Growing up in the 90s had its perks. Pogs, Tamagotchis, Starter jackets, Guess Jeans outfits, Grant Hill’s Filas, The Miseducation of Lauren Hill, homemade mixtapes, Blockbuster videos, Bagel Bites, BrainQuest, and those weird-ass transforming McDonald’s toys. ALL THAT SHIT WAS DOPE.
You’ll notice that this list doesn’t contain any hip-hop albums. I’m well aware that this was perhaps one of the most influential decades for rap music, but honestly, I didn’t fall in love with the genre until The Roots blessed us with Things Fall Apart. As a child, my mom had a strict ‘no cursing’ policy in our house (which only applied to my brother and me), and it extended to the music we were allowed to listen to. Although she loved Tupac (who didn’t love Tupac?), my moms discarded my brother’s copy of Jay-Z’s (classic) debut album, Reasonable Doubt, by the time Hov talked about taking funds to his jeweler Tito (she yanked that shit right out of the cassette player with no fucks to give).
Plus, there are more gifted writers than I who can provide better insight on just how great hip-hop was during the 1990s, especially 1996.
Pause: Why was I allowed to watch Boyz N The Hood, Menace II Society, and Higher Learning, but not listen to Illmatic? I need answers, mama. I’m digressing.
You know what else was great about the decade before Y2K? Black television. Of course, there were iconic sitcoms such as The Cosby Show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Martin, and Family Matters. But with shows like Roc, The Parent ‘Hood, Hanging With Mr. Cooper, New York Undercover (y’all just had to kill Eddie, huh?), Living Single, In The House, and In Living Color, there was no shortage of minority representation on a nightly basis. Seriously, EVERY NIGHT. It was en vogue. It was chic. It was proactive and it got the people going.
It was also impactful and encouraging because it provided images of people who shared my melanin doing big things, like going to college, or becoming doctors (and lawyers and judges), or developing transformation chambers to get the girl of their dreams (what up doe, Urkel?!). They made us laugh, and they made us cry. (Why did Will’s daddy do him like that?) They found ways to discuss societal issues, such as drug use, sex, violence, gender equality, and police brutality. Truth be told, had it not been for A Different World — and my mom filling out an application to FAMU — I probably would have never attended an HBCU. And given Detroit’s horrific resemblance to apocalyptic ruins during my childhood, this impression mattered.
Which is why I appreciate the current renaissance of Black entertainment. While there have been some notable black shows in the new millennium (My Wife and Kids, The Bernie Mac Show, Girlfriends, Chappelle’s Show, Everybody Hates Chris, The Wire, Treme, and Oz), Black folks have been mostly relegated to the minstrel rachetness of reality television.
(Was I the only one who peeped BET’s first scripted series, Somebodies?)
But since Donald Glover’s Atlanta (FX) and Ava Duvernay’s Queen Sugar, premiered to record-breaking ratings and impressive reviews, the tide certainly seems to be turning for the better. Furthermore, these two hits are just the latest residents to crash the old-fashioned, White neighborhood that is the television industry.
Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard are commanding a loyal following as Cookie and Lucious Lyon on Fox’s Empire, killing the ratings game and getting that Pepsi advertising money. Starz is serving a double-dose of Blackness with the Twitter-favorite Power and King James’ produced Survivor’s Remorse. And is there any acclaim Black-ish isn’t garnering with Tracey Elis Ross’ fine ass? It’s also proof that if Anthony Anderson can recover from his token roles in Agent Cody Banks 2 and Kangaroo Jack, you can blow up in that nursing program, get your hair done, and buy a Toyota Camry. Don’t give up on your dreams, people.
Perhaps the most incredible example of black people flexing their talent on television is the upcoming show Insecure.
While HBO has provided some beautiful cinematic art, since Chris Rock’s flagship program concluded in 2000, the premium station has been extremely white with its content. Like white, white. Game of Thrones is great, and all, but the only prominent Negro on that mug was Xaro, and his punk ass fell victim to Daenerys’ ruthlessness for foolishly trying to double-cross her on some fuckshit. Up until now, HBO’s longest tenured shows featuring black folks were either about selling drugs, or prison. C’mon, b.
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency featuring the lovely Jill Scott and Anika Noni Rose was canceled after its inaugural, 7-episode season despite garnering a Peabody Award. Brothers in Atlanta, a comedy series from seasoned writers Diallo Riddle and Bashir Salahuddin, was scrapped after the network greenlit the project and ordered a pilot. Plus, we all know how they tried to play our soul-sista-friend Effie Brown on that “White Boy Bro” bullshit Project Greenlight.
Yet, terrible shows such as Bored To Death (the title should have been adorned with a Surgeon General’s warning in small print for excessive shittiness) and Lena “I really want some Black penis” Dunham’s, Girls, survived for multiple seasons before getting axed. I swear the only people who watched that Wonder Bread bullshit was my homeboy and my ex.
Which makes Issa Rae’s meteoric rise as unlikely as it is welcomed. Much like her best-selling novel The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl and her budding web series, Rae’s Insecure seeks to feature women of color beyond the clichéd roles of strong, loud, menacing, ghetto, angry characiture. Positive imagery matters, but so does realness. Not every Black woman is Olivia Pope or whatever melodramatic, stereotypical nonsense Tyler Perry concocts. Based on the trailers, reviews and the nature of Larry Filmore’s writing, the show looks promising, engaging, an funny as hell. UPDATE: I’ve watched the pilot, and it was what I thought it would be (RIP, Dennis Green). It’s a funny, authentic protait of what it’s like to be black and female in 2016 (and beyond?). Gon’ ‘head and get that Friends money, girl.
Side note: It’s worth mentioning that HBO produced some quality Black films back in the day. Something The Lord Made with Mos Def and Gabrielle Union and The Tuskegee Airmen featuring Lawrence Fishburne and Cuba Gooding Jr. were well-written, well-acted gems. Also, Dancing In September is perhaps one of the most underrated movies of all-time. It’s a story about the politics and struggle associated with Black television shows starring Isaiah Washington and Nicole Ari Parker. And don’t get me started on Jeffrey Wright’s portrayal of MLK in Boycott. (I love that film.)
Make no mistake, this influx of Afro-centric programming on the small screen isn’t going to rid our country of racism and systemic bias. Romanticizing about how our televised stories will somehow incite care, understanding, and empathy is a beautiful notion, even it is profoundly misguided.
Regardless of the overwhelming amount of successful shows featuring colorful casts portraying minorities positively, the 1990s was still one of the most racially tumultuous decades since the Civil Rights era.
The cops who brutally beat Rodney King and heinously executed Amadou Diallo unjustly escaped consequences for their criminal actions despite Officer Winslow’s touching portrayal of racial profiling.
Moreover, officers sworn to protect and serve our communities continue to benefit from a flawed judicial system that frequently provides immunity to those who use their oath as a creed to unlawfully abuse their power, thus permeating law enforcement’s blatant disregard for Black lives.
But Negro representation on the tube does provide much-needed access to role models and ideals that may be not available within decaying communities. It allows us to depict a variety of narratives about the Black experience in America. Plus, it affords opportunities to minorities in an industry perversely structured to be Caucasian. Y’all Wypipo stay Whitewashing shit.
At the very least, it’s enjoyable entertainment that has proven to both critically and commercially successful. May the new wave of colored television reign on. Black is beautiful.