Ramona Rosales

Film / TVMusic

baron vaughn talks ‘new negroes’ and black comedy

April 23, 2019

There is power in telling the world who you are instead of allowing the world to do it for you. Alain Locke, educator, literary critic, and “dean” of the Harlem Renaissance knew this well. It’s why he compiled the work of budding Black writers of his day — including such imminently great figures as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen — in a 1925 anthology called The New Negro: An Interpretation,” giving the world a definition of the African-American experience as defined by Black people rather than one imposed on them. Nearly a century later, comedian and actor Baron Vaughn is aiming to do for Black comedy what Locke did for Black literature, with his new Comedy Central show, The New Negroes.

Vaughn and rapper Open Mike Eagle co-host The New Negroes. Every episode features three stand-up comedians who each do a brief set. To shine a light on the wide spectrum of Black comedy, lesser-known comedians like Dwayne Kennedy are billed alongside Internet-famous comics like Quinta Brunson, household names like Lil Rel Howery, and OG’s like George Wallace. Baron and Eagle explore broad themes in their host bits, and there are original songs from Eagle and musical guests like Danny Brown and Lizzo; while the featured stand-up comedians are given the freedom to riff on any subject they choose in their performances.

“I never wanted to tell any comedian what to say or what to talk about, as much as I wanted to create a space for them to talk,” Vaughn explains. “That in and of itself — Black people speaking for themselves — is political! Just saying what you need to say in the way you want to say it.” Vaughn hopes to present the breadth of Black experience through the breadth of Black comedy. “It’s a collection of different comedians that are all from different walks of life, different places, different ages, different levels of experience, all speaking about who they are because that’s what the nature and purpose of stand-up comedy is.”

Comics have always incorporated social commentary into their material, using observations of their own experiences and life’s absurdities to make audiences laugh, while thinking critically about themselves and the world around them. Comedy has functioned as both a balm and a tool for African-Americans having to navigate the complexities of Black life in America. On their show, Vaughn and Eagle take that tradition further, humorously parsing and unpacking topics like toxic masculinity and “wokeness.” Rather than soapboxing or getting pedantic, they ask questions about these phenomena.

“The way that we approach these things is, we’re ignorant to the extent that we don’t have all the correct terms or the correct ways to address all these things. But we are living these things at the same time,” Vaughn says. “We’re adventurers looking for the treasure of what these things mean and how they apply to us on an everyday level, and we express our confusion about them because the key to understanding anything is saying ‘I don’t know.’” In that way, The New Negroes is similar to Vaughn and Eagle’s previous work exploring their own vulnerability and identity — Vaughn through stand-up comedy and acting, Eagle through hip-hop music, and both of them on soul-baring podcasts (Vaughn’s Deep S##! and Eagle’s Secret Skin).

“One of the reasons Mike and I became friends is because we kind of just live in that place,” Vaughn says. “We’re just trying to figure out what our relationship is to the bigger picture — whether that’s us as black people, as artists, as men, or as fathers or husbands. We’re always thinking about the weather systems that are moving around us, that we’re trying to survive and sift our way through and on some level, that’s what everybody is trying to do.”

The duo’s thoughtful approach to comedy can be seen in skits like Open Mike Eagle’s song on the theme of criminality. With a disembodied MF DOOM as his collaborator, Eagle, whom Vaughn describes as the show’s “sonic consciousness,” not only points a finger at society for imposing “Black Criminal” stereotypes, he also looks into the mirror, examine how he self-polices an internalized criminality projected onto Black men, ultimately passing the idea to his own son and repeating the vicious cycle.

For Vaughn, that kind of inward-looking self-examination is what he wants Black people to do collectively. “Every couple of years it’s important for us to take a step back and look at whatever trope we’ve found ourselves in lock step with,” he explains. “These stories [about ourselves] start to be bigger than actual people. We have to remember to let go of all of our own associations, assumptions and projections, and reconnect with who this person — talking to me, in front of me — actually is.”