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Thursday, January 19, 2017

January 19, 2017: Luke Cage Studying: Taking the Rap

[Like a record number of fellow viewers, I spent a good bit of last September enjoying Netflix’s newest Marvel superhero show, Luke Cage. While Cage is unquestionably entertaining, however, I would also call it the first #BlackLivesMatter TV show—and as such, I wanted to spend this MLK Day week studying a few of the show’s connections and contexts. I’d love your thoughts and reviews in comments!]
On two compelling layers to the most overt musical reference in a show full of them.
Perhaps no aspect of Luke Cage has been more written about and studied than its music, and for good reason: from the first moments of the first episode, set to Ernie Vincent and the Top Notes’ “Dap Walk (2013),” the show is consistently scored by some of the best African American and American music ever released, past and present. (Once you watch the video of the Crispus Attucks attack I highlighted yesterday, you’ll be as amazed as I was that no one has previously set an action sequence to Wu-Tang Clan’s “Bring Da Ruckus (1993)” [lyrics to that song NSFW, natch].) Moreover, because Mahershala Ali’s character Cottonmouth runs a Harlem night club and is a very talented musician in his own right, most of the episodes are able to seamlessly feature amazing live performances, adding one more layer to the multifaceted interconnections of music and popular culture to the show’s Harlem setting, communal ambiance, and historical and cultural themes.
While those performances introduce musical artists in a logical and organic way, the show’s most overt musical cameo is a bit more strained: Luke stops a robbery at a liquor store where none other than Method Man (himself part of Wu-Tang Clan of course) is shopping, and the two trade hoodies (so Luke can fly under the radar and Method can get a superhero souvenir in the form of Luke’s bullet-hole-riddled hoodie). It’s a funny sequence, but one that on its own terms does feel somewhat artificial and tangential to the rest of the show—until we see the payoff, that is. Later in the same episode, Method Man does a radio interview (with the famous NYC Wake Up Show) where he recounts the experience, praises Luke, and performs a new rap, “Bulletproof Love,” written in Luke’s honor (and scored the show’s musical composers, Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed). As this article details at length, the song narrates a good deal of the show’s overarching themes and goals, never more so than in this section: “Look, dog, a hero never had one/Already took Malcolm and Martin this is the last one/I beg your pardon, somebody pullin’ a fast one/And now we got a hero for hire and he a black one/And bullet-hole hoodies is the fashion.”
If all we got in this sequence was Method Man’s song, it would already amplify and extend the show in meaningful ways. But as this video highlights, his performance is accompanied by a series of images that give the line “bullet-hole hoodies is the fashion” dramatic and significant life. Luke is by this time in the series on the run from the law, and so we see the police stopping numerous African American men in bullet-hole-ridden hoodies, only to find that they are other men who have donned those hoodies in both tribute to Luke and as a way to (to coin a phrase) take the rap for him. In so doing, these Harlem men are not only flipping the script on the problem with Luke running from the law (that thanks to his powers he seems to stand out and would be easily found)—they’re even more importantly and movingly flipping the far-too-common script for police stoppages of hoodie-wearing African American men, making such moments into gestures of power and solidarity from the city’s African American community. It was, to this viewer at least, the show’s most affecting and inspiring sequence, and one of the best I’ve seen on television.
Last post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other responses to Luke Cage you’d share?

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