black families fled the impoverished south en masse for the promise of jobs in industrial cities like Detroit and Chicago, white people, threatened by the idea of living among legions of Black people, fled for the homogenous suburbs. This led to Black homogeneity in the cities they had left behind—a change in demographics that led to their eventual declines, due to elected officials’ disinterest in creating liveable areas for Black people on low paying jobs.  

In the 1970s and 1980s, Seymour explains, Black people living in such conditions found joy in the “hood” movie theaters screening blaxploitation films like “Blacula” and “Blackenstein,” and glamorous dramas like “Sparkle” and “Mahogany.” Such theaters, which tended to cater to predominantly Black audiences, given that most white people wouldn’t deign to frequent them, were among the only places such films were screened. “So [access on both sides of the racial divide] is why the actors in these films, and the films themselves, remain Black famous,” Seymour explains.

Oftentimes, the conversation around crossover success centers on racist structural barriers. (To this day, Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx, Forest Whitaker, and Will Smith are the only Black men to win Oscars for Best Actor; and Halle Berry remains the only Black woman to win Best Actress.) But when referring to those who are Black famous, we talk about entertainers who aren’t vyingfor a crossover moment—they don’t measure their success through the lens of the white gaze. 

In comedy, for example, Katt Williams and DeRay Davis have mostly evaded white audiences—similar to members of the old guard, such as the late Redd Foxx and Dick Gregory. This has allowed them to play with the crudeness of Blackness and racism, as the comedy is landing on an audience who speak this secret shared language. They understand the humor through lived experience; it doesn’t have to be explained. 

The comedians who have crossed over have had to grapple with the implications of performing race humor to white audiences. Famously, Dave Chappelle quit his highly successful sketch series, “Chappelle’s Show,” in part due to his concern over how his racially charged jokes were being received by different audiences. In a 2006 interview on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” he recalled his discomfort at seeing a white person on set laughing at his depiction of a pixie who was the “visual personification of the n-word.” “It’s the first time I ever got a laugh I was uncomfortable with,” he said. “I don’t want Black people to be disappointed with me for putting that out there.”

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Is being Black famous not enough? Is the grass not green enough on this side?

At times, the effects of Black disappointment can be shockingly overt. Whitney Houston, for example, who some accused of pandering to white audiences, was famously booed at the 1988 Soul Train Music Awards. (Starring in “The Bodyguard” with white actor Kevin Costner four years later did little to help her reputation among such detractors, despite the film’s astronomical success.) However, “success in the white mainstream isn’t necessarily at odds with Black fame,” Seymour says, pointing to stars like Denzel Washington and Angela Bassett who reached A-list status while still “[centering] Blackness in everything they do.” (​​In 1993, Washington received his third Oscar nomination for playing the titular lead in “Malcolm X;” and Bassett was nominated for Best Actress for her depiction of Tina Turner in “What’s Love Got to Do With It.”) In the 1990s, Houston would win over Black audiences when she starred in films with predominantly Black casts, like“Waiting to Exhale,” alongside Bassett, and in “The Preacher’s Wife” with Washington. 

So, to define what it means to be “Black famous” is to define boundaries where the unadulterated can be enjoyed. Its intrinsic limitations engender a feeling of unspoken community. When this bubble bursts, it can leave a bad taste in the mouths of the Black audiences who fear being left behind. It’s hard to quiet a feeling of betrayal. Is being Black famous not enough? Is the grass not green enough on this side? Of course, the monetary implications of crossing over are understandable, but is the pursuit of financial success worth selling out? 

Ultimately, crossing over doesn’t always denote a betrayal, but there is an appreciation for carrying the baton of Blackness with you.