The signifying monkey is an African American/Black character. The character first came to my attention as a young girl listening to folk tales about John Henry, Stagolee, the buzzard and the monkey etc. I learned as I got older that the signifying monkey has roots in African and Caribbean figures such as Elegba and Esu. However in the Black American tradition, he is the prototype of the shit talking, dick slinging, truth bringing brother who represents the movements of a certain cadre of Black men. And they are a cadre, a cabal all to themselves. They move smoothly, they have the gift of gab; if not easy on the eyes they supplement it with wisdom or the ability to attract money. Yet, I digress.
The signifying monkey has descendants many of whom are rappers, Civil Rights/Black Power activists, preachers, and yes movie directors. Mr. Lee is a signifying monkey snarkily informing the people of their shortcomings and also hinting at a way to the road to freedom; promising to talk shit along the way, either way it ends for the people. By shit, I do not mean bullshit or untruths. For it is often the “shit” we talk that speaks the most truth. In the sense of Mr. Lee the “shit” is more the commentary, the witnessing, and there always needs to be someone to bear witness.
Bearing witness he is, at a generation of ills and culture he passionately wants to help and yet does not understand. Somehow he navigates the line well of generational disconnect. Shows up on Sway to have (another great misunderstood Brother) a Kanye moment (how extra special are you when moments and moods are named after you?!). He criticises the gang culture and violent hip hop run amuck (we of the 90s know this did not just start-only spread) while not totally disrespecting the hip hop culture (although some would say casting Nick Cannon as a hard core rapper is disrespectful on many levels). He even calls out white men who fetishsize Black women. Yet, he still does so in such a way to make all parties uncomfortable and definitely not in any way atoning for the wrong many Black woman feel that Mr. Lee has done against them.
Yet maybe he was trying on some levels to tell the women that have criticised him so much why he has done so. In one of the scenes towards the end, the character Chi-Raq who we by now see as a drug addicted seriously misguided and homicidal person is laying with a woman. He managed to find one woman who would give up the “piece” so to speak. They lay in bed assumingly post coital and he reminisces on a time in his youth when he walked into his mothers room and sees her getting the business done to her properly, all hiked up the wall, moaning and yelling at him to get out (at the time he might have been 12). We are left to infer that this along with the murder of his father are the reasons he is a “savage” (a term used by Chicago youth-and those that imitate them). You could see this as another attempt on Mr. Lee’s part to shame Black women or an example; maybe a sharing of his own mama trauma, or the trauma that we as a community do not want to face. We always hear of his father and jazz music. Did his mother pass away early like the mom in Crooklyn? Men are boys that were raised by people; that usually includes women who either left good impressions or did some serious damage. We have to acknowledge that when we go after men…the harm that might have been inflicted by women. There is something we do not know about him when it comes to women.
The women and Chicago rappers of the online gang/squad; be they twitterverse, online blogs, and even Black Lives Matter activists went in on Mr. Lee. It was almost like School Daze came out all over again. Were they not mad at him then as well? I was 10 years old at the time so I can not clearly recall. My point is, it was almost like we as a community have not progressed passed decades long arguments and beef. Nas taught me, “some beef is everlasting” yet damn I saw Diddy and Jadakiss on the same stage in Newark, NJ last month so anything can happen! Yet when it comes to a certain class of Black people, the upper class, the muh fuggas who you assume if you are from another class, have sense often want to be mad thuggish about disagreements and beef forever. Has there ever been a Sonia Sanchez, Toni Morrison, bell hooks intervention with him where they line up like in Beloved and get to ancient Black momma secret schooling him? Then I dont believe your beef. Beef necessitates intervention because everything and everyone is going to get molly wopped in its wake. Beef is ugly for real and not for the cameras. Beef can be solved with money yet often somebody gotta get a little jab, smack something.
I begin to wonder are they really beefing? Do they have a proposal for the old man (no disrespect)? Do they discuss this behind doors with some semblance of a council of elders or something? Then it aint real. At this point although the above may seem trite and outdated, its increasingly basic and necessary. In this day and age when every thought and emotion goes online without reflection and editing there definitely needs to be an awareness of the passionate and dangerous environment that lends itself. We also know at this point everyone is watching, mainly our babies. So when I see Chance the Rapper (newcomer rapper who use to obsess about drugs in his raps although he’s nice) beefing with Mr. Lee (flawed legend) online or I see the Black Lives Matter people getting into a shouting match with him at a screening in Chicago I cringe, because I wonder who are these people serving? Who are they yelling at/for, who are you fighting for? Who are they shucking, ducking, and diving for? Spike Lee has contributed to our legacy as a people, through our depictions in his films and for greater understanding among humanity in general. This does not make him immune from scrutiny, yet it does, or it should make people stay humble and behind closed doors with a plan and a purpose when they critique him.
Yet Black folks dont talk things out for goal purposes, we dont debate and build something thereafter. We are the signifying monkey all sound and fury signifying nothing. Spike Lee will make less millions in this particular movie, still goes on to make more movies, you still mad, and we are still in a victim pain body mode.
Black Lives do not matter more than Black Beef. (Thank you Vitamin Q for this one).
The police were shooting people in the streets and we (the hip hop generations) were immersed in a battle between an actor turned rapper vs a hustler turned rapper. There were memes that made comments about it, and people kept it moving because yes two thoughts: of the people and their struggle, police brutality and Drake vs. Meek, etc can exist in our minds. Yet if you really think about it, the “right” beef within the African American/Black community has ruined things forever. I mean MLK vs. Malcolm that was a lose lose, Civil Rights vs. Black Panthers more losing, now Shaun King vs Black Lives Matter leadership. As much as we pine about unity we have been divided for so long we like it; most have grown accustomed to the invisible lines. We want war. We want beef. We want to style and stunt on each other and its out of control when even the conscious, literary, scholarly, artsy folk openly beef like the common savage thugs they critique. We giggle and make intellectual judgement on Love and Hip Hop and RHOA, yet we sip tea over HTGAWM, and Scandal. We claim some sort of Kemetic pyramid chakra aligned mantras and throw shade like strippers throw ass. We then get up clutching ankhs, bibles, and civil rights mantras like we were victimized by one another and not someone and something much more nuanced and sinister. Worrying about the wrong things and the wrong people.
The intelligentsia attacks Chi Raq as hyper masculine. Perhaps as a Hip Hop 30 something year old I have adopted some of the blindness to the misogyny ***. Yeah that and I did not see the women being powerless in the film. I dont find anything wrong with movies focused on the “saving” of the Black man through the actions of the Black woman, pardon me, I still drink that brand of KoolAid. I do feel a nation will only rise as high as its women because the mother is the first teacher; a lot of the mothers are special ed, and then we wonder why the babies are crazy??!!
Did he delve into what it means to be a female gang banger? No, but it wasnt that movie. How many movies you want the man to make? You want him to make your movie, with your visions, your concerns, but #staymadkeisha he went to film school, he labored all those years; not you.
N*ggas want my old ish buy my old album. Or dont. But dont block people from my tunes/movies/love etc, just cause you dont want it.