Saturday, April 21, 2018
TV and Media

Cool black nerds from Barack Obama to W. Kamau Bell ascend in pop culture

I can't remember the first time I realized black nerds had taken over a huge corner of pop culture.

Perhaps it was watching Kanye West, a pipsqueak music fanatic raised in suburban Chicago who first burst on the scene wearing argyle sweaters and Polo shirts. Now he's in every gossip and fashion magazine with Kim Kardashian, the hottest star in reality TV, on his arm.

Or maybe it was seeing comedy nerd Jay Pharoah — a guy whose huge stable of impressions must have come from long hours practicing in front of a mirror instead of living a life — take a featured role on Saturday Night Live imitating the president.

MSNBC anchor Melissa Harris-Perry is the first full-time professor to also serve as a cable news anchor, leading her self-titled show on weekends and teaching at Tulane University. She's so wonky and academic, her nickname and hashtag for the show is #Nerdland.

Cable TV currently features two huge showcases for comedy nerds; with former Mad TV cast members Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele in Comedy Central's sketch comedy show Key and Peele, while San Francisco comic W. Kamau Bell leads his own bracing showcase for political humor on FX's Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell.

And there is the ultimate example of black nerdism: our first black president.

How did we get from a time when Steve Urkel was the butt of every joke to the moment when hornrim glasses-wearing nerds like Kamau Bell were making them?

"I've just been being me for my entire life," said Bell, whose late night politics and comedy show is godfathered by Chris Rock. Even he didn't notice the black nerd trend until he was included in a Facebook group, against his will, called "Blerds" (a contraction of "black nerds").

"I was like, really? Is that what I'm doing?" he said, laughing. "Anything that promotes alternative black thought in America is a wonderful thing and people are often better able to understand something when there's a cute name for it. So, okay, I accept that."

At this point, you might be thinking I'm so tuned into the ascension of the black nerd because I am one. And you wouldn't be wrong.

Still, it is remarkable to see how, even as mainstream culture has fallen in love with the nerd, black folks have found their own permutation in types like Community co-star Donald Glover, Roots bandleader and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon musical director Questlove, and a host of other stereotype-breaking figures.

"I think the black nerd, for whatever reason, was once seen as a weakness, and now it's not seen as weak anymore," said Andre Meadows, a standup comic, actor and commentator. He's translated his love for Smurfs, comics books and science fiction into a comedy brand as the Black Nerd. "Brain power and intelligence is more accepted, and it shows a different side of African-Americans."

Meadows has turned his nerdy obsessions into a YouTube channel, Twitter feed, Facebook platforms and more. But he fears the black nerd may become a new stereotype, the guy featured as the black best friend on network TV shows such as The New Girl, Ben and Kate and Happy Endings.

He recalled a moment when one of his videos surfaced on a website and commenters attacked him for being "the kind of black nerd we don't want to be associated with," the comic said.

"They were mad because I was the goofy, dorky black nerd, whereas the black nerd that most people are thinking of now is Afrocentric, sophisticated, suave and cool," he said.

Still, both Bell and Meadows agreed on one thing: Our current president helped spread the notion that there was another way to be cool in pop culture.

"(Obama) certainly was a nerd; you can't be a black guy at Harvard and not be a nerd," said Bell, laughing. "But he's also so clearly at home in himself and comfortable, he expands what it is to be cool in America. When he's getting his picture taken with Beyoncé and Jay-Z and they look as excited as he is, it sort of expands the definition of what it is to be cool."

But Bell also worries the rise of the black nerd may be a short-lived trend.

"I just hope it not just a fad, just about the glasses," he said, noting how even NBA stars now wear thick, hornrim glasses to their postgame news conferences to look more serious. "Now people say we have more black people talking politics on TV. Well, it's happening for me. But every time you think a window is opening up, sometimes it doesn't swing open as far as you expect."

Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell airs at 11 p.m. Thursdays on FX. See Andre Meadows videos at youtube.com/blacknerdcomedy.

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