Photo illustration by Johansen Peralta
May 29, 2023
A tour through Touré’s world
The columnist and interviewer discusses his career, the current political climate, tennis, TikTok, hip hop, Prince and his new podcast
Journalist, author, interviewer, TV host, podcaster and tennis fanatic Touré occupies a unique space in the media landscape. He is an omnivorous pop culture critic, an astute political analyst and a thoughtful voice on race and Blackness. Over the course of his career he has hosted shows on MSNBC, Fuse, BET and MTV. He was the first pop culture correspondent on CNN. He is the author of several books — he literally wrote the book on Prince. And these days he is a columnist for TheGrio, the independent Black-owned media network.
Through it all, there is a constant: “You think about being unapologetically Black, and I’m going to do what I feel is right,” he says on this week’s episode of “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast.” “I don’t want to be ever not saying something because it might make a white person uncomfortable. So, I’m going to bring that with me wherever I go.”
This week Touré is launching yet another podcast, called “Being Black: The ’80s,” a docuseries that looks at the most important issues of the ’80s — from the crack epidemic to gay liberation to affirmative action — through the biggest songs of the decade. It is, he promises, the funkiest podcast you could ask for.
This week, however, he is on a decidedly less funky podcast. Touré joins us to discuss his career, his approach to interviewing, his love of tennis, TikTok, the dangerous moment in our current political climate, hip hop and Prince.
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity. You can listen to it in its entirety in the player above or wherever you get your podcasts.
I can’t think of too many journalists who can get away with going by one name. There’s Sway. There’s maybe Wolf.
It’s not like trying to be famous or whatever. When I was leaving high school and going to college and thus able to have a little more control of shaping your life and your world, a lot of thoughts that I had had brewing up in me started to really rise up. And the last name was something that was just given, but there were no stories. There were no people attached. Here’s how broken it is: The person who I was told was my grandfather passed away long before I was born, and there were not even photographs of this person. So, I know nothing of what this person looks like.
My father. My father’s side. It’s where this last name would come from. And then, later in life, I found out that the person I was told was my grandfather was actually not my grandfather. There’s a different person. He was white, which is a whole other story.
Wait, did you say he was white? I’m sorry, I didn’t—
Ashkenazi Jewish. This changed some of the story. But I grew up with a friend whose family was from Ireland. And on the wall in their living room, in their TV room, it was 400 years going back into Ireland of where their family is from. We could not do that at all. And I was like, “The first name is something that is meaningful, that we know where it’s from, that we know what it is.” The last name, we don’t know what it is. It’s probably from an enslaver. So, I was like, “I’m getting rid of that.” So, everything I ever wrote in college for the school paper or whatever was with one name. From entering college, I was already in the mind of, “I’m going to go by one name from here on out.”
That’s interesting because my last name is an Ellis Island creation, we think. I don’t have 400 years on my walls either.
Where did they come from?
I think where they came from was through Latvia, Lithuania, Eastern Europe. Genealogically, I am Ashkenazi Jew mostly. And then, my mother’s mother was Norwegian and her dad was Jewish as well, married the shiksa, and that was a whole thing. So, mostly Jewish, Eastern European and a little Norwegian.
To find out that, because my sister did a 23andMe and found out we were 30 percent Jewish, and we were both like, “Wow, that’s a lot.” And then, after that, we found out, “Oh, your grandfather is actually this person and not that person.” And Jewish people had always been part of my world growing up in Boston, in the high school I went to, the college I went to, Eastern Seaboard always. So, it was never in the mind or in the spirit a sense of otherization. But this finding the information made me feel like, “Oh, you’re drawn much closer to that world.” But I don’t feel it fully yet. It’s like intellectualized because I know.
Well, you weren’t raised or nurtured in that culture.
I’m just beginning to sort of learn and listen to things and just to try to open my mind to like, “Well, what is that part of me and the world?”
We are going in places I had not even planned on.
That’s a good interview.
Speaking of interviewing, you’re in an interviewer that I’ve admired for a long time. I bring this up because maybe you’re sympathetic. It’s often daunting to get into it with someone whose career is wide-ranging and dynamic and interesting, and the question is always where do you start? What’s the first string on the loose sweater that you pick at? Your own website says, “I write because I love talking about Black people and Black culture and the beauty of Blackness.” Your interviews on the “Touré Show,” and on “Masters of the Game” for TheGrio, you talk to very prominent people and walk down their road to success. You uncover nuggets of wisdom that the listener can use. Is that a fair characterization?
Absolutely. That’s the goal, to try to talk about how people became successful and what others can take from their mastery. I’m less interested in how did X start? And sometimes you might get into that, but more like now that you are an actor or a comedian or writer, what do you know now that others listening can take from it? That’s what I’d really love to get at.
If you were to do a pie chart of your current professional engagement, what percentage is “Touré Show,” what percentage is TheGrio, what percentage is working on your next book or whatever? How do you break down what you do?
I’m not currently working on a book, so that currently is zero. There’s been times over the past couple years that that was as much as 15 percent or 20 percent, but right now is zero. I mean, TheGrio is probably 85 percent to 90 percent of my week. I’m writing three articles a week and producing a podcast. And at some point, we’re going to have a television show. We are doing media on all kinds of platforms. There’s already a bunch of podcasts. There’s already a bunch of TV shows. So, all those sort of things are already happening. I’m just sort of moving in. But I mean, writing three articles a week?
Yeah, that’s a lot. Are these reported?
It’s opinion. I guess you would call it internet reporting in that you’re exploring an idea. And you got to quickly get through four or five articles on that idea to make sure you fully understand it and you’re relating to the body of information that’s already out there. It’s not real reporting. I’m not asked to break news, but just to come up with interesting stories. And it’s got to be linked up, so you have to have read a bunch of other things to find out what you want to link to. But I mean, you think about, there was a time in my life when I was like, “I wish I had a column so I could talk about these sorts of things.”
Be careful what you wish for.
But that is like 150 a year. I think a lot of people want to write and perhaps could write. They have enough ideas and enough bandwidth in intellectual stamina for let’s say 20, 30 a year, right? Fifty a year. But when you go into 150 a year, because you’ve got to come up with three ideas and argue them every week, and then catch a breath on Sunday and do it again it’s a lot and that’s part of what being professional is. The movie “The Menu” largely sucked. However—
I enjoyed it.
Oh, my God. We could go through that. The line between doing it as a dilettante or as an amateur and doing it as a professional, which means doing it over and over again professionally, perfectly, when you don’t want to do it, you still crushed. That’s what being a professional is about.
So, you are a “master of the game,” so to speak.
You said that. I didn’t say that. I still feel like I have more I can learn about writing. I don’t feel like I’m there, even especially as the main medium has changed from writing for publication, which people consumed in a certain way, to writing for the internet. I’m like, “I need to write a little bit differently.”
You’re on TikTok now as well. I’m still figuring it out.
There is a particular TikTok language that you kind of have to learn. I watched for a while before I finally got, “Oh, okay, I understand the TikTok language and why certain people, especially as you get older, are putting out videos that are not really speaking the visual TikTok language, and people who are doing it the way you’re supposed to, which is just the better way to get heard.” [There’s] certain choppiness is the language. I could turn on and talk for 30 seconds and not make a mistake, but it wouldn’t feel TikTokky. And when I chop it up into sentences, it feels more and that’s just part of how the information is meant to be received. And speaking the TikTok language, you kind of want to do that.
Do you enjoy learning the new languages or is it a burden?
As a Gen Xer, there is a little bit of like, “Oh, my God, I have to learn a whole new language.” Where I think for Millennials and for Zoomers, it comes much more easily and more native. I spent a bunch of time watching on TikTok and I found a group of what I think of as adults in the room who are always serious, always fully clothed, don’t participate in the trends. When we’re talking about bigger ideas, the people I follow mainly about racial justice. We’re doing serious work and other people are doing the party. Because first of all, you tell people who don’t know about TikTok like, “Oh, I’m going to do TikTok.” And they’re like, “You’re going to be dancing like a freaking 15-year-old. That’s idiotic.” No, I will never ever dance on TikTok. But we can talk about music when we talk about politics and do something interesting.
Back to interviewing because that’s how I know you best or your work the best is through the interviews. I would imagine having these conversations with all these big minds is a little bit of a cheat code for you because you’re getting to pick all these really smart people’s brains about how they got successful. Is there a through line for you about or have you learned anything that you’ve applied to your own life?
I don’t know that I’m soaking in all this knowledge from these people and I have some great advantage. I like trying to provide a platform for other people to do that. But you never know what thing will be said that will spark people, that will inspire them or that they needed to hear. You may say 10 things and think like, “Well, that is obvious.” But then so somebody else’s that was so meaningful and it hadn’t occurred to their mind before.
And never be afraid to ask what you think is a dumb question because it may yield a surprising answer.
Oh, that’s a dumb question. [Laughs.] Quite often I see interviewers putting out a statement and then tagging it with a question, and the question narrows the potential of where the interviewee can go very narrowly. And there’s times to do that. There’s times when I want a specific answer, or “Where were you on January 6th?” But then, there’s other times where it may be, “You’re the greatest baseball player to come out of Pittsburgh,” and just see where they go with it.
Right. “What are you going to do with that?”
“Everybody is really anticipating your next album.” And then, that person will take it where they want to go with it rather than you constraining where they can go with it. I want it to be a little on their terms. The core beginning of me as an interviewer goes back to being very young. My dad was an accountant. That means from about mid-January till about May, he was slammed all day. So, he drove us to school and that was the only time we saw him during the week. And it was like a 20-minute drive to school. So, I really treasured those moments. And I can remember being very, very young, maybe 4, and thinking, “What can I talk to him about that he would want to talk about?” And that becomes the underpinning notion for a lot of the interviews: What does the subject want to talk about? And if I get them on a subject that they want to talk about, they’ll really open up. And obviously, the album or the movie that they’ve come to promote is clearly [part of it], but within that, does he really kind of want to talk about his mom? Is that why he keeps mentioning his mom? I just interviewed somebody the other day who lived with their mother but really wanted to talk about their father who had passed away like 15 years ago. And we got into that and the person was crying as far as getting the emotion of talking about their father out. So, just being really perceptive and listening deeply to what do they want to talk about?
What does Touré want to talk about then?
Well, I mean, I always want to talk about tennis.
Where did that come from?
That’s in the back of the mind all day, every day. And it’s very Brooklyn-y as well because I’m in Fort Greene Park on tennis court every morning. And I think that the community around this specific set of courts is probably better than anywhere in New York City. I certainly have not heard of any set of courts that has a stronger community than ours in terms of men and women who are really good, who want to go out and play really hard every day, day in, day out for years and years and years.
What’s the strongest part of your game?
The serve and the forehand are the big things that I want to chop you up with. The forehand, the most offensive weapon. If I can end the point right away with the serve, I definitely want to do that.
When did you get into tennis?
Oh, it was always the family religion growing up. I played from age six all the time. I never went to any other summer camp. We played tournaments from the 10 and unders to the 18 and unders growing up. Saturdays and Sundays, it was me and my sister and my dad out in the court for four hours hitting, drilling, playing. They were not like tennis parents. I was like, “Let’s go and let’s stay longer and let’s do more,” because I loved it.
You mentioned your dad. Was he at a certain point working for Mayor Kevin White in Boston?
He did work for Kevin White. He was in City Hall doing various things. Some of it was liaison to the Black community in the ’60s before we were around. But I remember seeing him interviewed on television when we were very young. Some reporter was on the steps of City Hall, like, “Hey, what do you think about such and such?” And he was like, “Oh, I think blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”
And that was the first time I ever saw somebody I knew on TV and was like, “Oh, regular people could be on TV. Holy shit.” We raced home because there was no VCRs then. So, if you missed it when it aired, you’d never saw it.
Was it a political household? I don’t know if he was with the mayor when you were—
He wasn’t with the mayor, but it was political in that we talked about politics all the time at the dinner table sort of thing. Different people who were intelligent and studied may come over for dinner or party, whatever, and were talking. And it was encouraged for me to have an opinion on Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, these sort of things. But they were staunch Democrats. They didn’t use the word “liberal,” but I think they would line up with liberal ideals, but absolutely Democrat without question.
You sort of walked that walk as well in your own career. You’re amplifying topics around social justice, political awareness, but you’re also like a deft pop/cultural observer and commentator. Can you talk about where those intersect for you? The pop and the political?
Hip-hop was always political. Inherently political, even if the song wasn’t about politics, hip-hop has a way of being inherently political that I think R&B does not and I think a lot of rock and roll does not. Some rock and roll does. But growing up, hip-hop and my own curiosity is finding Malcolm X and Frantz Fanon, Chuck D’s talking about Louis Farrakhan. “I don’t know who that is. Who is that?” Go and find out who that is. Chuck D definitely opened a lot of doors in terms of, “who did he say?” But I was learning a lot at school and on my own. In college, I was an African, it was called African and African American Studies. That was my major, diving deep into that sort of identity. We didn’t call it identity, it was really history at that point. We weren’t really dealing with identity the way that the academic community deals with it now. It was really history and psychology and other issues around. But I’ve just always been super interested in what it means to be Black in America and Black culture within America, especially music culture. And I think hip-hop is a uniter of those two lanes.
Well, I mean before hip-hop, there was James Brown, there was Marvin Gaye. It wasn’t completely absent from soul.
Of course, there is politicized R&B, soul and funk music without a doubt. I think hip-hop itself in general is inherently political. Just somehow from the way that it rises as rebellion against the forces of Robert Moses in New York abandoning an entire Black community, and this is their response back. Soul and funk have been ways of protesting. They have been vehicles for protest messages from all sorts of amazing artists, but I don’t know that it is inherently political the way that hip-hop is.
It’s interesting because when we met last week you mentioned growing up in Boston and hip-hop comes along as this sort of atom bomb. And I don’t want to mischaracterize what you were saying, but you were talking about how, “Oh, that’s New York, that’s not Boston.” Did it feel like it was for you or did it feel, “Oh, it’s happening over there,” or you related instantly or whatever?
Well, I’ve related to the music instantly. I was immediately in love with the music. And I remember going to the record store when the section of hip-hop cassettes, you could probably hold them in your hands. And the dance hall section was bigger and the R&B section was bigger. Really, we called it “rap” then. “Hip-hop” took off later. It was like, where’s the raps? That is what I’m looking for. I bought LL Cool J’s debut album just off the way the cover looked. I had not heard any of the songs because the music distribution, MTV was not a thing at that point. There was no such thing as hip-hop radio. It was hard for these things to get onto a lot of radio playlists. So, I had not heard any of these LL Cool J records. But I looked at that cover and was like, “Well, that’s clearly for me.” And it absolutely was.
The close-up of the big boombox. This is the “Radio” album, right? Can’t live without them.
Yes. Hell yeah. Now, see, the thing for me is I had family in New York. My dad was from New York, so we had a Bostonian sense of inferiority to New York. They’re bigger and better in New York. It never occurred to me to try to write a rhyme, even for my own private quiet shits and giggles. I was like, “That’s what New Yorkers do.” And LL Cool J and I are pretty much the same age, but I’m looking up to him like, “Yo, he made an album. Oh, my God, he’s the man.” But it never occurred to me to try to write a rhyme. But that’s interesting because I love this culture immensely. I remember the first time I heard “Rapper’s Delight.” I remember the first time somebody said to me, “You haven’t heard ‘The Message?’ You got to hear ‘The Message’.” And then, going and finding the song and was like, “Yo, that song is incredible,” and really living for this music.
And then, De La Soul came out, their first album. And then, I was like, “Oh, this brings me closer. That is who I would be if I was a rapper.” Not that I could be that good, but they represent who I would be like suburban soul. Reading a lot of different things, was studying French and school. They had a whole song at French. I loved KRS-One and Public Enemy and Slick Rick. But when De La came, I was like, “Oh, I understand, I’m more like you guys. You lift up me.” And I had not even realized that almost class angst that I was feeling about like, “Yo, I love these guys,” Special Ed, Kane, all those sort of people.
You didn’t relate to them.
I thought I did. And then, when I met De La, I was like, “Oh, I could relate to you more because we share several things.”
Just with the rerelease of “3 Feet High and Rising,” the whole catalog on Spotify recently, I’ve heard a lot of people in the community, a lot of Black people of your age, my age say the same thing. It was a real connector for a lot of people.
It’s funny because I didn’t get it at first. I put the cassette in and we got about seven songs in and it was okay, but it seems kind of silly because it’s so different than everything that had come before it.
They’re sampling Serge Gainsbourg. To your point, they have French language tapes in samples. Yeah.
And then, there’s the song about the frogs, and this frog is saying that frog and that frog. And I was like, “Oh, fuck. No.” And I think I threw it. I had a little Honda Prelude to be able to get to school and stuff and tennis practice, and I threw it in the back and I was like, “Nah.” And then, I might have gone back to listening to the Slick Rick, “The Great Adventures of Slick Rick.” I’ve fuckin’ ruined the cassette. I listened to it so much. And then, when “Potholes in My Lawn” came out as a single, I was like, “Yo, that is the shit. That was on that thing?” And then, I went back and I put it back in, and then I was like, “Okay, this is my shit.” And I’ve loved them ever since.
I’ve heard you talk about some of your disappointment around the narrowness of hip-hop’s representation of Black people in the early days. I think this was in a BRIC interview you did. You were surprised it become more of force in the war on drugs against the war on drugs and drug culture.
Yes. I think that there’s areas of growth that hip-hop could have had that it did not have, partly in the way of what you’re saying, but in terms of a broader representation of Black people. And it is broad, but it could be much broader. I think we are much broader than hip-hop’s portrayal of us.
At least in the ’80s. I would argue it’s probably broader now. And I’m just an observer on the sidelines, but I’d be curious to hear your take.
I also would like hip-hop to develop more sonic dynamic-ness, dynamism. Not every rock and roll song or R&B song does this, but a lot of times the song will have a change and it’ll go back or it’ll have an intro which shifts into something else and then it builds up to here and then it goes down and then it slows down. I mean Kanye and Travis Scott will play with the form in ways that other people won’t. But for the most part, the beat starts, the rap starts, the chorus comes, and it may be incredible. But I think there are formulaic ways we could continue to mess with the form that I would like to see more people try.
This feels like a good segue into your new podcast starting on June 1st. What’s the elevator pitch?
I’m super excited. I’ve been trying to do this show for years, and finally TheGrio gave me an opportunity to do it. It’s called “Being Black: The ’80s.” And it takes Black political issues from the ’80s and looks at them through the lens of popular songs from the ’80s. So, NWA’s “Dopeman” gives us a chance to ease into talking about the world of crack dealers. Or we talk about “My Brother’s a Basehead” from De La Soul as a way of talking about the way that crack damaged Black families. Diana Ross’s “I’m Coming Out” is a way of leading into talking about gay liberation. Wesley Morris comes on the show to talk about how he comes out to his dad and his dad says, “Okay, that’s fine, but I don’t know any happy gay adults.” And this is in the late ’70s. So, as Wesley sees the rise of disco, he’s seeing happy gay adults and that helps him feel more comfortable to continue growing up as a young gay person. Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” lets us talk about affirmative action as well as diasporic, Afrocentric mindsets of the ’80s. So, the songs let us go into these sort of big issues and talk about them. And there’s a lot of great interviews within this. One of the episodes is about Stevie Wonder’s Happy Birthday, which is really meant to be part of the battle to get the Dr. King birthday to be a holiday. It’s not really meant for everybody’s birthday. It was for Dr. King.
It’s for MLK Day. Yeah, yeah.
Yeah. So, Bernice King, his daughter, Coretta’s daughter, comes on to talk about Coretta’s work because it’s her work over about 14, 15 years that takes him from assassinated to having a holiday. But his approval rating during his life was very low. So, there was a lot of careful diplomatic work to get his vision, his name, his reputation, to the place where he could become celebrated by a national holiday.
And this is eight episodes, one song per episode? Or are you doing multiple songs?
Really one song per episode, but we usually take another song and contrast it. And it may be a contemporary song or maybe a song from another period that I can sort of speak to, “Look at how this is.” For example, when we talk about the impact of crack on people and families, we first started talking about “My Brother’s a Basehead,” which is actually a true song. I don’t know if everybody knows that. It’s a true story. Posdnuos’s brother was struggling with crack. And Prince Paul comes on the show, their producer, to say pretty much everything he says to the song, that’s pretty much what was really going on in his life and what they were dealing with. And they deal with it in a serious, although still kind of fun, campy way per De La Soul. But then, also “Night of the Living Baseheads,” Public Enemy’s song, Hank Shocklee, their producer, comes on to talk about making that song, which is a much more gritty, edgy, harsh talk about drug use in the community. And he’s talking about how Flavor Flav had a crack addiction while they were doing songs like anti-drug songs like this. And I’m like, “Did you know that he had a crack problem?” And he said, “Yes and no.” Yes and no! Either you knew he was on crack or you didn’t. So, that secondary song allows me to contrast.
In the Tracy Chapman episode. It’s really, really interesting because I contrast her with the life of Elizabeth Cotten, who’s a folk legend.
[Sings.] “Freight train, freight train.”
“Freight Train.” She’s born in like 1912. She writes that song at 8 years old. By 15, she has had to quit the guitar to help work for her family to make money. And she spends 40 years just working as a maid and a nanny, never writing or playing. By happenstance, she meets six-year-old Peggy Seeger in a department store where she’s working, reunites her with her mother back in the days when kids got lost in the department store and it was a big catastrophe. And the mom says, “Come work with me.” One day she’s working for them and she takes a guitar off the wall and goes to the other room and plays it. And Peggy and little Pete are like, “Mom, the maid is really good on the guitar, really good.” And the parents work with her and get her recording, get her setting up touring. She becomes a major folk icon. In her 60s, this starts. Forty years of her life, when she could have been an artist, lost largely because of where Black people are and what Black people to deal with in life.
Tracy Chapman wins best new artist the year after Elizabeth Cotten dies, at the Grammys. Tracy Chapman grows up poor, single parent, poverty in Cleveland. Could have had the same disruption in her life, in her art as Elizabeth Cotten, but somebody from A Better Chance, ABC, affirmative action, says, “Hey, you could go to a private school in New England.” And they are like, “What are you talking about? What is the system of private schools in New England? We’ve never heard of this.” She ends up on scholarship, a private school in Connecticut, college in Boston, and that leads to her meeting somebody who helps her get signed to a record deal. So, her life is completely changed and perhaps even shaped by affirmative action. And Elizabeth Cotten’s life is sort of squandered because she doesn’t have that helping—
These are structural obstacles all throughout her life.
Yes. So, this is another way that I’m using two songs, one from another era to contrast. And I think there’s a lot of interesting likeness between Freight Train and Fast Car in that they’re songs about wanting to escape on the dominant mode of transport of the divine. So, the artists are making similar gestures, but their lives are structured entirely differently. So, there’s lots of different ways that we sort of pick up a second song and contrast that with the first song to draw out more of what the first song is about.
Do you think about how you address your audiences depending on where you are appearing, whether its TheGrio or MSNBC? Do you sort of maintain a constant, do you bring different aspects of yourself to each?
Yes and no. Yeah, I do think about the audience in any context. So, what I’m going to write at Rolling Stone is different than what I’m going to write for the New York Times. The conversation, who is listening? You have to take into account what do we think the audience knows, what will be shocking to the audience, what will be old hat to the audience. What I say on MSNBC would be received differently on CNN. But I don’t want to be pushed off of my square in terms of I’m not being myself. You would know, he is the same person. He’s going to make the same point. We may make it differently.
There’s shorthand on TheGrio that maybe doesn’t exist on CNN.
Absolutely. You think about being unapologetically Black, and I’m going to do what I feel is right. And I don’t want to be ever not saying something because it might make a white person uncomfortable. So, I’m going to bring that with me wherever I go. So, that filter has to be checked. We’re not doing this for the comfort of White people. I’m going to say what I feel needs to be said. But the way you say it and what you focus on might be different. It’s definitely got to be different depending on the audience.
I enjoy you on Twitter. You’re not afraid to poke back at the trolls—
You get so much dumb shit lobbed in your direction all the time. Do you ever just get tired?
Well, yeah. Twitter used to be a much more interesting place. Part of why I’m getting into TikTok is because I’m sort of just naturally dialing down how much time I do on Twitter. I’m like, “If I’m going to take some of that time away, maybe I could give it over here because I think this is really interesting medium.
Have you ever harbored political aspirations at all?
No. When I was a kid, kid, I wanted to be the first Black president, which is actually a tragic story because I stopped dreaming that because I thought, “Well, that will never happen,” which is so sad. It’s a dream. It’s not supposed to be easily achievable. It’s supposed to be hard. And as a kid, I was like, “That will never happen, so you should just dream about something else.” I’m like, “Oh.”
Do you remember where you were? Was it a moment that you remember that switch flipping off?
No, I don’t remember it switching off. I remember talking about it for a while. It was a good couple years that I was 10, 11, 12, adults would be like, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” “I want to be the first Black president.” And people were like, “Oh, my God, that’s so cute. That’s so great. Yay, you go.” But somewhere, I was like, “Nah, it’s bullshit. It’s never going to happen.”
That’s sad. When you think about the direction of the country today, it feels like a critical and dangerous moment. The dishonesty coming from the right about critical race theory. The fact that conservatives are successfully raising money for Daniel Penny, Jordan Neely’s murderer. It’s disgusting, the Trump legacy, all of it. It feels more toxic or dangerous. Or are people just saying the quiet part out loud more?
No, no. I think we are absolutely in a state of more danger for marginalized people. There’s a backlash in that as Black and Brown and trans and gay people are like, “No, we want to be ourselves in public. We want more of a size of the pie. We want a seat at the table.” I just did a whole TikTok on this Harvard study: White people see race as a zero-sum game that they are losing. If you’re not an ally, the seeming rise of marginalized people is triggering. So, we’re seeing that. But also I think the ways of connecting in terms of a more private social media, the chat boards that QAnon is on, whatever, the fear on the right of the future, which will be White people as the majority-minority. The future I think is 2040 that they’re saying that Black and Brown people and Asian people will outnumber white people. I remember during the first Trump lead up, CNN would be out in the field, especially Van Jones, and it seemed like people kept bringing that up to him, different people, different days, different interviews. “And this is our last chance. 2040, there’s going to be more of them than us.”
There’s a fear and part of it is stoked by the Republican Party and right-wing media. Part of it is stoked by the 2040 number. Part of it is a backlash to what’s happening on the left. And I think all that feeds itself. The New York Times gives 1619 a big, huge spotlight. The academic community is like, “Fantastic. This is great. Let’s work with this.” The right feels threatened by this. The right-wing media leaps on the fear of the people. The right-wing politicians listen and push back on 1619 and woke and CRT, which gets the people excited about them, which means the media is going to support them, especially when a lot of what they’re all about is we own the libs. That’s ultimately a lot of what they want to do is just to feel like we owned the libs in a given political moment, not actually helping people.
And so, this is an echo chamber, reaches a sort of fever pitch and we are all dealing with that. And some of the people you’re referring to are the fringe of that. The average person’s just going to get mad, but then the fringe is going to be like, “Well, I’m going to be violent about it.” And we’re worried about both those sorts of people.
Switching gears before we go, there’s Prince who was a hero of my early childhood. You wrote a biography about him, “Nothing Compares 2 U.” How do you wrap your head around someone who is such an icon and an enigma at the same time?
I’ve spent a lot of time talking to a lot of people who were very close to him to answer those questions and they were ways that he was enigmatic to them. We talk about the core of it, that we sort of understand this is a person who was very difficult on his parents. Obviously, we weren’t there. But he ends up living with somebody else who is not his family at age 12. And he’s living with a woman named Bernadette who he’s playing music with her youngest son. She has six older children. At the time that Prince is young, she’s pursuing an advanced degree. She’s also extremely loving and the second mom for most of the kids in the neighborhood, just like this wonderful maternal force. And she’s his first audience. And the first songs he’s writing, he’s playing for her. And she’s like, “That’s so great. That’s so great.”
It seems that he was allowed to have a childhood that we would never have, where he only played music from the beginning of the day to the end of the day. And so, he becomes extraordinarily proficient in music, but doesn’t learn the basic social skills that most people learn in high school and in college. As a young adult, this is extraordinarily helpful because his musical proficiency and his thoughts on artistry and his understanding of what it means to be a rockstar, he’s a genius off the charts on all that stuff. And he creates Prince, but he’s much more comfortable holding a guitar in front of a hundred thousand people than he is having a one-on-one conversation with you. That’s basically impossible, especially if you’re not talking about music. He’s not interested or he’s not able to do it, but it has to always be about music.
So, he’s not really able to form the lasting deep bonds with other people that are some of the most meaningful parts of life. And he has some significant girlfriends, but they never become lasting figures in his life. He has a long-term girlfriend, several long-term girlfriends, but really one super girlfriend, but then a couple of short marriages. Then it’s like, “I’m not getting married again.” And then, he’s in his 40s and he’s pretty much alone because he doesn’t really know how to connect with people. And he tried to have a baby and that didn’t work. The baby died. So, now you’re kind of alone in the world and all you do is play music. So, you have to keep doing that because that’s the way that you connect to people. But your body is breaking down and you can’t have that because you got to keep going with the music. So, we think the drug addiction really came from that, from a sense of, “I need to keep connecting with people, and the way I do that is through music.” It’s not the rock and roll impulse of get high.
It’s not debauchery.
It’s the same thing as the UPS worker who takes four Advil to be able to go to work because he’s lifting stuff all day. Or the waitress or the nurse who’s taking a little whatever on the side because her hip is killing her, but she has to work.
But the opioids are obviously highly addictive. Destructive.
And it’s on a different level, but it’s the same impulse at the end of the day. It’s interesting because this is a person who refused to do any sort of drugs as a teenager or a 20-something. That’s the time when most of us try and see what we like.
And get it out of our system.
Most people don’t start doing drugs later in life, but he was like, “Do not do drugs around me,” as a teenager, as a 20-something. But later, he was into it.
What’s a typical day in Brooklyn where you don’t have a column due? Maybe you’re with your kids, maybe they’re at school. What do you want to do?
On a Saturday, I play tennis in the morning. My daughter has volleyball at 11. My son has fencing at 2. We might go to City Point to get lunch. My wife loves Romans for dinner. We might go to the Alamo to watch a movie in the evening. My wife loves to get a blanket and sit out in Fort Greene Park. We love going through Greenlight Bookstore. I’m consistently thrilled with the vibe and the energy of being here. And oh, my God, right now there’s a gigantic mural of my friend Greg Tate that lives on the wall that I see every day from MoCADA.
And you miss him. He’s a really important friend, and you see him every day. He’s the sort of person that this community values, and so you feel like you know you’re in the right place when you see something like that.
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