BROOKE GLADSTONESo, quote, "cancel culture" now possesses a fantastically murky definition on and offline, but its predecessors, the phrases call-out culture and being canceled have long been well defined terms within the black community. In fact, that's what started to bother Washington Post features writer Clyde McGrady. Many words leak from black culture into the mainstream, but what he saw with cancelation was a phrase being turned on its creator. So he decided to go back to the beginning, and what he found wasn't political hyperbole or social anxiety or cultural reckoning. Instead, just a man. Music impresario Nile Rodgers and a bad date and some disco.
CLYDE MCGRADYHe was out on a date with a woman who is being a bit rude to the people at the club where they were. There were some people sitting down at a table that he wanted and she said, you know, "why don't you make these people get up?" And he's a guy with pretty humble beginnings. So he was a bit put off by that and he is like, you know, "that's not how I roll." Sometime later, he's also obsessed with television. He says it's on 24/7 at his house. So he is sitting around thinking about this date and then the lyrics start coming to him "... unsuccessful television shows tend to be canceled." That's the language TV executives use, like we're canceling the show, it's over. So that was the context in which he writes the song, "Your Love is Cancelled."
[CHORUS OF "YOUR LOVE IS CANCELLED" PLAYS]
BROOKE GLADSTONEYou say that it wasn't until a while later, like in the 90s, when Barry Michael Cooper, who was a journalist at the time, had been hired to rewrite the screenplay for this gangster classic New Jack City. And it comes up again?
CLYDE MCGRADYI asked Barry Michael Cooper, you know, where did you come up with the line canceled from? And he was like, well, when I was writing the screenplay, I had this playlist, the soundtrack, playing the background to help with his writing process. And one of the songs was "Your Love is Cancelled." He used it in this pivotal scene, the main character, who, as Cooper describes him, is a malignant narcissist drug dealer named Nino Brown, played by Wesley Snipes. He uses this child as a human shield during a shootout. And later on, he goes back to his place and his girlfriend is so distraught and he throws her against the table and he pours champagne on her and he says...
NINO BROWNCancel that b-----, I'll buy another. [END CLIP]
CLYDE MCGRADYCancel that B-word. Barry Michael Cooper really wanted to get at what the drug era had done. And so that scene really brings it home, and it becomes this iconic line. Rappers used it. Like 50 Cent used it in a line. Lil Wayne used it in a line. When it makes the jump in the social media age is in the show Love and Hip Hop. And a producer who is getting into an argument with his girlfriend says “you're canceled,” and it kinda takes off on black Twitter.
BROOKE GLADSTONEBut you said in the piece that the word canceled at that point was used mostly as a joke.
CLYDE MCGRADYRight, right. It was mostly used to express disgust or disdain for some celebrity who did something that you didn't like. You know, like I'm done with this person. I don't deal with them, they're canceled. And it wasn't necessarily a call for any more serious action than just publicly announcing your own personal preferences.
BROOKE GLADSTONEYour own personal preferences? When did it start transforming into a word with more serious implications?
CLYDE MCGRADYI'm thinking about the Mute R Kelly movement, which had been building and building and building for so long after all these allegations of sexual misconduct and inappropriate sexual behavior towards minors. Once these allegations hit television, you see this really concerted effort to boycott R Kelly. To encourage artists that have worked with him to no longer work with him. To encourage radio stations not to play his music. To encourage people not to play his music. Then, of course, you have #metoo, and this is when it really takes off. All of a sudden people start speaking out publicly because maybe they don't feel empowered through the regular channels. So, they take to social media, right? So I'd say around 2018, 2019, this is when it really, really starts to bubble up into the consciousness.
BROOKE GLADSTONESo what's the difference between calling out somebody and canceling them? Could you give me an example?
CLYDE MCGRADYRight, Justin Timberlake, who has been accused of culturally appropriating black music for his own gain and profit, he was also involved in the 2005 Super Bowl infamous wardrobe malfunction incident with Janet Jackson. And the way he handled that did not sit well with a lot of people. A lot of people, particularly black people, felt that Justin Timberlake kind of hung her out to dry. And also, he dissed Prince.
BROOKE GLADSTONEHe dissed Prince?
CLYDE MCGRADYYes, he did.
BROOKE GLADSTONEBut the thing is, is that Justin Timberlake is a good example of the difference between call-out culture and canceling because people weren't saying time to boycott.
CLYDE MCGRADYRight. They weren't calling his record label saying, you know, you should drop Justin Timberlake or telling DJs not to play his music or anything like that. They were just like I'm done with this dude. He has committed one too many transgressions, I'm through. And that was that, like Justin Timberlake still doing fine and still releasing music.
BROOKE GLADSTONECan we talk about the appropriation of words that began in the black community and then migrated to the white community? You wrote that not only have these words been appropriated from black culture, but they've been weaponized to sneer at the values of many young black liberals.
CLYDE MCGRADYYes, which is an ironic twist because usually black slang is appropriated for its proximity to cool, because historically what young black people have done in America is considered cool. And in order to be cool, a lot of white kids will adopt that same language.
BROOKE GLADSTONEYou observed that the word cool itself emerged from black culture, and you quote James Baldwin, who wrote in 1969, "I do not know what white Americans would sound like if there had never been any black people in the United States, but they would not sound the way that they sound." But you also mention words like lit and bae, and on fleek that have come into popular vocabulary and then seemingly left. Do you think the phrase cancel culture is here to stay or will it just get folded into the history of the American lexicon?
CLYDE MCGRADYI put this story out and some people pointed out that politically correct had a similar trajectory. You know, it started as an in-joke among the left and then all of a sudden it grew and grew and then was used unironically. And then it was used to deride the things that they stood for.
BROOKE GLADSTONEAnd hence, you have Bill Maher's show, Politically Incorrect.
CLYDE MCGRADYYeah. So maybe, you know, there will be a show called Cancel Culture, but it's about 50 years later and we're still saying politically correct. So, who knows how long –
BROOKE GLADSTONEWell, some of us are saying that.
CLYDE MCGRADYRight, right. I mean, who knows? We may still be saying cancel culture. As long as it is politically useful to do so, I think it will be around.
BROOKE GLADSTONEThank you so much.
CLYDE MCGRADYThank you so much for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONEClyde McGrady is a features writer for The Washington Post with a focus on race and identity.
And that's the show. On the Media is produced by Leah Feder, Micah Loewinger, Jon Hanrahan, Eloise Blondiau, Rebecca Clark-Callender and Molly Schwartz. Xandra Ellin writes our unique newsletter. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson, our engineer this week was Adriene Lilly.
Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
One last thing. You heard the name Jon Hanrahan on the credits, as you have for years. He started out really young and he still is. He's a champ, always on the ready, a peerless colleague, a fancy hand with the mixer, a musician, a great heart. Unfortunately for us, one who has moved way out of town and wants to explore new avenues. We will miss him a lot. We already do.
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