The Vitality of Black Criticism

The way he was able to bring his poetics into writing about music and left these indelible lines — these things, they’ve formed my own critical perspective, my own critical understanding of the way in which the opportunity to talk about the music is of course the opportunity to bring our whole lives to who we are. And it’s also the reason that most of us who were writing in the ’80s and ’90s really became, or were, multidisciplinary artists. We never thought that criticism was the be all and end all of what we had to offer.

Between I’d say 1977 and 2000, there was a community of Black writers in New York: The Voice first, but then The Source and then Vibe. So all of us come into the game thinking of Black criticism is something we do as a gang. And because you had the near instant gratification of response from the community, you knew what you were writing was having impact. With The Voice, if it came out on Wednesday, you knew by Saturday what people were thinking of it.

WESLEY MORRIS At some point I figured out that there were definitely some gaps in terms of who was speaking and who was writing about what. I would spend hours on end watching BET, VH1 and MTV, and you start to see that there are people being put in boxes by these programmers. I mean Joan Armatrading? She was never on MTV. I could see that there were things that needed to be addressed, or redressed, in terms of who was being acknowledged, whose existences were being acknowledged. There are Black women who’ve made music that changed my life that have never received a review in any magazines. The thoroughest description I got was Vibe, when it showed up. Because I had been waiting for that. I had been waiting for people to acknowledge that there was some merit to this music.

I’ve noticed in the last 10 years, say, but it’s probably even older than that, that there is a real reluctance to seriously engage with the work and the craft of the work and what pop music is doing, what it sounds like. I don’t know if that’s a fear of getting it wrong. I don’t know if that’s a fear of what Twitter might do to you if you do get it wrong. This is related to a question of ethics, which is what is falling in that lacuna between greatness and crap that only criticism can both explicate and reify in some way. To me, it feels like a crisis that nobody’s really acknowledging, but I think that’s because there still aren’t enough Black people to pick that work up and do something.

DANYEL SMITH Listen, it’s the criticism that’s missing in action without question. I am consistently, constantly in a mild panic about the music that has been created over the last 15 to 20 years that has not been listened to like it’s real music. I am concerned about artists like Cardi B and Drake, who are literally the biggest stars in the entire world, and their music is not talked about with a lot of seriousness. Comparing it to what happened in the past, comparing it to what could happen in the future, the context of when it came out to when it didn’t. Again, as an editor, I say, what about the knowing, deeply reported stories and the profiles that are not being written? The columns?

It has to do, I think with there being a generation of Black writers who have not really ever worked with Black editors. And I think, flawed as we were, at Vibe, XXL, The Source, Essence — there were hip-hop magazines all over — there has not been enough of “I’m a Black editor that knows a lot; and I’m a Black writer that wants to know more.” I don’t know where they’re happening. Not nearly enough, anyway.