Mychal Denzel Smith’s vital debut memoir Invisible Man, Got The Whole World Watching adopts its title from a song on Mos Def’s 1999 debut album Black On Both Sides. It’s the perfect metaphor for Smith to stand upon as a soapbox to speak on the duality of how black male identity is flattened, commodified, and consumed voraciously by the American masses. Check the ratings on this week’s NBA Finals or that ever-growing number below the frame on popular rap videos on YouTube for proof. But how many of those millions see those athletes and entertainers in their totality as individuals? How many of those millions see those ballplayers and rappers as the ones who were lucky enough not to be gunned down by police? Who sees the simultaneous consumption and destruction of black males? Those are the kinds of questions Smith, who we named one of Brooklyn’s 100 Cultural Influencers earlier this year, is asking.
Though it’s rooted in the familiar black male space of hip-hop, Invisible Man takes on the feel and scope of an epic socio-educational journey that is more akin to Lord of the Rings. Smith uses his personal experience as an American black male and turns inward interrogation and reflection outward, quickly expanding far beyond his experience, sparing no one with his critical eye. He examines how black men are failed, and how they fail themselves and the people around them. His view scans the blind spots of black male identity and perspective from all angles, critiquing their relationships with women, mental health, LGBTQ people, sexuality, celebrity, crime, violence, and a host of other aspects. He truly pushes himself and everyone around him to think more critically about black male identity, no matter what color race or creed, while ultimately successfully striking the balance of hope and honest criticism. Get a taste below.
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What made you want to open with Trayvon as opposed to any of the other victims of police violence or in that case citizen violence?
Just the idea at the time being 25 years old watching a 17-year-old black boy have his life taken away and feeling so much guilt around my existence. If we’re going to trace back all of this period of sort of movement building I think that’s really the jump off point. He was killed in February of 2012. It’s reelection season for Obama. The 2012 campaign is in full swing. A lot of young black people showed up voting for Obama for the first time. The veil of hope just sort of fell in that moment, and it really refocused everyone. The idea of collective struggle resurfaced then.
I liked how you painted a real picture of who Trayvon actually was instead of flattening his identity to the kind of symbolic figure that we’ve made him into. What made you want to keep it kind of critical in looking at who he was as a person and then zoom out from that critical lens?
The thing is I didn’t know Trayvon. All that I know about this young man comes from the people who have survived–his mother, his father, his brother–who have been kind enough to tell us who Trayvon was. Even Rachel Jeantel, his friend who took the stand. We don’t know who Trayvon was, and that’s sort of the question. Did Trayvon even know who he was? If he didn’t, now he doesn’t get a chance to find out because of what George Zimmerman did to him. I got a chance that Trayvon and Michael Brown did not. What ideas would they encounter outside of just the racism that they were going to experience? Trayvon presumably was heterosexual. Rachel Jeantel was talking about the way that he talked to girls. What would his interactions with women would have been like being raised in a culture of misogyny, rape culture, all of that? Would he have been able to navigate that? Would he have been able to recognize what most of us don’t? It’s tricky territory, especially with martyrs, people that become the symbols of movements. But if we’re going to say I don’t want what happened to Trayvon to happen to anyone else, that’s beautiful, let’s work toward that.
You brought up a little bit about being brought up in a misogynistic culture, and then going into rap with the deep history of misogyny there, how much onus do you think should be placed on rap for how other races view young black men?
The very first sentence of the book is doing a lot of work because it’s juxtaposing the way the world is consuming black bodies in one respect as a form of entertainment, and then killing them on the other hand. Black men are going to be flattened and consumed. That is not going to be representative of the entire experience. There’s a truth that rappers are expressing. They’re representing the truth of the experience. There’s fantasy as well. We know that not all as rich as they report to be, etc. But even that is a truth of aspiration. We can’t place the blame on black men in rap music simply because if it wasn’t rap music it’s going to be something else that people use as justification for oppression. It’s always funny to me when people are like, ‘Well if the rappers weren’t doing this there would be a level of respect bestowed upon us.’ There never has been. They arrested Marcus Garvey. They basically drove Du Bois out. People were fighting King, they were slapping him in the face, stabbing him, throwing him in jail. He was one of the most hated men in America. It has nothing to do with rap music.
You express a lot of reverence for the school series era Kanye, but seeing what he’s either evolved or devolved into (contingent upon your perspective), what do you think he means as a black man and black artist currently?
I think Kanye has always been this guy. There’s something different in his expression and experience. When we get introduced to Kanye he’s hungry and hustling, he’s still very arrogant, but not super rich at that point. So his perspective on race and class are shaped by experience that sort of a middle/working class-ish black person from the suburbs of Chicago being raised by race conscious parents. You know: ‘Racism still alive they just be concealing it’ and ‘The white man get paid off of all of that.’ But because of Kanye’s artistic output and acceptance, then by those same institutions that he was challenging before, he finds himself in new spaces that he hasn’t quite learned how to navigate yet. He’s just all over the place because he can’t make sense of it all himself. Who could, honestly? He will disappoint you, like when he tweets Bill Cosby is innocent, and I think that’s sort of an understanding that we have to have of all of our heroes and all of our artistic icons.