‘Black Renaissance’ YouTube originals offer thrilling but fleeting moments

YouTube “Black Renaissance”

If you have been paying attention at all to arts and culture over the past few years, there is no doubt that you have at least an inkling that Black creation and cultivation in the arts has been flourishing. Whether it’s Jordan Peele, Ava DuVernay or Shonda Rhimes, Amy Sherald, Kerry James Marshall, Kendrick Lamar, Jeremy O. Harris, Virgil Abloh, N.K. Jemisin, Nicola Yoon, Tomi Adeyemi, Tayari Jones, Rachel Renee Russell, or Colson Whitehead, there’s been a steady stream of Black talent holding major influence over today’s cultural zeitgeist.

It makes sense to call the era one of “Black Renaissance,” analogous to the Harlem Renaissance of roughly exactly a century ago that brought us Langston Hughes, Harlem Stride piano, Lindy Hopping, Aaron Douglas, James Van Der Zee etc.

In February, YouTube Originals, in partnership with Google Arts and Culture, released “Black Renaissance” but the title is a bit misleading. The statement in the press release for the program states, “Black art and culture have defined the American experience…,”—the implication being that the program will be exploring that.

“Black Renaissance” examines Black art and creative culture in a historical context, honoring Black creative legends and political legends, and highlights new Black creatives and the sociopolitical realities of being Black. It’s all wonderful to behold but begs for a more congruous delivery.

Credit Dayo Kosoko, 2020 Jason Reynolds

Hosted by award-winning YA author Jason Reynolds, “Black Renaissance” features a plethora of dynamic faces. Actress Nicole Beyer, Desus and Mero, Bob The Drag Queen, Amanda Gorman, Yara Shahidi, Stacey Abrams, Jemele Hill, LeBron James, the Obamas, and many others in original, and archival interviews, video clips, and still images. There is also thrilling footage of many social media personalities such as beautiful German roller-dancer Oumi Janta.

However, despite showcasing a few contemporary artists such as a stunning performance by musician Anderson Paak, and rapper Tobe Nwigwe, who closed the show figuratively and literally, and a compelling sit-down with visual artist Shantell Martin, “Black Renaissance” isn’t a survey of the newest crop of artists currently shaping culture you’d believe it would be.

There is footage of Little Richard that will get your fingers snapping, and there’s a beautiful sequence narrated by singer Kelly Rowland about legendary choreographer Alvin Ailey and his ballet dedicated to Black women, “Cry.” Footage of a Toni Morrison interview is funny and touching.

But we learn nothing about the artists who are driving the current “Renaissance,” and giving life to today’s inspirations, hopes, and fears through written or spoken word, movement, and images. There’s no getting tired of hearing about our heroes like Maya Angelou or Miles Davis, but this context and presentation feels like it slightly missed the mark.

A few featured artists were allowed some space to start unpacking their visions of Black America today, but they were the exception, not the rule. For example, Richmond, VA-based artist Hamilton Glass also appeared. It was a great opportunity to discuss the overwhelming presence of Black artists in public art around the country, and the role of public art in society, but we only get a glance at Glass and we don’t hear his voice.

A segment about Black hair was remiss to talk about the intersection of Black hairstyles with art and creativity or how the lack of attention to Black hair affects the creative process on TV and film sets. No actresses or hairstylists appeared. Instead, the discussion centered on Black women’s relationship with their hair.

In separate appearances, Barack and Michelle Obama both address the importance of Black arts and culture and how it fits into the fabric of America. Michelle Obama goes further, getting to the heart of what should have been the matter for the duration of the program. She states, “To all of you out there who are just getting started, who are finding your place within this next generation of leaders and artists and changemakers…

“You’re coming into your own trying to create a new path for yourself, just like so many gifted Black artists on this program once had to do for themselves…I cannot wait to see the art, the songs, the hope you all will create in the years to come.”

If only the filmmakers used these sentiments as the guide, we could have seen enthralling, enlightening content about the newest generation of creatives. What we get are morsels of Black brilliance that undeniably delight, but without a cohesive, coherent message.