Pop Culture Week: 'Scandal,' Beychella, Kendrick
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We wanted to talk some more about the big pop culture stories of the week, so let's take it to the Barbershop. That's where we talk to interesting people about what's in the news and what's on their minds.
In the chairs for a shapeup today, Chris Richards. He is the pop music critic for The Washington Post, here with us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Welcome back.
CHRIS RICHARDS: Glad to be here.
MARTIN: Also with us, Danielle Belton. She is the managing editor of The Root and founder of the popular blog The Black Snob. And Luvvie Ajayi is in the New York - is the New York Times best-selling author of "I'm Judging You" and the writer behind the Awesomely Luvvie blog, and they are both with us from our bureau in New York. Welcome back to you both.
LUVVIE AJAYI: Hey.
DANIELLE BELTON: Thank you.
MARTIN: So we just heard from Judy Smith, the real-life inspiration - emphasis on, you know, inspiration - not real life (laughter) - of the show called "Scandal." Final episode aired on Thursday. We're going to keep it - well, I'll try to keep it spoiler-free for those who haven't seen it yet. I understand that we have two "Scandal" - I don't know, newbies - in here, Danielle and Chris. First of all...
MARTIN: ...Shame on you both.
MARTIN: Shame. But I know you watched, Luvvie. You were live tweeting the whole time. What did you think?
AJAYI: Oh, my gosh. I especially loved Joe Morton's monologues. The man just steals every scene that he's in. And his monologue was incredibly powerful and such a statement about where we find ourselves in this country and just in general.
MARTIN: Why - Luvvie, why do you think the show took off the way it did? What is it that you think it did that resonated?
AJAYI: This show presented this character that we hadn't really ever seen before. Like - and I think Kerry Washington really owned Olivia Pope, and a lot of us have fallen in love with her. Between the storytelling and the fact that they left us reeling after every episode and the fact that the costumes were amazing, people could not help but be gripped by this show.
MARTIN: Danielle, even though you don't watch, this is one show you could not avoid. In fact, you didn't have to watch it. You could just watch the Twitter conversation...
MARTIN: ...About it, and you'd know all about it. What do you think about why the show was as significant as it was?
BELTON: Oh, my God. I mean, it was groundbreaking in so many different ways. Like, even though, obviously, I did not watch, the fact...
MARTIN: Which I don't believe, by the way.
MARTIN: I think you're just - it's like those...
BELTON: It's like "Fifty Shades Of Grey." You just don't want to admit that you watched it. But that's OK.
BELTON: Like, I think just seeing a black woman playing a morally ambiguous character, which is so revolutionary because you just really just didn't see that. I mean, historically, when you look at black women who got lead roles in television, they were either in half-hour comedies or they just didn't exist at all. Like, "Scandal," like, broke, like, ground. It was...
AJAYI: Yeah, 40 years.
BELTON: Yeah, like, it was amazing. I think - what was it? - before that, it was "Julia."
AJAYI: Diahann Carroll.
AJAYI: So before Kerry Washington played Olivia Pope, it had been 40 years since a black woman led a primetime network show.
MARTIN: And also the fact that she - I think it's true that also the way Kerry Washington kind of integrated social media was also quite remarkable. And it obviously has changed things. It's been a game changer.
So let's move from the queen of network TV, to, well, the queen. Obviously, I'm talking about Beyonce. She's hitting the stage tonight for another Coachella set. Her performance last weekend had a lot of people calling the whole thing Beychella. Let's take a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DESTINY'S CHILD: (Singing) Can you keep up? Baby boy, make me lose my breath. Bring the noise, make me lose my breath. Hit me hard, make me lose my breath. If you can't make me say oh, like the beat of this drum...
MARTIN: I feel better already - that Destiny's Child...
MARTIN: All right. Chris, what grabbed you about the performance? People have been writing about it all week.
RICHARDS: Sure. Well, I mean, Beyonce has this incredible ability to walk so effortlessly between this sort of dream space and the real world. And I think you could see it in the costumes that she wore right out the gate. She comes out on stage at Coachella dressed in this Nefertiti kind of garb, and she's presenting herself as royalty, as larger than life. And then a couple songs later, she's in cut-offs and a college sweatshirt. She's back in our real world. And this is, I think, kind of the fundamental message of her music. You know, she's larger than life, but she still takes her man to Red Lobster.
RICHARDS: And, you know, she's in here in the real world with us, but she says, let me help you imagine something better than the reality that we've been given.
MARTIN: Interesting. Oh, OK. Yeah. Danielle, what about you? What struck you?
BELTON: Oh, what - it was so many elements that just reminded me of my childhood. Like, it was throwback black. Like...
BELTON: When she came out as Nefertiti, it was, like - remember the kings and queens of Africa calendar that (laughter) Budweiser used to put out? Like, the fact that, you know, she - over "Lift Every Voice And Sing." Like, I went to a all-black elementary school. We sang that song all the time. It was a tribute to black Greeks and black college life. You know, my - both my parents are HBCU grads. My mom is in sorority. We're in the same sorority. We're both in Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Incorporated. My mother was a majorette. Like, when the majorette came out with the batons and was twirling and working it out - like, so much of it - it was, like - it was just engineered to, like, go right to your hippocampus - like, it's - like, as a black person. Like, you can't...
MARTIN: See, she can't even talk.
BELTON: She's amazing.
MARTIN: She's just like me.
BELTON: I can't talk.
MARTIN: She's just speechless in the face of the queen. That's just the way it is.
MARTIN: Luvvie, you did not grow up with all of these totems and images, but - you know what I mean? - but how did it how strike you?
AJAYI: I mean, I did find out that the majorette was Nigerian.
AJAYI: I mean, for me, again, it's just - if you're a black person who grew up and had formative years in the United States, you will watch that performance and see something. Like, even if - I didn't go to a HBCU, but I used to watch "A Different World," like, and all my friends are Greeks. And actually, even within the PWI - the predominantly white institution - that I went, there was a really strong black core community. So I remember going to the probate shows and the fact that she replayed that right there. And then, of course, the nostalgia of Destiny's Child - listen...
AJAYI: ...Gave me my life.
AJAYI: The fact that they remixed the "Survivor" outfits and made them now sequins and glitter and life...
AJAYI: OK, I was, like, I'm here for all of this. Beyonce essentially established herself - and I said this last week, and some people had arguments against it - I said, she is the greatest entertainer alive right now.
MARTIN: Luvvie, that is so D.C., quoting yourself - really.
AJAYI: You know, I...
MARTIN: You're not even...
AJAYI: I was going to say, what can I say?
MARTIN: Of course, we could talk Beyonce all day. But, if you can believe it, another artist made headlines this week. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DNA.")
KENDRICK LAMAR: (Rapping) I got - I got - I got - I got loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA. Cocaine quarter piece, got war and peace inside my DNA. I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA.
MARTIN: That is Kendrick Lamar. That's "DNA." off his album "Damn." And this week, the album won the Pulitzer Prize for Music Making. Kendrick Lamar, the first non-classical or jazz artist to take home the award. Now, Chris, in the past, you've criticized the Grammys for benefiting from rap without rewarding rap. "Damn" did not - was not awarded Album of the Year in 2017. That's just one of the things you talked about on this program. Does the Pulitzer make up for that in your view?
RICHARDS: I don't know if it makes up for it because the recording industry still should recognize black art and somehow refuses to even though it profits off it so much of year after year. But this is huge. The industry that doesn't recognize Kendrick Lamar, I hope that the Recording Academy is kind of just slinking in shame and evaporating into the Pacific Ocean right now because this is a huge, huge thing. It expands our notions of what greatness is, what it can be. And we should say too, you know, classical and jazz. Only a few jazz artists have received this prize. That's a minority as well. So the Pulitzer is expanding our notions of what a great audio recording can be. That's hugely important.
MARTIN: Do you think it matters though, Chris? I mean, I think a lot of artists have said to themselves or said publicly they don't care about these awards anymore. But they're going to have to teach themselves to not care.
RICHARDS: I don't know if it changes, you know, rap music. Rap music has a huge audience across the country. I hope - I think it helps the public perception of rap music. You know, I write for a general interest audience, and I get all kinds of emails everyday people telling me this isn't real music, it's just people speaking to a beat. It seems like they're talking to me from another planet, you know. And I try to engage these readers when I can. But there is a public perception out there, which I think is steeped in racism, that hip-hop is not legitimate, that rap music is not the dominant idiom of our time. It absolutely is. I think the Pulitzer victory for Kendrick really helps kind of make that more real to everyone.
MARTIN: Danielle, what do you think?
BELTON: You know, when he won, I went to the Pulitzer website to look and see if I recognized any name of any other musician that won a Pulitzer. And the only name I recognized was Wynton Marsalis from 1997. And so this is a major moment, and that extended the fact they actually lended it towards popular art like somebody that's actually leading the space, leading the culture, who's a revolutionary, like, just to reuse the same word I used for Beyonce. Like, Kendrick Lamar's revolutionary in his own right himself. And so I think it's powerful, but at the same time, I do understand that a lot of awards, you know, have long neglected black art and black musicians. So I was happy. But at the same time, you know.
MARTIN: Yeah. I know what you're saying. Luvvie, what about you? Does this - is this meaningful to you? Do you think this matters?
AJAYI: I mean, I think it's part of Black History Year, OK, even though we've been having four years in a row of Black History Year. And it's essentially speaking to the fact that black art, black culture, black things cannot be ignored any longer because we are in a really interesting time right now where, for once, our art is actually being elevated in these mainstream spaces. So the Pulitzer was kind of the exclamation point at the end of all of that. It's kind of like, oh, word, you guys are starting to finally realize - it's why we're having black women run TV shows now. And we're just seeing this trend. I'm hoping it's not a trend. I'm hoping it's here to stay because once you let us in, we're not coming out.
MARTIN: OK. Finally, with all this talk about the great performers of the day, I did want to just take one second - and we're going to go out on some music from one of the all-time greats. It's been two years to the day since we lost Prince. So here's a little Prince to go out on.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOTHING COMPARES 2 U")
PRINCE: (Singing) It's been 7 hours...
MARTIN: And I want to thank all our Barbershop guests - Chris Richards, the pop music critic for The Washington Post here in D.C. Danielle Belton, the managing editor of The Root. And Luvvie Ajayi, the New York Times best selling author of "I'm Judging You" - both with us from our bureau in New York. Thank you all so much for joining us.
AJAYI: Thank you.
BELTON: Thank you.
RICHARDS: Thank you. Crying right now, crying.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOTHING COMPARES 2 U")
PRINCE: (Singing) Since you took your love away. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.