Common, Pharrell, and ‘The New Black’: An Ignorant Mentality That Undermines the Black Experience

Tami Chappell/Reuters

Tami Chappell/Reuters

The rapper Common made waves during a recent appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart when he offered his take on race in America. It isn’t nearly so simple.

“The New Black doesn’t blame other races for our issues.”

So decreed Pharrell Williams when the hit-making superstar spoke to Oprah last summer about the current racial climate in America. In the months following the release of Pharrell’s sugary soul-pop hit “Happy,” the country struggled through a summer that saw a string of high-profile cases involving police killing innocent black citizens. But while speaking to Oprah, and having watched clips of fans paying tribute to his uber-cheerful single, Pharrell decided to advertise a “new” mindset for black people to adopt—one of good ol’ positive thinking.

“The New Black dreams and realizes that it’s not pigmentation: it’s a mentality, and it’s either going to work for you or it’s going to work against you. And you’ve got to pick the side you’re going to be on,” Pharrell said.

His words were laughably empty and insulting to the current climate, the history of black ambition in the face of tremendous cultural oppression, and the reality of institutional racism; but they also represented a vocal cadre of black celebritydom that is calling for the black community to basically “get over it.” With the racial conversation in the national spotlight, stars like Williams, Kanye West, and others aren’t addressing racism in as much as they are deflecting the conversation.

Rapper/actor Common appeared on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart last week to promote his new film Run All Night. Alongside singer-songwriter John Legend, the Chicago rhymer won an Oscar in February for “Glory,” the theme song from the Martin Luther King biopic Selma. While discussing the legacy of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement and the current tensions, Stewart expressed what he’s seen from white people who are resistant to discussing structural racism.

Squelching Creativity – By Kal Raustiala and Christopher Jon Sprigman – MARCH 12 2015 12:27 PM

What the “Blurred Lines” team copied is either not original or not relevant.

Marvin Gaye, Pharrell Williams, and Robin Thicke

Marvin Gaye, Pharrell Williams, and Robin Thicke.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by NBCU Photo Bank, Frazer Harrison, & David Buchan/Getty Images.

“Blurred Lines” was the most talked-about single of 2013. Partly because it was an insidiously catchy pop confection that sat atop the Billboard Hot 100 for 12 weeks. And partly because of the controversy over whether the song, and especially the accompanying video (which racked up almost 400 million views), was misogynistic and “rapey.”

Now “Blurred Lines” is having a second moment. The song has been the subject of a pitched legal battle between the family of the late Marvin Gaye and songwriters Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams. Members of the Gaye estate publicly accused the musicians of copying key elements of Gaye’s iconic 1977 song “Got to Give It Up.” Williams and Thicke pre-emptively sued the Gaye estate, seeking a court declaration that they did not copy Gaye. And this week the verdict came down. The “Blurred Lines” team was found liable for copyright infringement and ordered to pay nearly $7.4 million in damages.

This is one of the largest music industry copyright verdicts in history. But the biggest losers in this saga aren’t Williams and Thicke, who can readily afford the millions each. It’s all of us who love music. The “Blurred Lines” verdict may end up cutting off a vital wellspring of creativity in music—that of making great new songs that pay homage to older classics.

“Blurred Lines” unquestionably references “Got to Give It Up.” Indeed, Williams and Thicke made clear that the feel of their song and Gaye’s were very similar. The key issue in court was whether they crossed the line into copyright infringement—and where exactly that line is.

So, what precisely did Williams and Thicke copy? We should start by making clear that they did not copy any of the specific sounds on Gaye’s classic recording of “Got to Give It Up.” This is not a sampling case, like the famous 1990s suit between Rick James and MC Hammer over “U Can’t Touch This.” Cases like that, and a host of others, put what many consider a sad end to the era of free and easy use of sampling in popular music.

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What It Really Means to Be A High Nation – By BAS HEIJNE August 19, 2014

If you Americans want to legalize marijuana, come to Holland first. It’s not as easy as it looks.

Mothers and their children leave a nearby school as a sign prohibiting the use of marijuana in a designated area is seen in Amsterdam, Wednesday Dec. 12, 2012. Amsterdam’s mayor Eeberhard van der Laan said Wednesday he would formally ban students from smoking marijuana at school as of Jan. 1, 2013, making the the Dutch capital the first city in the Netherlands to do so. Under the ‘tolerance’ principle, marijuana is technically illegal here, but police can’t prosecute people for possession of small amounts. That’s the loophole that made possible Amsterdam’s famed ‘coffee shops’, cafes where marijuana is sold openly.  But it has also had the unwanted side effect that Dutch children are frequently exposed to the drug in public areas. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

Early this summer Pharrell Williams, the American singer-songwriter, appeared slightly inebriated on stage at the North Sea Festival in Rotterdam and joyously confessed that he had downed a few shots beforehand. The Dutch audience reacted with a slightly weary smile. The real surprise was that it was just alcohol, and not drugs, that seemed to make Pharrell so exuberantly happy.

For decades, the Dutch have been familiar with American bands and singers appearing high on stage, especially in Amsterdam’s famous “Rock Temple,” Paradiso. We are used to putting up with below-par performances and zonked-out singers losing themselves between songs in endless ramblings about what love really means and what beautiful human beings the Dutch are, and how their wonderful new-found insights originated at the local “coffee shop”—read marijuana shop—which always seems to be just around the corner in major Dutch cities. Most of the time it is an amusing spectacle, seeing well-known performers coming to Holland and behaving like wide-eyed kids in a candy store. And, of course, it is somewhat flattering—for quite a few Americans the Netherlands, in this aspect at least, seems to be truly the land of the free.

It’s not only performers. When Hillary Clinton, as first lady, gave a lecture in a Delft church in the late ‘90s and professed her regret that due to lack of time she would not be able to visit the places in Amsterdam where her husband, coming over from London as an Oxford University graduate student, had enjoyed himself so much, the audience immediately got the joke—probably because they had heard it so many times before.

Today, judging from what I’m hearing from across the Atlantic, America is considering whether to become a lot more like the Dutch. Colorado and Washington state have legalized the recreational use of marijuana, and theNew York Times editorial page recently declared that the national ban on marijuana today is even sillier than banning alcohol during Prohibition, saying it is “a substance far less dangerous.”

But before you go there, America, let me tell a little about what it really means to be a High Nation. First of all, we Dutch are not quite as liberal about drugs as you might think. Second, and more important, we’re still very confused—in fact more confused than we ever have been—about how liberal we should be. The truth is, many Dutch are coming to believe that our whole experiment with drug tolerance hasn’t worked out well at all.

Contrary to what many people think, the Dutch generally are not obsessed with drugs, just as they do not have Anne Frank or Vincent van Gogh on their mind most of the time. Where I live, in the center of Amsterdam, there are a quite a few of those uniquely Dutch coffee shops, but I hardly go there—not out of principle, but because most of the time I have better things to do than getting high. For many people they are just part of everyday life. For us they do not have the aura of naughtiness — of being allowed to do something that is joyfully transgressive — that they have for foreign visitors. Smoking cannabis in Holland is not a statement or an act of social defiance. It’s no longer part of any kind of exciting counterculture whatsoever—you just have to like it. If you do, enjoy. If not, you can just have a cup of coffee.

The other myth is that drugs are simply legal in the Netherlands. They are not—and that goes for hard and soft drugs. Soft drugs are just officially “tolerated.” And there the problem starts. As a Dutch citizen you are allowed to buy small quantities of soft drugs for your personal use, but you are forbidden from growing weed for commercial purposes. If this seems confusing for an outsider, it is also so for the Dutch themselves—one could say we have struggled for decades with the consequences of our own so-calledgedoogbeleid, our famous policy of drug toleration. It has created a completely illogical situation for the coffee shops, which are, bizarrely, both legal and illegal at the same time. They are allowed, under strict conditions, to sell soft drugs at the “front door”—but having drugs delivered to their shops, the business that happens at the “backdoor,” is still regarded as criminal activity.

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How Obama’s Brother’s Keeper Initiative Could Really Make a Difference – Pedro Noguera April 2, 2014 d

Lecturing black men isn’t going to help them overcome the barriers they face. Better jobs and education policies will. Barack Obama

President Barack Obama during an event in the East Room of the White House to promote his “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, on Thursday, February 27, 2014 (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

Black males are in the news. For a constituency that is a mere 6 percent of the population, they occupy a position that is unique in its visibility and vulnerability. On any given Sunday, like modern gladiators, they display their athletic prowess before audiences composed largely of wealthy white ticketholders at basketball and football arenas throughout the country. They are similarly ubiquitous among the talent in the music industry, supplying a steady stream of singers and producers, from Quincy Jones and Berry Gordy to Jay-Z and Pharrell Williams.

Yet the quality of life for most black men in America is overwhelmingly negative. Across a broad array of indicators, the social and economic patterns are stark: in almost every aspect of life associated with success, black males are underrepresented, and in those aspects of life associated with failure and hardship, they are vastly overrepresented.

In education, the patterns are most disturbing. Black males have the highest dropout rates (50 percent or higher) in most cities and the lowest college enrollment, and they are more likely to be referred to special education or subjected to punitive discipline (suspension and expulsion) than any other group. They are more likely to be unemployed (and for longer periods), trapped in low-wage jobs or underrepresented in the professions. Finally, black and Latino men make up more than 50 percent of the US prison population. One out of thirty-five black men are behind bars, and one out of three can expect to be incarcerated at some point in his life.

These trends are not new. In fact, they have been around for so long that one could argue that the marginal status of black males has been “normalized”—like homelessness and cancer, accepted as an unpleasant but unavoidable fact of life. It may well be that the success of a small number of black men in sports and entertainment (and, perhaps, the ascension of one to the presidency) has obscured and overshadowed the dire hardships that beset the vast majority.

The lack of official response to this crisis finally came to an end in late February, when President Obama announced his My Brother’s Keeper initiative, an as-yet-undefined plan focused on addressing the plight of black males, which is designed to keep them in school and out of the criminal justice system. The initiative will bring foundations and private companies together to invest in a variety of strategies to support young black and Latino men. Already, hundreds of millions have been raised from private foundations (no public funds have been committed).


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Daft Punk, Lorde And Macklemore Win Major Grammy Awards – by NPR STAFF January 27, 201412:31 AM

Daft Punk won the Grammy for Album of the Year for Random Access Memories and for Record of the Year for "Get Lucky."

Daft Punk won the Grammy for Album of the Year for Random Access Memoriesand for Record of the Year for “Get Lucky.”

Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

French dance music producers Daft Punk won Album of the Year for Random Access Memories and Record of the Year for their hit “Get Lucky” at the 56th annual Grammy awards on Sunday night. In a ceremony heavy on collaborative performances (Robin Thicke with Chicago, Kendrick Lamar with Imagine Dragons and Metallica with Lang Lang were a few of the more random pairings) and light on surprise, no single artist dominated.

Daft Punk, whose last album, Human After All, came out in 2005, won four awards in all, including Best Dance/Electronic Album and Best Pop Duo/Group Performance. The two musicians behind the group, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, appeared behind their trademark “robot” helmets and didn’t speak a word into a microphone all night, letting their collaborators, including the two performers featured on “Get Lucky,” Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers, accept awards on their behalf. (Random Access Memories won a fifth award for Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical)

Williams, who acted as Daft Punk’s main spokesman for most of the night, was nominated for seven awards, and won four, including Producer of the Year, Non-Classical. The three he lost (for producing Robin Thicke’s Record and Pop Duo/Group nominee, “Blurred Lines” and Kendrick Lamar’s Album nominee, good kid m.A.A.d city) were also awards he won.

The chart-topping Seattle-based hip-hop duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis also won four Grammys, including Best New Artist and three rap awards. New Zealand’s Lorde won the other major award, Song of the Year, as well as Best Pop Solo Performance, for “Royals,” which dominated the singles chart for two months in the fall.

Other multiple award winners included country newcomer Kacey Musgraves, R&B and rap collaborators Justin Timberlake and Jay Z and classical composer Maria Schneider.

The complete list of winners is below.

  • Record of the Year – “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk featuring Pharrell Williams & Nile Rodgers
  • Album of the Year – Random Access Memories by Daft Punk
  • Song of the Year – “Royals” by Joel Little & Ella Yelich O’Connor, songwriters (Lorde)
  • Best New Artist – Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
  • Best Pop Solo Performance – “Royals” by Lorde
  • Best Pop Duo/Group Performance – “Get Lucky” by Daft PunkFeaturing Pharrell Williams & Nile Rodgers
  • Best Pop Instrumental Album – Steppin’ Out by Herb Alpert
  • Best Pop Vocal Album – Unorthodox Jukebox by Bruno Mars
  • Best Dance Recording – “Clarity” by Zedd featuring Foxes
  • Best Dance/Electronica Album – Random Access Memories by Daft Punk
  • Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album – To Be Loved by Michael Bublé
  • Best Rock Performance – “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons
  • Best Metal Performance – “God Is Dead?” by Black Sabbath
  • Best Rock Song – “Cut Me Some Slack” by Dave Grohl, Paul McCartney, Krist Novoselic & Pat Smear, songwriters (Paul McCartney, Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic, Pat Smear)
  • Best Rock Album – Celebration Day by Led Zeppelin
  • Best Alternative Music Album – Modern Vampires of the City by Vampire Weekend
  • Best R&B Performance – “Something” by Snarky Puppy with Lalah Hathaway
  • Best Traditional R&B Performance – “Please Come Home” by Gary Clark Jr.
  • Best R&B Song – “Pusher Love Girl” by James Fauntleroy, Jerome Harmon, Timothy Mosley & Justin Timberlake, songwriters (Justin Timberlake)
  • Best Urban Contemporary Album – Unapologetic by Rihanna
  • Best R&B Album – Girl On Fire by Alicia Keys
  • Best Rap Performance – “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis Featuring Wanz
  • Best Rap/Sung Collaboration – “Holy Grail” by Jay Z featuring Justin Timberlake`