As a cis straight white male, there’s a good chance I’m probably not the best person to write a review of a show called The New Negroes. After all, the project, hosted by Baron Vaughn and Open Mike Eagle, who spun it off from their live show of the same name, is a celebration of Black existence in the modern era. Then I remembered that at 34, I’m still technically within the coveted 18 to 35 male demographic Comedy Central advertisers salivate for. My only qualifications are literally my privilege and value to Nielsen numbers, but in some ways, I think that makes me an ideal New Negroes viewer.
Having grown up white and in Tennessee during the ‘90s, it’s impossible to really overstate the importance of pop culture in learning about race, both good or bad. For a long time, the only representation I saw of Black people in media were singers on Broadway, the Winslows on Family Matters, and music videos. Then I found Def Comedy Jam, the first genuinely profane art I ever got to consume in a household that sang Monty Python commercials to each other. My life wouldn’t be the same without Martin Lawrence, Adele Givens, Bernie Mac, and Bill Bellamy.
But at that early age, it also gave me a myopic view of Blackness, helped by the fact that it was snuck behind my parents back. There wasn’t any context, nor anyone to correct the assumptions of what I heard. Usually, there weren’t any counterpoints. As a white kid experiencing the Black culture through art, diversity of ideas mattered, and the lack of them gave me a shallow understanding of a rich culture. So why the hell am I talking so much about myself? Because I can’t imagine how invaluable a show like New Negroes would have been when I was a kid or in college. Hell, even now.
Baron Vaughn and Open Mike Eagle have created a stand-up comedy/musical sketch show that presents a wide range of voices and perspectives from different Black comedians. Each episode is based around a theme and features three stand-up acts. “Identity” has Chris Redd, Shalewa Sharpe and Langston Kerman. The second episode, “Criminality,” showcases Donnell Rawlings, Ed Greer and Lil Rel Howery. Episode three meanwhile is based on “Wokeness” with sets by David Gborie, Candice Thompson and Tone Bell.
Segmenting each episode into themes allows the show to explore different sides of one issue in the span of 25-minutes. Each episode is great, but “Identity” is an incredible choice for a first impression. Saturday Night Live’s Chris Redd delivers a set about growing up around crack heads in Chicago that’s a savagely funny take on seeing grown-up things through a child’s eyes.
Shalewa Sharpe’s segment about the struggle to find love tackles everything from generational pickup lines to race-based dating apps. “We came up with Soul Swipe,” she explains. “It’s a dating app for black people. And the occasional cheeky Jew. Just trying to get in there Beastie Boys style. You gotta respect that. I see you Joshua.”
Langston Kerman explores how modern society demands everyone be political when all he wants is to watch Say Yes To The Dress. That then turns into a bit about finding his own inner truth while judging a woman’s dress. The sets are brilliant, tight and crushingly funny. But most importantly, each one is uniquely its own, showcasing distinctive voices from different regions, backgrounds and even ages.
Each of the three first episodes follows this pattern, building a theme and exploring ideas around it. In three episodes you get everything from what its like to have parents on opposite sides of the law to David Gborie’s monster joke about having more in common with Donald Trump than Jay-Z. Meanwhile, Vaughn and Open Mike Eagle’s wraparound segments comment further on the overarching theme, with a musical number at the end to tie things together.
Baron Vaughn is a gleefully silly host, matched perfectly by Open Mike Eagle’s stone-faced straight man act. They tackle what they mean by “New Negroes,” explore double consciousness and gaze hard into performative wokeness. It’s cool that in 2019 we get a major show on Comedy Central that takes time to explain the idea of double consciousness, a concept coined by W. E. B. Du Bois which explains the struggle to have an individual identity while remaining aware of how outside society views you. What’s even cooler is that it’s then demonstrated through a brilliant music video starring Open Mike Eagle and Danny Brown.
Open Mike Eagle is a staggering force in underground hip-hop, writing songs that are deeply funny, socially aware, and revealingly personal. Using Comedy Central’s dime he’s turned New Negroes into a venue for cutting edge music videos featuring hip-hop icons. Just in the first three episodes, we get new music featuring Danny Brown, MF Doom, and Phonte from Little Brother.
Each video is directed by filmmaker Lance Bangs, who’s made things for everyone from Pavement to Jackass. If it was the ‘90s any of these clips could have won best Rap Video on MTV. Instead, they’re just a cherry on top of the already brilliant art in the music. They’re all great, but the rap battle about performative wokeness between Eagle and Phonte in episode three, in particular, can’t be missed.
My senior year of high school The Roots put out a record called Phrenology, a deeply political record that also has moments of sensuality and catharsis. It also features a 25-second long hardcore punk song called ”!!!!!!!” that melted my 17-year-old brain and changed my understanding of hip-hop. It got me into Bad Brains and Living Color. Its importance isn’t because it spoke to me, and it wasn’t made with me in mind. But when I found it I gained a new perspective on what rap could be and it opened my eyes to a world of art from Black performers outside of my limited perspective.
That doesn’t mean the art I’d experienced before that record was bad, it just only gave me one side. Def Comedy Jam changed my life as a kid just like Ice Cube’s The Predator did, but as much as they informed my understanding they ultimately showed a limited view of the world. The New Negroes reminds me of the first time I heard Phrenology and found a favorite rap group exploring hardcore, funk, rap, jazz, and soul.
Without sacrificing laughs it makes broader points about Black identity and life experiences. It’s a monument to the fact that this culture isn’t monolithic, and explores the binds that tie a race together. I’m hesitant to call The New Negroes important. It shouldn’t be important to show the uniqueness of different people tied together by their race. But in a time where people loudly and carelessly speak about cultures they’ve never interacted with, I’m happy as hell it’s here. At bare minimum, I wish I’d had it when I was a kid.
John-Michael Bond is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. He’s on Twitter @BondJohnBond.