Late night television in America is a rite of passage for our most beloved musicians, from Elvis Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show to Lil Wayne on Jay Leno. In recent years, the SNL appearances of both Kanye West and Drake, black creatives renowned for their social media savvy, have been utilized to maximize hype and album success in the post-digital age.
Late night musical performances represent everything good cross-branding promotion aims to do. It brings an artist’s core fans to an institution and brings artists wider exposure to more mainstream audiences, a way to connect with the abstracted “middle america” between NYC and L.A. This wider exposure is usually much more beneficial to the artist than the fans they bring to the institution (although those advertising checks still cha-ching at the bank), but this is offset by the cultural cachet the artist brings the institution, essentially checking a box that says “we’re still cool, with it, and keeping our fingers on America’s pulse.”
For a while now, but especially now, cultural institutions have taken their fingers on america’s pulse and curled them into a chokehold, all the while pronouncing that The Culture is alive and well as it dies in their grasp. The exploitation and manipulation of the media by Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and the DNC, alt-right/neonazi-4chan/breitbart losers/associated bigoted factions, and more have left the American public on all sides of the political spectrum with a deep distrust of the cultural institutions we once held up as dependable.
On November 15th, Aminé performed his hit single “Caroline” on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. Released in March, “Caroline” is an infectiously summery single with bouncy synths, big hooks, and at its center, an eccentric politically conscious young rapper from Portland who loves bananas and Quentin Tarantino with equal ardor. in the months since “caroline” has released it has garned 36.6 million streams on Soundcloud alone and over 49 million views on Youtube as it finds a niche in millennials’ hearts. As a musically gifted nineteen year old with a popping single and quirky charm, it makes perfect sense that Aminé would be asked to perform on Fallon.
While most newcomers to the late night stage steer clear of risks and controversy, an incisive verse on a new arrangement of caroline airs grievances it’s the election, where Aminé draws parallels between 9/11 and 11/9, declares he’s “black and… proud,” and asserts all the election did was “make America hate again.” The crowd is clearly enthralled by his performance, breaking into rapturous applause while a beaming Jimmy Fallon shakes Aminé’s hand.
It’s a crowning moment for a burgeoning star, a magnetic personality making America’s hearts swoon. But the sweet performance leaves a bitter aftertaste when one considers the very real consequences of a Trump presidency and the role of late night television, Saturday Night Live and Fallon himself in particular, in normalizing the idea of a bigot and a rapist occupying the Oval Office.
After Donald Trump called Mexicans rapists and drug dealers, NBC put out a statement distancing themselves from their employee’s comments. Yet Saturday Night Live still opted to have the soon-to-be-GOP Nominee host the show on November 7th, 2015, making light of protesters calling out Trump’s racism and allowing Trump to parade himself as a “nice guy,” minimizing his public spat with Rosie O’Donnell and brushing off the fact that Trump is “controversial,” a pathetic excuse of a euphemism for his polarizing bigotry and staggering incompetence. Nearly a year to the day prior to the general election, Trump’s narcissism is on full display in his monologue, where he preens and peacocks for adulation.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Lorne Michaels defended the decision to have Trump host as “nonpartisan.” Michaels can sidestep responsibility with wordplay all he likes, but the impact of Saturday Night Live cannot be brushed aside. By beaming Trump into millions of Americans’ homes, Michael and SNL gave him their approval, regardless of personal politics. What’s worse is their inability to own up to these facts. After the election, SNL opened with Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton singing “Hallelujah,” a tribute to the recently-deceased Leonard Cohen that doubled as a rejoinder to the election. This, coupled with Dave Chappelle hosting, served as a hollow apology. While Chappelle delivered a much-lauded opening monologue lambasting white privilege and the election, black labor will not absolve white guilt.
And while SNL has long had glaring issues with race, from nondiverse casting and hiring practices to godawful sketches such as the recurring Black Jeopardy (I refuse to link any of them), SNL’s proto-liberal, nominally nonpartisan positioning extends beyond race. In the following weekend’s episode of SNL, Colin Jost delivered a joke mocking Tinder’s expansion of gender identity options, saying it was “why democrats lost the election.” This neatly summarizes Democrats’ response to the election, not that it was a campaigning failure, or that white supremacy is a hell of a drug, but that somehow, Hillary Clinton focused too much on appealing to minorities and not enough on appealing to “everyday Americans.”
Fallon has played Trump on his show before, but like Alec Baldwin on SNL, playing a satirical role does not intimate support. Both lampoon Trump’s manner of speaking, blatant hypocrisies, and predilection for peacocking, bigotry, and sheer ineptitude. Late night television has always existed in a quasi-political space that plays with the limits of satire, a genre that has always demanded the question of whether, in satirizing something, we ultimately condone it through humor. Some satire is more biting than others, and I’ve always had an appreciation for the form, but damn if reading The Onion doesn’t feel just as loathsome as reading the news nowadays.
Yet Fallon’s choice to host Trump on Late Night was distinct, the host cracking up at Trump’s jokes and responding to his goal of making America great again with a rhetorical “Who wouldn’t want that?” The framing inherently positions Trump’s detractors as being in the wrong. He shrugged off Trump’s proposed Muslim ban as “controversial,” allowing the future President-Elect to downplay his xenophobia and ties to Russia alike while making light of the lack of information about Trump’s health (Trump, the oldest elected President in American history, repeatedly hammered on Hillary Clinton’s perceived health issues as a campaign plank).
One can make an argument that Fallon has never been a particularly political comedian in any form or fashion. His interview of Trump closely aligns with the happy-go-lucky persona Fallon has cultivated for himself, as well as the breezy interview style he has turned on Democrats such as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and Republicans Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin alike. But Fallon has been explicitly political before, a great example being repeated guest appearances by President Obama to slow-jam the news (cultural consumption of blackness! Fallon putting on a blaccent! we’re really cooking folks!), giving President Obama a cultural platform to speak on politics. More crucially, Fallon, like most news and media outlets in 2015 and 2016, allowed a dangerous bigot to portray himself as a dunce, much as Out Magazine did for Milo Yiannopoulos back in September. It is a pervasive lie that racists are ignorant, or uneducated, or underexposed to minorities, or somehow not responsible for their bigotry due to X, or Y, or Z. Yes, we are all socialized into capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, heteronormativity, colonialist structures, and many more. To break away from these oppressive institutions requires legitimate effort, and is not easy to do. Yet it is possible, and therein lies the moral weight of the question. To uphold America as a melting pot means an implicit understanding of tolerance as a crucially American value. Ignorance, or lack of education, or exposure, is an explanation for bigotry, sure, but it is not, never has been, and never will be an adequate excuse. Smartphones are now more globally accessible than consistent electricity or clean water, so yes, you can google some Race in America 101 college syllabi and learn something. Because allies are lazy and whiteness loves brown bodies’ labor, I went to the liberty of doing so for you. You’re responsible for your bigotry, especially when it coalesces in political and personal action that actively harms other people for the crime of daring to exist in a form different than what you would allow them.
Whiteness will always close ranks to protect itself and absolve its sins, on both sides of the political aisle. It’s why Democrats raised $13,000 for the North Carolina GOP after one of their offices burned to the ground, in a state with widespread voter suppression, a stunning resume of bigotry in recent and past years, and a Governor who attempted to literally steal the election. It’s why Trump supporters protested Starbucks by purchasing more Starbucks. It’s why liberals didn’t support #NODAPL until months after leftists, and still failed to grasp the environmental racism at play. It’s why your white friends want the country to “come together” and “start healing the divide,” so they can avoid uncomfortable conversations with their family and friends. The divide will not be healed by reconciliation because this division was a goal of electing Trump. Why do people keep screaming his name in correlation with hate crimes here and abroad? Don’t answer that, we both know why.
It took me weeks to finish this piece. Since the election, I have cried in professor’s offices and women’s resource centers, with my trans siblings and biological siblings, over tweets and on my bike. I am brown, and queer, and I feel like I am too young to deserve this. I am scared for the youth, for my friends, more than ever before, and I was scared enough before. I tell you these things not in search of sympathy, but to underscore an important point. Art might be the only saving grace of this election. Not because art is important, but because we as people are important. I’ve cried to “Police Get Away With Murder” and screamed along to “Follow Your Arrow” because sometimes the only things left are art and emotion, when the world feels cold and closed off and dangerous. Picasso once said art is a lie that tells the truth. With a President-elect well-versed in the art of lying, sometimes the only remedy will be the lie of art. I read the news and get nauseous. I find myself questioning the point of doing anything now, when the literal lives of myself and the people close to me seem precariously in the balance. I listen to Beyoncé and Chance and Noname and Curtis and KAYTRANADA and ABRA and Cakes Da Killa and BXHXLD and Lizzo and Serpentwithfeet and G.L.O.S.S. and Aminé. I remember I am not alone.