(This is from the Sunday NY Times magazine)
Is There Such a Thing as Black Thought?
In an uncategorizable new musical, “Black No More,” the rapper Tariq Trotter investigates Black identity — a matter that has occupied his whole career.
By Reginald Dwayne Betts
Feb. 24, 2022
Tariq Trotter — the rapper who fronts the legendary hip-hop band the Roots — pulled up to the Pershing Square Signature Theater on 42nd Street in Manhattan, where he was rehearsing for the new Off Broadway musical “Black No More.” He drove a black sedan that reminded me of the Batmobile — suitable for an artist who goes by the nom de guerre Black Thought, the name of a bearded Negro superhero if ever there was one. Five minutes earlier, Trotter had sent me a text: “Stay around. I have some music I want to play for you.” The city was dark and quiet, and I climbed into a car whose make I didn’t know.
Trotter didn’t speak as we pulled into traffic. I imagined we were headed to the famed Electric Lady Studios on Eighth Street to hear this new music. Instead, we stopped for gas. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised: Trotter drives an hour from his home in suburban New Jersey to the theater and then back every day; why wouldn’t he pump his own gas? As I waited for him to finish, someone shouted, “Nice AMG!” referring to the car. When he hopped back in, we stayed parked and bumped the music like two teenagers in a hooptie in the late ’90s, rap taking us somewhere else. Trotter turned his speakers to ear-bleed level and played songs from four albums of unreleased music, songs with a sonic landscape best described as jazz meets Motown meets funk. The music’s most persistent subject was what it means to be Black. The thesis could be captured succinctly: Blackness is not a monolith. Every other lyric was dedicated to demonstrating the truth of that idea. Astonished at the amount of music I was hearing — music he’d kept hidden from hungry fans — I asked Trotter if he’d just played his entire oeuvre or if he was like Prince, who was famed for hiding away decades’ worth of unreleased music, only presenting a narrow sliver to the public.
“Like Prince,” he told me. “The Roots, we got albums and albums upon albums worth of work in the vault.”
In other words, he has creative gears he hasn’t deigned to show us yet. Now, Trotter, an M.C. who rapped in one of those unreleased songs that he was “Black as a Renaissance Harlemite,” is helping to reimagine the 1931 satirical novel “Black No More,” by George S. Schuyler, a Harlem Renaissance novelist, journalist and critic, as a musical. Both the novel and the musical tell the story of the dubious doctor Junius Crookman, who invents the Black No More treatment, guaranteeing that he can transform the darkest Negro to the whitest alabaster. When the protagonist Max Disher, a Harlem resident who feels perpetually burdened by all the ways society uses his Black skin to deny him the future his talents and ambition might secure, learns of this cure, he rushes to undergo Dr. Crookman’s treatment. Soon after that, nearly all of Black America follows Disher through the Black No More machine, upending the American racial order. Schuyler’s book grew out of his incendiary ideas about American race relations. “The Aframerican is merely a lampblacked Anglo-Saxon,” he wrote in his 1926 essay “The Negro-Art Hokum.” Schuyler viewed Black racial identity as a scam perpetuated by racists and race men like W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington and James Weldon Johnson, all of whom he lampoons in “Black No More.” He believed that, if they could, Black people would abandon their Blackness for whiteness the first chance they got.
In the musical, Trotter and his collaborators — the director Scott Elliott, the screenwriter John Ridley and the choreographer Bill T. Jones — are trying to turn Schuyler’s thesis on its head. Trotter has written the musical’s lyrics, penning words for rap songs, ballads, some blues, gospel, reggae and even pop tracks. In a strange twist, he also plays Dr. Crookman. Trotter’s commitment to a distinct Black artistic and intellectual tradition make him the antithesis of Schuyler, who once argued that there is no such thing as Negro art and, consequently, no such thing as Black thought; but in taking on the project, Trotter was interested in crafting a rejoinder to Schuyler’s arguments.
More on “Black No More”
The Evolution of Black Music, and a Man’s Soul, in One Show
Review: In ‘Black No More,’ Race Is Skin Deep, but Racism Isn’t
Thinking about “Black No More,” I wondered how he and his collaborators were going to make contemporary a book premised on the literal erasure of Trotter’s commitment to Blackness as a way of living. “I do a lot of ‘defining Blackness,’” Trotter told me. The impulse puts him in existential conversation with Schuyler. “Whatever that definition is, it drives the entire scope of my work,” he said. That work “might be the quest for that definition.” Unlike Schuyler, Trotter argues that Blackness “goes above and beyond racial identity. It’s an experience. It’s lived.”
Trotter told me that he hadn’t read “Black No More” until Ridley introduced him to the book during a 2015 meeting at NBC studios, where the Roots work as the house band for “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” He thought the meeting would result in him acting in one of Ridley’s films. “I immediately began preparation for my ‘13 Years a Slave’ audition,” he joked to me. Instead, Ridley wanted to discuss Schuyler’s novel, which he believed covered topics that were urgent in their relevance to American culture. Scott Elliott, artistic director of the New Group, thought the novel would work as a piece of musical theater. The two men arranged to meet with Trotter, the Roots drummer and producer Questlove and the Roots manager Shawn Gee. “We agreed to be a part of the project on the same day I saw ‘Hamilton’ for the first time, Off Broadway, at the Public Theater,” Trotter says. “Hamilton” was its own riff on American history, using hip-hop as the vehicle to narrate a familiar story about the founding of the United States of America and Alexander Hamilton’s life. But Schuyler’s “Black No More,” and his broader ideas about race, differ radically from the more optimistic framing of race in “Hamilton.”
Trotter wants to offer a divergent vision of how Black people think about their existence in this country. This makes sense for an M.C. who cites Richard Wright, Octavia Butler, Ralph Ellison and Frantz Fanon as influences. Trotter is a thinker whose work is in conversation with the Black literary tradition, especially the work of the Harlem Renaissance, with its prescient inquiry into the question of what constitutes Blackness. This musical is a chance for Trotter to have his say — to talk back to a thinker he disagrees with.
“Schuyler’s ‘Black No More’ is an essay,” he told me. “Ours is an essay on that essay. A critique of a critique.”
Tariq Trotter is a 48-year-old artist in a genre where youth is an asset and middle-aged rappers are rare. His voice is gravelly, though wildly flexible when rhyming. He is noticed in every room he walks into. A brother who pays attention to the way the fedora on his head cuts against his face and has been wearing sunglasses inside since his high school years. At 5-foot-8, he has been mistaken for the 5-foot-11 Rick Ross and the 6-foot-5 James Harden. Some would say it’s the beard. When asked if he straightens out those who mistake him, he says: “I’d rather not correct them. I let people have that moment, because for them it’s just as special.”
Trotter, who once called himself “the invisible enigma,” has always been reluctant to speak about his past. He was born in Philadelphia, in 1973, two months after and a hundred miles away from hip-hop’s birth in the Bronx. His family belonged to the Nation of Islam, and he came of age during the years when crack cocaine ravaged American streets. He was 11 when, in 1985, the Philadelphia Police Department dropped an improvised bomb on the Black-liberation group MOVE, destroying 61 houses and killing 11 people. For Trotter, the bombing had the same effect that the Rodney King beating had on those who came of age during the 1990s, giving him a sudden awareness of anti-Black violence. He remembers how he “felt the gravitational pull of the propaganda,” recognizing a current in the media that suggested the bombing was justified. “It felt way too one-sided to be believable,” he said. “Like these were people who looked like people I knew.”
Amid a backdrop of a tragedy — his father, Thomas Trotter, was murdered when Trotter was 2 — Trotter came up in a house of music. His mother, Cassandra, would buy those best-of-the-decade collections of ’60s and ’70s music and ensconced Trotter in a home full of James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Earth Wind & Fire. And, of course, the sounds of Philly — from Hall & Oates to Patti LaBelle — permeated his childhood. When they moved to South Philly and were closer to his grandmother, he got nothing but gospel in her house. Years later, his grandmother would get a healthy dose of the Roots: “For a long time she’d be right there — side of the rear of the stage in a chair.”
He was influenced by a song called “The Micstro,” a 1980 jam that featured the M.C. RC LaRock rhyming for almost 10 minutes without cease. And once Run-DMC came out, rocking sweats with fedoras and leather jackets, looking like people from his block, the young Trotter was hooked. By age 9, he had already given himself a rap moniker: Double T. He and a fellow Philadelphia native and classmate, Dwight Grant, formed the Crash Crew for an elementary school talent show; Grant went on to become the platinum-selling M.C. Beanie Sigel. It’s a bit like imagining the future N.B.A. Hall of Famers LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony playing on the same youth basketball team, honing their craft together. At the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts, Trotter met Ahmir Thompson, later known as Questlove, a fellow student whose Casio keyboard turned him into a roving beat maker with whom Trotter would found the hip-hop band the Roots.
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Those were tough years for Trotter. When he was a junior in high school, his mother was murdered. For some things, there is no solace, and I asked if he’d ever confronted the failure of art to do the thing you wanted it to do. “That’s one way to look at it,” he told me. “Another way to look at is everybody I know, damn near all the people I grew up with, they all dead, they all in jail. For me, art has been my saving grace, that’s my salvation.” It’s not only that music has taken him around the world and been the foundation of so many of his longest friendships, but that it has been the lifeline for a man that knows full well what could have been. As Trotter’s friend, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, tells me, “Trotter is a voice that knows social ills and violence, but he chose art.”
Trotter enrolled in Millersville University, 75 miles away from Philly, but the music called him back to the city: He met fellow rapper, Malik B., who would join the Roots crew; a year later they were doing shows in Europe, freestyling to sax and trumpet solos. Back in Philly, Trotter lived in an apartment with books and musicians as his companions. “I didn’t have a phone, I didn’t have a TV,” he has said. “I hardly had furniture at my place at that time. There was just books, lots of books and CDs.” Trotter became an autodidact, Ghansah told me. “He was the reader,” she said. “He takes everything in. Everything is a reference, a possible citation. And then it is all wrapped up in his Philadelphia Negro uplift thing — he loves his Blackness.”
Around this time, Trotter discovered the music of the Nigerian musician and political activist Fela Kuti, whose example became another lasting influence on his style. “Finding Fela was like finding my spiritual animal,” he told me. He was in Tower Records with his childhood friend, the singer Santigold, who was buying a Fela record for her father’s birthday. Intrigued, Trotter listened along when Santigold’s father played the music, which was a revelation. “I was blown away by how regal all the music sounded, the political message, how free he was onstage,” he said. Fela’s work ethic — he tended to perform regularly and intensely — and big-band sensibility gave Trotter a sense of what it meant to be a performer.
“Felt like James Brown meets Bob Marley with a Nigerian funk sensibility,” Trotter said. Trotter’s gift as a lyricist is his penchant for turning observation of the world around him into social commentary. When Trotter’s verse turns to the streets, it adds complexity to the narratives of violence that some rappers tend to glorify. Foretelling an argument that the legal scholar James Forman Jr. would make in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Locking Up Our Own,” Trotter, in the song “Panic!!!!!” from the Roots’s 1996 album (their second full-length release), “Illadelph Halflife,” rhymes that while “police levels increase,” there’s “still crime on the street.” The lyric points to Trotter’s awareness that in Black communities, the presence of police does not guarantee protection. Another song from that album, “Section,” has Trotter rapping of his shared experience with those who run the streets: “We congruent, lay on the corner with the traum’ unit.” While Trotter presents his familiarity with street life and its prevalence in communities like his, he doesn’t lose sight of the violence that often accompanies that life. In an era in which gangster rap dominated the charts, Trotter could have woven tales of street woe and disaster. But, he told me: “I came up in a family of gangsters and people who were in the street life. Both my parents, that’s what they got off into, they were involved in. My extended family, my brother. And it never ends well. It’s always short-lived. I didn’t want the career version of that.” Trotter and the Roots crew insisted that Black life include more than the narratives of violence and street life.
In part, this vision of a socially engaged and intellectually curious hip-hop was inspired by the Roots’ longtime manager, Richard Nichols. “That was Rich, man,” Trotter told me. “Rich would put us on to a concept, like the concept of nuclear half-life, nuclear fallout,” an idea that inspired the title “Illadelph Halflife.” Nichols, who died in 2014 at 55 from complications of leukemia, was a Philadelphia native and student of Black culture whose thinking became central to Trotter’s intellectual development and the band’s identity. “He’d throw you a book — Chinua Achebe, check this out. Check this Malcolm Gladwell out,” Trotter remembered. Nichols was a student (literally) of Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez, architects of the Black Arts Movement and literary inheritors of the Harlem Renaissance. Nichols brought Trotter into that tradition. “Rich was the brains of this operation in more ways than one,” Trotter told me. “He was a visionary. He was an artist. He went above and beyond the role of management or producer. He was our oracle. He was Obi-Wan Kenobi.”
Put another way, Nichols envisioned the group as an example of hip-hop’s relationship to a wider Black culture. Because of Nichols, the Roots crew knew Black Arts Movement poets like Baraka and Ntozake Shange personally. Sonia Sanchez, the Philadelphia poet who helped pioneer Black-studies programs, was “Sister Sonia” to Trotter. Often, his lyrics foregrounded his relationship to this lineage. “I’m just as dark as John Henrik Clarke’s inner thoughts at the time of the Harlem Renaissance,” he once rapped, name checking the trailblazing historian of the Black experience. Maybe it isn’t surprising, then, that Trotter found his way to “Black No More.” Schuyler’s original novel is a classic of the Harlem Renaissance, even if it does diverge from the period’s complicated love affair with Blackness. Schuyler mocked his contemporaries as race-obsessed fools, but “Black No More” is a book no less caught up in the Renaissance’s incessant inquiry into the substance of this thing we call “Black experience.” And while Schuyler’s novel says that Black America hungers to be white, Black Thought’s remix asserts the Black experience can be interrogated independent of whiteness.
When I showed up for a tech rehearsal of “Black No More” in January, the choreographer Bill T. Jones walked central actors through a pivotal moment. In the novel, Max’s best friend Bunny is a Black man who follows him through the Black No More machine, but the musical’s Bunny (renamed “Buni”) is a Black woman who demands more of him. When the newly whitened Max — who now goes by Matthew Fisher — abandons Harlem for Atlanta, Buni and another friend, Agamemnon, show up at the train depot, hoping to convince him to stay. “I see a world of possibility, and all you see is Black … and white,” Max tells Agamemnon. Disgusted, Agamemnon declares that “Harlem is better off without him.” But Buni won’t abandon her friend. Watching Max leave, she retorts that “we’re never ‘better off’ without each other.” It’s a powerful assertion of Black solidarity — an enduring community extending even to those who would deny their Blackness, one based in a commonality of experience.
The distinct difference between this production and Schuyler’s novel is the belief in cultural, rhetorical and physical ties that bind Black people into a shared heritage that isn’t at all related to white people or white supremacy. Jones’s choreography is key to this idea. During tech rehearsal, Jones walked dancers through the moment just after the whitened Max arrives in Atlanta. In the scene, Max tentatively approaches a group of white people dancing before he is welcomed into their ranks, his white skin finally giving him the entry he desires. But Brandon Victor Dixon, the actor who plays Max, is not wearing make up; he is still Black. In that moment, Jones’s choreography convinces the audience that these are four Southern white country dancers, including the brown-skinned Dixon as Matthew Fisher. Scenes like this, which present a racialized art form only to subvert notions of who can perform it, both reinforce the notion of distinct racial cultures while undermining the idea that those cultures are fixed in stone. Unlike Schuyler’s book, it holds two truths at once: race is constructed, and no less real for being so. In this sense, Trotter and his collaborators force viewers into a complex and sometimes even uncomfortable conversation about the substance of racial identity.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in Trotter’s lyrics.
One song features the “whitened” Max in his guise as Matthew — now, improbably, the leader of a white-supremacist organization — singing about Black people as the equivalent of flies. As Trotter described it to me, the song slaps but is immensely ignorant; it had me rocking in my seat, but made me fear what a dope beat can do. As beautiful women twerked onstage to a crescendo of keys, Matthew unleashed the song’s hateful chorus, referring to Black people with a racial epithet and glorifying anti-Black violence. Still, my head bopped.
The song presents us with a set of questions: Is cringing and turning away from a work of art that depicts persistent truths of American racial politics the most radical thing that we might do? How can Black art provide the background for anti-Blackness? Trotter’s lyrics don’t provide answers. They let us sit in that formal and ethical difficulty.
Trotter’s interest in presenting these hard questions isn’t new. You have to look no further than to Dec. 14, 2017, for proof. That day on DJ Funkmaster Flex’s show on the New York radio station Hot 97, he dropped a freestyle that put the internet on notice. “I like to answer people’s demands,” Funk said by way of introduction. “Black Thought is here.” And then Trotter delivered something singular — a relentless amalgamation of story and poem that becomes more cogent as it becomes more discursive. “Einstein, Shakespeare, Voltaire, Tesla, recording artist slash psychology professor,” Trotter raps, suggesting the scope of his thinking. He weaves together literary tradition, social critique, his interest in world history and reflections on his own oeuvre and family history into an epic that could never have taken place within the tight strictures of a Roots album. “The mic I spray resembling the sickle of death/It ain’t strenuous to come from a continuous breath.” This was the reintroduction of the Talented Mr. Trotter as a solo artist who challenged listeners with his breadth of knowledge and sharp skills as an M.C. He soon began releasing solo albums that “gave people, some of whom have been lifelong Roots fans at this point, an opportunity to not even become reacquainted, but to finally become acquainted with me personally as an artist,” he told me. This version of Black Thought had big things on his mind. “How much hypocrisy can people possibly endure?/But ain’t nobody working on a cure my young bull,” he proclaimed in that freestyle.
I was interested to see how the musical played to audiences — specifically, audiences of the kind that would gather at Black Theater Night, Broadway’s attempt to bring in more diverse crowds. As Bill T. Jones reminds me, “One of the most transgressive things Schuyler does in this transgressive novel is to imply that secretly we all want to be white.” What would Black theatergoers make of that notion? Dr. Crookman introduces the Black No More device with an in-joke that might only get laughs out of a Black audience: “How is it, Dr. Crookman, you ask, are you able to accomplish what the Lord Himself cannot? The answer is simple. The Good Lord is not a Howard Man.” At the show I attended, the audience laughed together. Such moments felt typical — choral call and response and inside jokes gave the show the feel of a summer cookout. But when Dr. Crookman explained the Black No More treatment, the laughter slowly subsided and the tension rose. The device used to conduct the treatment resembled a barber’s chair and sat center stage. Max’s transformation — signaled by him constantly running his fingers along his arms, which are still brown — elicited discomfort.
In contemplating how exactly to pull off this transformation to whiteness, Trotter told me that the show’s creators considered it all — make up, different clothing, lighting — but decided on simple physical gestures. If the audience was any indication, those gestures worked, strangely conveying the way warped reality gives rise to warped desires. In the musical, Max — who becomes white in part to pursue Helen, a white lover who initially rejected him — constantly looks at his skin to remind himself and the audience of his change and of the moral quandary it provokes. “What a fine mess I’ve gotten into, after everything that I had been through,” Max sings. But that mess isn’t Max’s alone. The show foregrounds that ethical quandary, forcing the audience to deal with the aftermath of Max’s yearning as well.
Schuyler himself tried to play down the messiness of identification by writing “Black No More.” He married Josephine Cogdell, an heiress from Texas and a white liberal, in 1928. During the 1930s, she published journalism in the Black press under various names and even, according to Carla Kaplan’s book “Miss Anne in Harlem,” wrote an advice column for Negro women under the name Julia Jerome. And she was more complex than the depiction of any white character in the satire her husband published three years after they married. While Helen is a vulgar racist in the novel, the musical’s version of Helen is reminiscent of Schuyler’s wife. She becomes a reminder that, even in 1931, race relations and the contradictions that roiled beneath them were far more tangled than the satirical depiction of race hustlers and Black people clamoring for ways to straighten their hair and skin-cream their way to whiteness.
The vast range of music, lyrics and dance that the musical juxtaposes is an argument for the existence of a Blackness independent of whiteness, a Blackness that is also the confounding of easy racial categorization. Because of this, the show insists on frustrating the audience: You laugh and then stop to question if laughing was appropriate. The original “Black No More” is written with the unflinching belief that the author knows what Blackness is and is not. The musical, though, is more searching, less certain of what Blackness is, though far more secure in the belief that Black folks’ singular desire is not to run from it but rather to survive in America.
There is a refrain in the musical that struck me: “If my body is my home, and it’s built of blood and bone, and survives on, even thrives on love alone, it’s not hard to understand how the measure of a man, is to show more than the love that he’s been shown.” And if you listen closely to the lyrics and music of “Black No More,” you know that the arguments all become a case that Trotter is making, capturing so much of what it means to have Black thoughts in this world and the sheer tragedy of running from them.
Reginald Dwayne Betts is a poet, lawyer and contributing writer for the magazine. He last wrote about the actor Michael K. Williams. Racquel Chevremont is a curator, an art adviser and a model who works under the name Deux Femmes Noires along with Mickalene Thomas. Mickalene Thomas is an artist known for her paintings of African American women that combine historical, political and pop-culture references.