Dave Chappelle's 8:46, Art and Justified Insanity
Mental health is a topic that is only now being discussed in the mainstream. And yet it's still something that's barely discussed in the black community. I’m an Ethiopian-Canadian and that's not something that we talk about a lot in my house. We don’t really discuss mental health, trauma or anything of that nature. It's frowned upon and stigmatized indirectly. There’s a fear of being seen as “crazy” and so it's not discussed. And that's not just in the black community. Until very recently, mental health wasn’t really something that was generally discussed as openly as it is now. People with any type of symptoms used to immediately be sent to psych wards or lobotomized in the United States, very recently. Even now, President Trump is referring to the protesters who are justifiably angry at the death of yet another unarmed black man, George Floyd as “crazy anarchists”. The stigma surrounding “crazy” and mental health issues have historically been used to manipulate and control people.
Clennon Washington King Jr. was the first African-American man to run for the office of President of the United States. He once applied to the University of Mississippi and was committed to an insane asylum for trying to attend it, because the judge ruled he must have been crazy to even attempt to attend the school as a black man. The word crazy has historically been used by the ruling class to stigmatize people and discredit movements. John Lennon once discussed this phenomena. He said “Our society is run by insane people for insane objectives. I think we're being run by maniacs for maniacal ends and I think I'm liable to be put away as insane for expressing that. That's what's insane about it.” John Lennon's level of influence over people spanned the globe and they would listen to what he had to say. And so he would be stigmatized and defamed until his assassination.
After you reach a certain point of notoriety, you have to be filtered to an extent, especially if you are outspoken about topics and systems of operation that people have vested interests in maintaining. And if your voice is big enough you will be able to disrupt systems, institutions and a lot of money. People who are outspoken against the systems of governance around the world have been silenced, discredited or assassinated. COINTELPRO (which stands for COunter INTELligence PROgram) was a series of covert and illegal projects conducted by the United States FBI aimed at surveilling, infiltrating, discrediting, and disrupting American political organizations. COINTELPRO tactics are still used to this day and have included discrediting targets through psychological warfare; smearing individuals and groups using forged documents and by planting false reports in the media; harassment; wrongful imprisonment; and illegal violence, including assassination. And one of the most popular ways to discredit and smear an individual is by using the word “crazy”.
Dave Chappelle discussed this form of discrediting when he faced it, after leaving his hit show and a $50 million dollar contract, he was being called “crazy” and “crackhead” by the media. Dave said “The worst thing to call somebody is crazy. It's dismissive. "I don't understand this person. So they're crazy." That's bullshit. These people are not crazy. They strong people. Maybe their environment is a little sick.” Dave is charismatic, well spoken and outspoken. And as he rose up the fame ladder he began to notice that restrictions were being placed on his art. The studios didn’t want him casting black women, they wanted him to wear dresses and they began restricting the freedom of his art that is inherently outspoken and a lot of the time, political.
Art and politics have a very long history. As they respond to simultaneous social and political events, the arts take on political as well as social dimensions, becoming themselves a focus of controversy and even a force of political as well as social change. Some of our most renowned artists and musicians were heavily involved in social and political change. People like Bob Marley, George Carlin, Tupac Shakur and Bob Dylan are some of the most critically and commercially successful artists of all time and they were all historically involved in speaking up to bring about social and political change. Great art can usually extrapolate the totality of the feelings of the masses and translate it in a palatable format. Great art can become a mission statement for social and political movements. It can resonate and illuminate a dark moment, while showing glimpses of a hopeful tomorrow. And that's why many great artists have historically been discredited, imprisoned, labeled heretics, crazy and assassinated. Because if the messenger is discredited, then, so is the movement. If the messenger is crazy then, so are the people he speaks for.
Ideas that are transcendent by nature, come from artists. Artists don’t completely create something themselves, they work in tandem with culture, society, upbringing and the idea itself to bring something from the abstract world and make it tangible. The idea is the building block of civilization and it's more an occurrence than a creation. An idea is more like the dreamstate in which you’re both creating it and experiencing it at the same time. And that place is often pure and a widespread observation is that a great talent has a free spirit. Free spirits are usually uninhibited, nonconformist individuals which isn’t always a desired state by people in power with vested interests in controlling the population. Which is why there were multiple assassination attempts at Bob Marleys life before his death from cancer. His reggae music was often political and it began catching steam and so there were assassination attempts to take his life and stop the movement in its tracks. And thats why Dave Chappelle was called “crazy” by the media. Art critic Boris Groys once said, "Art has its own power in the world, and is as much a force in the power play of global politics today as it once was in the arena of cold war politics."
On June 12, 2020 Dave Chappelle released a 27 minute “comedy” special. The special is called “8:46”. The title comes from the 8 minutes and 46 seconds that Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kept his knee on the neck of George Floyd. To call this a comedy special would be understating what it was. This was not a comedy special, this was a philosophical and sociological breakdown of the black experience and the journey that has brought us to our current moment in time. Dave Chappelle encapsulated, articulated and presented the rage that is present within black people at the moment. When politicians and authority figures are calling the people “crazy” for how they are reacting to the brutal murder of a man by people in power, Dave Chappelle spoke up and articulated what we can’t. He articulated the history that brought us to this moment and that regardless of how “irrational” or “disproportionate” the protests may seem to the untrained eye, George Floyd was only the tip of the iceberg.
Dave Chappelle told jokes in this special but they were far and few in between. He talked about Candace Owens and other conservative spokespersons that tried to diminish the brutal murder of this unarmed man and calling him a “criminal”. Dave Chappelle echoed our sentiments in that we don’t care about his past, it was still fucked up. Chappelle talked about various moments in modern American history where the police killed unarmed black men and then flipped the situation by talking about the reaction police had when one of their own was killed and how they surrounded the killers house and murdered him, and then he asked them why they would be surprised at the reactions of black people when they went through the same exact thing. Dave gave a sociology lesson and always related it back to himself to personalize it with his time of birth being 8:46 in the morning and his grandfather being the one of the first few black people in the White House as a slave. Chappelle ended the special by saying “This is the last stronghold for civil discourse, after this it's ratatatatata”. Chappelle took the cries of the people and used his masterful communication skills to articulate how we feel.
Black people are tired, and because of media propaganda we have been forced to live with a cognitive dissonance that tries to make us think we are being crazy. Things like paranoia, beliefs that the system and people in power are conspiring to get you are associated with insanity. And so we see people like us get killed everyday, we are told it was done by a few bad apples and we’re forced to keep it pushing or else we’ll be called “crazy”. We’re forced to assimilate back into society, ignoring the clear signs we see. And when we all decided to protest, the President of the United States waged Martial Law and a literal declaration of war, specifically on Black people, and yet we were still viewed as crazy and irrational.
Chappelle was able to package and communicate those feelings, and that is what great art can do. Great art can be transcendent, it can speak the cries of the people and help us contextualize our current moment. Art is one of the few unrestricted methods of communication where you can speak your mind and it camouflages you from appearing as a politician or world changer. The label comedian or musician can disguise some of the world's greatest philosophers and allow them to communicate the truth without being seen as a threat by the powers that be.
Hundreds of years ago they had court jesters who held political significance because they were the only ones who could tell the King bad news. Because they disguised it in jokes. And that’s what a lot of artists realized. You can really say everything, if you just make it art. Art can be controversial and divisive but it does start a conversation. And that’s what it’s done historically. Artists use their voices to speak the hymns of the everyday person. And that’s because they spoke on the most fundamental truths in the most palatable way. Art is a limbic resonator. Limbic resonance is the idea that the capacity for sharing deep emotional states arises from the limbic system of the brain.
Your brain is flooded with dopamine when listening to a good song, reading words that resonate or watching a dope comedy special. And in those moments artists would also spread their philosophies. So while your guards are down, you’re also thinking about the argument the artist just made. And that is a world changing method of communication. Artists have historically been labeled heretics and jailed because of how powerful it is as a method of communication.
And for that I thank Dave Chappelle and every other artist who went out of their way to speak the truth regardless of how it can affect their brand or their livelihood, because they understand the bigger picture that's at stake if they don’t speak up. Dave Chappelle was not crazy when he left his Chappelle’s Show and a 50 million dollar contract because he didn’t want to inhibit his art and spread a negative perception of black people, and black people aren’t crazy for reacting, how we are reacting to centuries of injustice. We live in a crazy world where those in power have child trafficking rings and aren’t being prosecuted for it, never let them make you think you’re crazy for questioning them.
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