Analyzing Black Pop Culture Got Me Through 2020

Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy


It’s 2020. There’s a global pandemic, my state is on fire, government officials are showing disrespect for Black bodies and disdain for Black lives, a new piece of society-shaking news comes out every day…and I’m spending every spare minute bingeing Girlfriends and reading tweets about Black art.

Black pop culture has kept me sane through the trash fire that has been this year. I don’t care if it seems frivolous amidst an ongoing global crisis—it brings me joy. In these times when I can’t see my family and friends in person, I find relaxation in revisiting a classic or obsessing over a new form of art. I process my feelings as I watch and listen, and giving Black pop culture attention—through appreciation or critique—reinforces that Black stories and Black life are important. Now more than ever, I need depictions of Black joy and strength to remind me that my life matters and people like me deserve the world.

Lately, I’ve been turning to podcasts for conversations about Black culture. Though the field is still majority-white, there are many great podcasts about Black pop culture, including The Read, The Nod, Still Processing, and Strong Black Lead. And in the midst of 2020’s chaos, two new podcasts premiered that highlight how Black cultural analysis and appreciation affirm and revere Black lives.

On each episode of Back Issue, host Tracy Clayton and producer-host Josh Gwynn discuss a Black pop culture moment they’ve been thinking about for years with an expert who brings behind-the-scenes insight. So far they’ve covered America’s Next Top Model with Jay Manuel, the show’s creative director for the first nine seasons, and talked to comedian Tommy Lee Davidson about In Living Color. They also bring listener interactions into the show—for the Beyoncé episode, they played listeners’ voicemails thanking the icon for the impact she’s had on their lives.

Nostalgia has been big this year. After dealing with nothing but conflict in the outside world, people who can’t handle suspense in their entertainment are returning to shows they already love. On July 29, Netflix announced it would release a slate of beloved Black sitcoms, two a month from August to October. Since then, Black Twitter has been dominated by clips from the shows and reminders of long-forgotten plot points. As Gwynn puts it, “nostalgia is harm reduction.”

“I think the current conditions lend themselves to seeking comfort in something that’s so readily available, like streaming content,” adds Clayton. “Also, times are so shitty and we want to go back. It transports us to a time when we were lighter—a more peaceful time. What the world needs now is love, sweet love, and also peace, sweet peace. So maybe this is a way people are trying to find that peace.”

Revisiting these works also provides a chance to give them the recognition they deserve. Though a lot of mainstream American pop culture has been influenced, or outright stolen, from Black pop culture, art and media made by Black people haven’t generated the same amount of cultural analysis in popular magazines or academia. We’re in the midst of a Black cultural renaissance—movies like Get Out and Moonlight, TV shows like Insecure and Atlanta, books like The Hate U Give, plays and musicals like Slave Play and A Strange Loop, the list goes on—but before very recently, there weren’t think pieces or TV segments about Black art and culture in white-led outlets.

“These formative moments [are] important to us and they’re important to our community, and no one can deny that Black culture is pop culture,” Gwynn says. “So if Black culture is pop culture, then these moments that are formative moments to us are formative moments to American pop culture at large—whether they realize it or not.”

Clayton adds, “They should have been on 60 Minutes with Barbara Walters. They should have been in New York Magazine. This is a way to go back and pay the proper respects where respect was due, now that we have a bigger ability to do so.”

Mainstream media’s current willingness to pay more respect to Black culture is bittersweet. Though part comes from Black critics having larger platforms, a greater part comes from the dominant, white-led culture realizing that Black people have a lot to say. More ambitious work about Black lives has been greenlit, funded, and acquired, and analysis of that work creates bigger cultural conversations.

HBO’s Lovecraft Country is one of the most ambitious works of Black art in recent years. On Lovecraft Country Radio, the show’s official companion podcast produced by Pineapple Street Studios, writer and critic Ashley C. Ford and series writer Shannon Houston discuss the themes and references in each week’s episode. They dig deep into history, gender studies, and personal experience, all through a Black female lens, to get to the heart of a show that subverts horror tropes, examines generational trauma, provides visions of Afro-futurism, and so much more.

Photo credit: ELI JOSHUA ADE/HBO
Photo credit: ELI JOSHUA ADE/HBO

Listening to Ford and Houston, the audience gets a sense of how discussing art can be a powerful form of connection. The hosts have yet to connect in person—they met over the phone when the podcast was being developed—but they build an easy camaraderie with their observations about the show. You can hear the excitement when Houston mentions a discussion that happened in the show’s writers’ room, or when Ford brings up an idea that Houston hadn’t considered.

“I’m having a blast,” Ford says. “I get to watch a wild ass show, the likes of which my Black ass has never seen before. And then twice a week, I get to talk with somebody who was in the writer’s room, who is thinking about this show on a broader scale, who’s constantly bringing things up. I’m having a lot of fun.”

While Back Issue covers the classics and revisits conversations with a few decades of distance, Lovecraft Country Radio gives an immediate reaction to a work of art. Ford, serving as the observer of the two hosts, didn’t even watch past the current week’s episode when they recorded. For Houston, who wrote on the show and has more knowledge of the creative choices, hearing Ford’s and viewers’ responses is part of the fun.

“That fresh perspective means a lot because as a writer, I’m going to defend the show. I think it’s really important to have those other critical eyes, like, ‘Okay, that may have been your intention, but this is how I felt,’” says Houston.

Every episode of Lovecraft Country Radio ends with recommendations for further reading: books, films, poems, essays, and other works that enhance the show’s themes. In addition to generating conversation about the TV show, Houston and Ford hope the podcast’s discussions and recommendations open listeners’ minds, especially Black listeners. They both know Black people are not a monolith, that we have an array of opinions about art and culture and life, and they want those opinions to be heard—both on Twitter and through new works of art.

“I can’t wait to see what people are going to make after this,” Houston says. “I can’t wait to see what people will think just by discovering that there’s such a thing as a Kumiho. What kind of stories will people give themselves permission to tell? That’s why we have all those references, cause we’re like, ‘keep digging, keep doing more.’ This is just a little sliver of all the stories that still need to be told.”

As long as people keep talking about these stories, debating them, and sharing insights, the future of Black storytelling is bright.

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