Last month, I went to see the Black Eyed Peas on their “The E.N.D.” (energy never dies) tour. Though I’m not a huge fan of BEP, the show was spectacular in the literal sense – a gluttonous feast for the eyes made up of lasers, giant screens full of glorious CGI, dancers dressed in a variety of weird costumes and a light cycle. On top of that, like it or not, the music was catchy as hell. But beyond being an enjoyable evening, the concert raised an interesting question: are we living in a post-racial America?
Early on, I noticed something that made me start Overthinking. The band is diverse, made up of African-American will.i.am, Filipino-American Apl.de.ap, Mexican/Native American Taboo and Mexican/Scottish/Irish/Native American Fergie. Looking around at the sold-out crowd of 22,000 at the Wachovia Center, I saw that the crowd echoed the band and that I was standing in the most diverse group of people I’ve ever seen, including the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
Black, white, Asian, Hispanic; children, teens, adults, seniors; gay, straight, trans; rich, poor, middle class – EVERYONE came to this show.
And, it seems, EVERYONE was listening at home too.
From Wikipedia: “In 2009, the group became one of only eleven artists to have ever held the number one and two spots on the Billboard Hot 100 at the same time with their singles “Boom Boom Pow” and “I Gotta Feeling”, from the album The E.N.D., and the singles also topped the chart for an unprecedented 26 consecutive weeks combined in 2009. The album later produced a third Hot 100 number one with “Imma Be”, making them one of the few groups to ever place three number ones on the chart from the same album.”
Clearly, this band has done something special. They’ve appealed to an incredible demographic range and made an extraordinary amount of money doing it. As I sat there in the crowd, Voodoo rapping above my head on his light cycle, I wondered if it Black Eyed Peas might not represent a truly post-racial band and if that was the secret of their success.
Fergie’s a big part of that success. Great voice, astounding dancer, fun personality, lots of presence, sings about lovely lady lumps while caressing said lumps in a very provocative way. The fact that the band spent eight years in relative obscurity before taking off in 2003 when Fergie joined certainly points to the Fergie theory, but that’s not the whole story. She’s got the moves, the looks and the talent to be a big success, but so do a lot of other singers who don’t have three singles hit #1 off a single album.
If not Fergie, than it must be will.i.am, who does most of the talking both on and off stage. Five minutes into the concert, it was clear that will.i.am was the soul of the group and the aesthetic force behind the music and the show.
As I was thinking about this, the lights went out and something wonderfully strange happened. Out of the darkness a massively autotuned voice asked the crowd: “do you mind if I turn this arena into a nightclub?” The crowd responded in an indecipherable howl. Then, up from the floor rose will.i.am on a hydraulic saucer, dressed a lot like Robocop, lasers shooting from the sides of his head.
For the next 20 minutes, will.i.am mixed a dance party and the crowd went wild. The songs he played weren’t Black Eyed Peas tunes. They didn’t come from his roots in the LA hip-hop scene or even from modern pop. Nope. Instead, this African-American man dressed as a robot sent this multi-ethnic crowd into fits of joy with the greatest hits of white America from the 70s, 80s and 90s. On the set list: Guns ‘n Roses’s “Sweet Child of Mine,” Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and the Eurythmics’s “Sweet Dreams (are made of this).”
“Where’s the Love?”
So, on the “yay, we’re post-racial” side of the ledger, we have a multi-racial band with a diverse audience promoting non-discrimination and tolerance in its lyrics. will.i.am has proven an unusually engaged and thoughtful member of the celebrity class, dedicating himself to progressive causes. He and the band are working with a number of environmental organizations to promote recycling and to build support for the upcoming Clean Energy/Global Warming bill in Congress.
Moreover, with his famous “Yes We Can” video during the 2008 campaign, he tied himself to the primary subject of the “post-racial” discussion, Barack Obama.
Supporting the hypothesis of a post-racial will.i.am was this piece from early in the show. Text messages from the crowd scrolled up on giant screens and will.i.am worked them into his rap, become the living voice of the multi-racial multitude. It was cool, impressive and, as I’ve learned from watching videos from a number of different cities, genuinely impromptu.
The other piece of support for the post-racial thesis was that, at the end of the show, will.i.am personally recognized every dancer and musician on the stage and thanked the backstage crew. He thanked dozens of people and, frankly, killed the momentum of the end of the show, but I was impressed that he took the time to do it. While not technically about race, it suggests the band’s appreciation of the contributions of everyone involved. Failure to appreciate each others’ contributions is one of the underlying causes of America’s racial and political tensions.