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Q&A: Open Mike Eagle on “New Negroes” Comedy Show, and Being Soft While Black

This past Thursday was a big one for art-rapper Open Mike Eagle for two reasons—one scheduled, the other by surprise. For the past year, the Los Angeles-based MC has been hosting a show, along with comedian Baron Vaughn, called “The New Negroes,” a monthly comedy showcase based in L.A. that held its first New York edition at the Bell House in Brooklyn last week.

The showcase’s title refers to Alain Locke’s 1925 anthology The New Negro, which gathered the multiplicities of black thought that thrived through the Harlem Renaissance. The duo’s two-hour show—which features Vaughn on hosting duties and Open Mike as his chill and rapping version of The Late Show‘s Jon Batiste—highlights the daily annoyances and political issues facing people of color. It’s a free space for comedians to discuss the pain of having large brown breasts (comedian Michelle Buteau), the fact that no black person has made a hit patriotic song (The Daily Show‘s Roy Woods Jr.), and being single and weary (comedian and Broad City writer Naomi Ekperigin).

“The New Negroes” offers a temporary reprieve from African-Americans’ exhausting relationship with America’s predominant whiteness. One related headache brings us to the second reason that Thursday was a significant day for Open Mike Eagle: Funny or Die released a pro-Hillary “rap” video starring Lena Dunham that was less of a joke and more of a reminder of white feminism’s too-often troubled relationship with black culture. In the wake of the clip, one line from Open Mike’s most recent album—this past spring’s Hella Personal Film Festivalbriefly circulated on Twitter: “I looked up what Lena Dunham said and I shouldn’t have.”

“She had said something about having fucked with her little sister’s genitals at some point or some shit like that,” Open Mike says to me while we’re sitting in front of the Bell House, discussing the inspiration behind the line. “I was like, ‘Why the fuck? Why did I read this? Why did I click this button and read this to have this horrible thing in my brain for the rest of the day now? I think I just shouldn’t pay attention anymore.'”

That suddenly timely line isn’t the only lyric from Hella Personal Film Festival that resonates. As Open Mike slides through the dehumanization of black men (“Smiling (Quirky Race Doc)”) and an Aeon Flux-esque concept (“A Short About a Guy That Dies Every Night”), the LP’s neurotic yet fluid pacing makes for entertaining therapy—for the listener, and perhaps for Open Mike. Soundtracked by producer Paul White’s whizzing psychedelia, the album captures the sensation of an everyman trying to savor the simple things while being fully aware that the world around him has gone to shit.

Open Mike is hanging in there, though. After “The New Negroes” wrapped in Brooklyn, the 35-year-old staved off a couple of party invitations from satisfied guests to speak with SPIN. That conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, can be read below.

How did you come up with the concept of “The New Negroes”?
We feel like part of what is going on with America now—especially if you look at micro-interactions between white folks and black folks—[is] there is a lot of real, instant-judging that is happening, especially by the police. Part of the reason why that happens [is] the dominant culture doesn’t always take the time to realize minority cultures, especially black American culture, are varied. It’s a lot of different experiences under the guise of being in America. This platform, as a comedy show, serves to promote voices that speak to how the experiences among us are varied. And it’s not like they have to be even radical or wildly different from each other. It’s just that you come to one of our shows and you hear comics that represent all sorts of different cultural perspectives inside of America.

How do you go about curating which acts to put in the show?
Baron picks the comics, because comedy is his world. The reason that I synthesize with the show so well is because we’ve had a similar journey. While his was in comedy, mine was in music, and it comes from a sense of how people think of you when they say you’re a black comic or how people think of you when you say you’re a rapper. But you start to understand after a while that, like, there’s fucking 10,000 amazing black rappers that don’t do anything like what people would expect and it’s all really good stuff. I represent that and he represents that in comedy.

When you’re performing, either rapping or doing comedy, are you cognizant of the makeup of the audience?
All the time. I don’t make rap music for any sort of person in mind, but I do make it very true to my experience. I think when I started doing rap, I expected more black people to be able to receive it and I learned that the industry doesn’t really work that way. If you’re doing music that exists outside of the mainstream system, your shit doesn’t reach a lot of black folks. We’re ultimately 10 percent of the population and we don’t always choose. A lot of us are not active choosers of content and listen to the radio. But, I mean, even that is decreasing a lot recently. I used to work in schools and I was seeing a lot of young black people really be active about being on the internet.

We live in such a marketing-rich culture that a lot of times if something is niche, it’s just difficult to find. So, I tend to feel, when I do a show, the number of people who are there kind of represent true American population numbers.

I think a portion of that is a lot of the media gatekeepers are predominantly white, too.
True, but a lot of media gatekeepers, even though they are white, they approve and pass along black culture when it’s been ratified by certain sources. Now, that could be PR people, that could be record label people, that could be radio people, that could be television, but they tend not to question because they don’t feel qualified to do so. They are gatekeepers, but the filter is not as stringent as it might be if it was something that was up their alley. I’ve talked to really powerful journalists who tell me they are afraid of writing about rap shit because they’re afraid of being wrong.

I don’t know if you saw this:  A while ago, a Torontonian reviewer was at a Moonlight panel and he thought the term “code-switching” was “coat-switching.”
He thought they said “coat-switching?”

“Coat-switching.” Like actual coats. He used the correct definition, but he used the wrong word, so it blew up.
I didn’t see that at all. A journalist who I spoke to, Chuck Klosterman, when I interviewed him on my podcast, he was telling me he does not like to necessarily comment on hip-hop or black stories because he does not want to be wrong, and the reason he doesn’t want to be wrong is because of what happens on Twitter. You could say something and it could be taken out of context, you could be misquoted, and it can paint you, or him in this instance, as a horrible racist, when really he was just under-informed about a thing.

Now that it’s out, do you ever sit down and listen to Hella Personal Film Festival? I think, in a way, the album captures an existential malaise brought on by the election.
You know what’s funny? Today, my Twitter blew up because Lena Dunham said something stupid. Somebody on Twitter quoted that line, “I looked up what Lena Dunham said and I shouldn’t have,” and then a bunch of people retweeted it.

I just feel like there is a realm of American existence that I pay attention to, that I write raps from, that not a lot of people write raps from that place. I often find myself trying to think about who else does what I do, and I don’t come up with anybody. I am certainly an amalgamation of my influences, so it’s not that I’m just doing some shit that’s unheard of, but in terms of contemporaries, I don’t know who my contemporaries are. I got homies who kill it, but they rap differently than me. So, I don’t know exactly where I sit because of that, because I can’t create that context around myself.

Is there a cathartic factor to putting some of your more maudlin songs on record, like “A Short About a Guy That Dies Every Night”?
Some songs that I write are metaphors, wrapped in metaphors, wrapped in metaphors, and that’s one of those. I really like that song when I hear it because it sounds pretty. It’s very dark and I tend to take a certain pride when I completely go through with writing a dark song. But I mean, there is a risk you run when you put out the darkness in yourself … that people are going to approach you about that.

Like, “Oh, you good?”
Right. That’s happened, and, you know, I’m not always good. And that’s even part of what this show is about: You could talk about when you’re not good at this show, you know what I mean? As a black entertainer, that’s not always an option. You see this shit happen with Kid Cudi and Drake and all that and [Kid Cudi] going through two separate things, like, he wants to have his real experience in front of everybody, but also, he’s a rapper so he has an ego and he wants to challenge other rappers and he wants to say, “Fuck that.” You want to be a warrior, but you also have these super-fucking-dark moments and I’m so interested in that because I know what that feels like and I just always want to give people the space to do that.

It’s as if African-American men aren’t given a chance to be soft.
No, we’re not. I’m going to mis-tell this story, but on This American Life—or something like that—somebody was flying to Iran and they were so concerned about what they could or couldn’t bring to Iran that they damned near brought nothing that they even needed and they went through security and security didn’t check shit. They had this moment where they realized the most powerful sort of oppression is when you internalize it and it affects your own actions when there is no agent to even back that up. I think that is where a lot of us are as black men—like, we’ve internalized the thing of we aren’t allowed to be soft. Part of what I want to do is to help encourage people and make them feel safe enough to do that because it’s like you kind of can now, but you just don’t hear that enough.

What’s opened up that lane?
We all go through shit and I think even in the social media age we’re all able to see each others’ struggles in a way that we weren’t before, so now we have something to balance the media imagery with. We have Tumblr, where everybody is fucking dark. You can go to that or you can go to Facebook and everybody’s fronting. You can go to Twitter where people are fucking challenging each other. You can see all of these different modes of being and see people of color experiencing and writing and expressing all of these different things and slowly that starts to erode away these walls.

With the election finally coming up, is there a sense of “It’s finally over” or “We’re doomed”? People usually fall within those two lanes. 
I lean more towards, “We’re doomed.” Hillary’s gonna win, but we’re still doomed because the faith in the office is fucked now. You know, the evidence has been exposed of her colluding with the DNC to fuck over the Bernie people or the energy of the party. The more you dig, you see the corruption in the old Washington and we know we’re getting more of the same, and we’re voting for more of the same because we don’t want Trump. We want change, but we don’t want “I don’t respect women and minorities” [type of] change.

We want things to be more free and respectful for everybody, not to go backwards. When he says, “Make America Great Again,” he’s talking some real fantastical 1950s, white American bullshit that’s not even possible anymore, but he’s gonna take that shit and galvanize it and he’s gonna make money off of those people fucking forever. It’s kind of like what happened with the Tea Party after Bush. That’s a voting block now.

Obama did some kind of bullshit, but we were kind of like, “Nah, he’s tight, though.” Looking at what he was trying to do, looking at how he speaks, looking at what he reacts to [as a black leader,] we are still able to have that suspension of disbelief about this guy being our leader.