This week we welcome Japanese Hip Hop scholar and reporter for Vice News, Dexter Thomas, and we talk a little bit about Vice News but mostly about Dexter’s outsider approach to journalism and the freedom he feels as a Black reporter at Vice in not being obligated to maintain the myth of a neutral perspective. Dexter shares his path to Vice, from college DJ to PhD in Asian Studies at Columbia University, freelance writer to the LA Times. We dive into hip hop music and culture in Japan, from its right-wing nationalist strains to its complicated relationship to Blackness, American imperialism and Black politics. That brings us to the hypersegmented world of TikTok, how today’s internet can be seen as isolating and reducing common language but also allows for new community and voice…and as powerful a space for activism as the streets. Ultimately, we come to a place of hope in our current moment, seeing the opportunity to acknowledge things that have been broken in America for a long time, and making it clearer that nothing will move forward without work.
As a closing thought, we point you to the bonus minisodes we’ll be releasing while we’re on semester break – “What’s Making Us Sappy” – where we share recent guests’ media recommendations to broaden your winter watch/read/play/listen list.
See bottom of this page for a full transcript of this episode.
Here are some of the references from this episode, for those who want to dig a little deeper:
Some background on 4Chan
Dexter’s Vice reporting
Listen to our “What’s Making Us Sappy” minisodes – make sure you subscribe to get the latest!
NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour
“In Time” by Dylan Emmett and “Spaceship” by Lesion X.
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Dexter Thomas: So here’s the thing. There is nobody on this planet who is not biased, person doesn’t exist. So here’s the difference between me and between a lot of other reporters, is a simple fact that I’m Black, that’s it. There’s a lot of Black reporters out there too, but the title of unbiased, the title of neutral is the sole purview and the sole territory of the white cisgender straight man American who speaks English.
Colin Maclay: Hello, and welcome to How Do You Like It So Far? A podcast about popular culture and our changing world. My name is Colin Maclay.
Henry Jenkins: And mine is Henry Jenkins.
Colin Maclay: And we are absolutely jazzed to have Dexter Thomas join us today who is kind of, I don’t know, like a internet man about town as a journalist and cultural reporter who I think of as being at the intersection of internet and journalism and race and politics and culture and music, and much more and not just a journalist, right?
Dexter Thomas: Yeah. Something like that.
Colin Maclay: Also currently of Vice and previously of LA Times, where you picked up, what, a couple of Pulitzers worked on some of that?
Dexter Thomas: No, no. Contributed reporting to something that got the entire newsroom who worked on it a Pulitzer. So I can’t-
Colin Maclay: Yes, I just wanted to establish your modesty here.
Dexter Thomas: Well, I got to be careful because I’ll have people, “Yo yeah. Dexter won a Pulitzer.” I did not win a Pulitzer. I, along with a lot of other people did some… Reported on some things and that all together ended up yes, winning a Pulitzer Prize. Yes.
Colin Maclay: So Vice has a sort of a different role within journalistic spaces and different approach, it seems to me at least. And I wonder how that positions you differently from other kinds of journalistic outfits and how you think about how to use that to your advantage or what’s the Vice model?
Dexter Thomas: The Vice model. I don’t know if I can speak directly of the Vice model. Here’s what I can tell you, having… And I’ve only been in two different newsrooms, I’ve been in the LA Times, I’ve been in Vice News and so I have that limited experience. So everything I say here should be taken with a truckload of salt, and I’ve spoken to people at other newsrooms. So I have kind of outside looking in, in the industry kind of thing. One thing that I think I’ve learned is, you ever been a kid and you seen your teacher at the grocery store and you’re just kind of shocked? It’s just, “Oh Ms. Paul-“
Colin Maclay: Wait a second.
Dexter Thomas: “… you buy food, you eat? I just thought you slept in the bloom closet at school, what are you doing here?” And you just realize they’re people and maybe they don’t actually know what they’re really doing. They’re kind of just winging it. Everybody is winging it, everybody’s winging it. And it’s kind of terrifying to realize is that there are… And this is not a Vice thing, nor is it an LA Times thing. And I put those two because I think a lot of some people may sort of have those two sort of diametrically opposed. But if you’re in a newsroom, it doesn’t matter where you are. There are people who are having serious conversations about, well, we should do this because this reason, well, we shouldn’t do it because of that other reason. I think particularly now is I think a lot of assumptions are being kind of torn down. It’s just, maybe we’ve been doing things wrong and maybe we need to do them this other way.
Dexter Thomas: One thing that I’ve been happy about at Vice is that a lot of those assumptions just don’t… Those old assumptions just don’t exist. And so I don’t get a lot of the things that I may get told to do other places, to speak a certain way, even to dress a certain way, to act a certain way, “Oh, you need to interview this person. And this is what the story is.” kind of thing. Often, I don’t, I certainly myself do not feel that pressure. And so that has been for me helpful, because it feels a lot more natural to what I actually do on my daily life. You know what I mean? The sorts of conversations that I have, I’m able to have those, it just, there’s just a camera happens to be there. So, it’s the closest thing that I’ve found to, all right, this feels like something I’d actually want to watch myself, if that makes any sense.
Colin Maclay: Yeah. I mean, to me, that sounds like that’s sort of more authentic or the journalism, the journalist is being more authentically themselves, as opposed to kind of faux impartiality or feel like the view from nowhere that journalists talk about, you’re not faking that. You’re sort of acknowledging, I’m a person, this is my style. This is how I talk and maybe this is what I think. And that, to me feels like there’s a lot of power in there, although it probably, I guess there’s some point in which it undermines itself, right? If you come in with your own bias and you level your bias an unfair… If you drive an agenda and what appears to be news and so I wonder where does authenticity and genuineness end and biased reporting begin, and how do you think about the way that those relate to each other?
Dexter Thomas: Yes, I like this question. I like this question a lot. So I’ll say, and this is sort of for the purpose of the editor. I think everything that I’ve said before this has been kind of throw away. I feel like we just, we were hitting the runway, I feel like we’re taking off here. So that was an aside for the editor. Moving back in. I like this question. You asked me about bias.
Dexter Thomas: So here’s the thing. There is nobody on this planet who is not biased. Person doesn’t exist. So here’s the difference between me and between a lot of other reporters. It’s the simple fact that I’m Black. That’s it. There’s a lot of Black reporters out there too. But the title of unbiased, the title of neutral is the sole purview and the sole territory of the white cisgender straight man American who speaks English. You dig what I’m saying? As soon as you start to step out of any of those categories, you lose your neutrality.
Dexter Thomas: Now, you lose your neutrality in the eyes and the ears of the majority, again, who value the white perspective. And the really fascinating thing about the white perspective is that we don’t actually recognize it as such. The fascinating thing about the straight perspective is that we don’t recognize it as such. It’s just the perspective. It’s just how you look at things. The voice from nowhere, that is the voice from nowhere. The voice is not from nowhere. The voice is a white voice.
Dexter Thomas: So the thing is, the really fascinating and really actually fun thing about being me in these spaces when I go interview people, is that already I know that there is a large portion of people who will see me and before I ever open my mouth they will say, “That guy’s biased. That guy has an agenda.” I haven’t said anything yet. Just looking at me.
Colin Maclay: You’ve just existed.
Dexter Thomas: I exist in my skin. And if I was a woman that would be tacked onto it. I could do my hair different, I could wear a suit, I could talk in the voice that I talk in when, I don’t know, when police pull you over or something like. I can do that. Or my bank loan voice, when I call the bank and say, “Hey look, I want to address this.” I can do that all I like, but I will always be assumed that, “This guy has got an agenda.”
Dexter Thomas: So if I say anything about… If I’m reporting on anything, I could be sitting down and having a conversation at a bar with a bunch of, say, Trump supporters, for example. Off bat, there’s going to be a bunch of people… And the people who I’m sitting with, they may love me. We may be having a great time. This is an example. People watching, off bat, “This guy’s got an agenda.” I know how it works.
Dexter Thomas: But in another way, that’s actually incredibly freeing because I know that, okay, that’s fine, but whatever I got to do, it’s just got to be good. So do I have a bias? I mean, everybody does. I don’t think… So what I can do is I can say that I do not have an agenda other than I really want to hear what people think. I do have a perspective. I do have a perspective. So if somebody… And you’ll see it in my face, this is the thing is, and I would say this about the rest of my colleagues too. We’re pretty real. Nobody’s really putting pressure on us to say, “Hey, pretend you like this thing.”
Dexter Thomas: If somebody asked me something, or somebody says something to me and I think it’s ridiculous, I will say so. I will say, “Yo, come on man. You can’t actually possibly think this. You can’t think this is a good idea. Hey, this doesn’t seem like a good idea. Hey, don’t you think that’s a little bit so on and so forth?” I’ll say it right.
Dexter Thomas: I am freed from the obligation to chase something, that something being neutrality, that something being non biasness. I’m free from the obligation to chase something that doesn’t exist in the first place. That’s when things get interesting, because if you watch something that I’ve done or you watch something, I also think, what my colleagues have done, you come up with it, “Okay, I have a pretty good idea of where the interviewer is. I have a pretty good idea where the interviewee is. Cool. I learned something.” That feels good to me as a viewer. It feels good to me when I’m able to watch something, I say, “Okay, I feel like I understand where everybody is. This person is just curious and they’re asking questions.” That feels good.
Henry Jenkins: So I just stepped down this year from a six year term on the Peabody award jury, and I have to say year after year, 10 to 12 pieces of Vice reporting would rise to the top 100 of entries that we looked at, but they just struck people as so interesting, so off-kilter from the rest of the news that got there. And then the division in the committee over the merits of Vice pieces, would kill a lot of them, but some of them got through and consistently getting awards. But I don’t think there are any pieces of news in the time that I was in the committee that generated the amount of discussion that Vice pieces did. The sharp divide, the intensity of discussion, the freshness of approach.
Henry Jenkins: So early on it was a bunch of bros in war zones pretending they were doing extreme sports as journalism, but gradually what we saw over time was the deepening of the coverage and the willingness of reporters like you to talk to subjects or go places that regular newscasters weren’t going. To hear voices we weren’t hearing any place else. And to me, that’s what’s most exciting about Vice, is when I tune into something by Vice, I’m hearing perspectives that are different from the usual guys on the rolodex, the other journalists that are calling up for commentary.
Henry Jenkins: I don’t know if that’s consistent with what you’re feeling from the inside, but that step from extreme sports to real, deep engagement with diverse voices, seems so systematic watching you guys evolve over the six year period I was on the committee.
Dexter Thomas: Yeah, yeah. And like I said, I came on four years ago, so I am unfortunately not able to say much about before I got here… I wasn’t here. Yeah. I can’t.
Henry Jenkins: But there weren’t a lot of people like you there at that moment, which is part of the change.
Dexter Thomas: Well, I can’t say that – Yo real talk, I have a paper trail, people can look me up – I criticized Vice before I got here. Anybody can get it, anybody can get it. And so I was not shy about that. I’m not shy about talking about that now. And I was very forthright and forthcoming about that when I started four years ago, July of 2016. So just a little bit over four years ago. But had I not felt like I was able to do stuff that felt true and felt real, true maybe is a better word, I would have been out of here a long time ago.
Dexter Thomas: I will say that one thing that I just kind of found fascinating is, again, me coming from graduate school, where you’d be doing this in both in the United States and in Japan, when it’s done right, a seminar, you’ll sit in there and you will bring up a topic or you may read some old texts written by some German philosopher who’s long dead, and three hours later you’ve touched on everything and nothing in between. You’ve talked about just about everything. And so, what I’ve found really interesting about, and I kind of miss that honestly, and the people I work with now, they’re genuinely ready, down to do that.
Dexter Thomas: We would sit down, so we’ll watch each other’s stuff and we’ll tear it apart. We’ll tear it apart constructively. Everything from, “What was that shot?” to, “Well, you got to hold that shot just the second late. Why didn’t you do that?” to, “Wow. That question was amazing,” or, “You know what, you really should have talked to this person,” or whatever, right? But also we have those conversations well before, so we’ll have just these big, long drawn out planning….
Dexter Thomas: I have had so many instances where somebody has just called me up and I know this is done all over the place in any newsroom, I think, but I feel like it’s more concentrated at Vice, where somebody call me up just because they just want to ask me about something I have some idea about. We just be hashing out, “Hey, I’m thinking about going to this certain place and doing this. Dexter, I know about this very specific topic. Can we just talk about it?” And there’ll be three, four of us in a room. Most of us are not getting credit for that. It’s just part of the collective. We are just really into the idea that, “Hey, we’re going to make basically this mini documentary that nobody else is going to make. And how can we make that as amazing as possible.”
Dexter Thomas: Same thing vice versa. I’ve had so many people hit me up and say, “Yo, Dexter, you should probably do this. You should do that. You should try this. Hey, if you’re going to Louisiana, yo, if you’re going to bat, you got to talk to this person. You got to talk to that person.” Again, I know this happens all over the place. The sort of slight difference is, it sounds like I’m being a cheerleader for Vice, but I genuinely am a cheerleader for the people who I work with because, again, I spent most of my adult life around PhDs and beyond. I’ve never been in a room with smarter people in just a really diverse sense of just the kind of smart they are and the kind of actually care about stuff and just know things, just come from all sorts of weird, different backgrounds. I was doing Japanese rap music before this. There’s another dude, he still is a comedian. Other people who they’re photographers and they just came over and, “Yeah, I’ll make TV.” What? You know what I mean?
Dexter Thomas: But yeah, it is kind of wild. I feel like I was going somewhere that I lost my train of thought. But yeah, it’s a really strange group. And I feel like a lot of times we make a lot of strange things, but also a lot of good things.
Colin Maclay: We should be calling you Dr. Thomas, I realize. Congratulations on that. So I want to get into that other part of your life.
Dexter Thomas: Sure.
Colin Maclay: And I don’t know, not that it’s separate necessarily, but I want to get in there. But maybe we could work our way back. And so, how do you go from being someone working on or finishing a PhD to LA Times to Vice? Take us back to how you got on that train.
Dexter Thomas: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it was not a train I anticipated being on. The short version was, I was in Japan on a Fulbright, and I had a lot of time on my hands. I was at Cornell and I gotten this basically Fulbright for a year abroad. And so the idea is I’ve finished my master’s. I just need to do another year research. I’m going to be in the country that I’m actually studying and I need to, yeah, just be there, collect some more materials, finish things up right, go to libraries, that sort of thing. There was some materials I was looking for.
Dexter Thomas: And then the uprising Ferguson happened. And the thing about academic publishing is that it’s extremely slow. I wrote something in 2010 and it came out in 2016, I think. And if you’re talking to somebody who writes about hip hop, that’s a couple generations, maybe two and a half.
Dexter Thomas: Think of who was hot in 2010, and where they are now. Some are still around, many are not. So it was killing me, and also I’m watching what’s happening online and I’m just kind of flipping out. And I think I just sort of started writing, basically, I was just blogging. And I had some people hit me up. I think the first people to hit me up were Al Jazeera and they said, “Hey, do you want to write for us?” And I was just, “Sure.”
Dexter Thomas: And I think I might’ve been writing a little bit before that, but basically I just started sort of blogging and I accidentally fell into freelance writing. That turned into LA Times saying, “Hey, do you want to work here full time?” Which, also, I was sort of surprised and I said, “Okay.” That’s a whole other story which I won’t get into. And then I was feeling like I wanted to move on from there anyway, and then Vice came calling. So yeah, it was not part of the plan, not part of the plan at all.
Colin Maclay: So tell us what brought you… Let’s talk about your dissertation work and what brought you to Japan, and so I’m super curious about that. And then I’m curious about how your nerdy, geekery around that also connects to the skills and stuff that you use today and how you see the world. But what brought you across the ocean?
Dexter Thomas: Yeah, so I’d been to Japan once by the time I was in college, and it was sort of really random happenstance stuff. I’d sort of gotten interested in the language. I know there’s a lot of people who get into the anime, or get into J-pop or whatever. Not really me. I did play a lot of video games, but I wasn’t really thinking of Japan as a place where I could go get more video games. I’d gotten interested in the Japanese language and I thought, “Oh, this is sort of cool.”
Dexter Thomas: Maybe the easier way to start is I had been working at a radio station in college and I was a DJ and I was sort of the person who handled hip hop music, hip hop and electronic, and I had other friends who handled punk and indie and all that sort of thing. And I would notice that we would get records sent to us by record labels, whether they’re indie or major or whatever, and we would constantly be getting, pretty often, records getting sent to us from Japan, Japanese punk bands and stuff like that.
Dexter Thomas: And whenever that would happen, my friends, the other DJs would get really excited and say, “Yo, it’s a Japanese punk band, this is so cool. Let’s put in the library, we’re going to play it,” and I would just, “Why?”, “Because Japan’s cool.” And I’m just, “I guess. Is it, really?” But then I also started thinking, “Well, I wonder if they have hip hop,” because no records from Japan ever really came in for me. And it just kind of got me curious, “Do they even have hip hop?” So this is early two thousands, and basically I just really had no expectations, no real idea what I was going to find, because it wasn’t easy to find Japanese music online really.
Dexter Thomas: But anyway, I ended up applying for scholarships a few times and I eventually got over there. And so right after I graduated college, I went on what’s called a “Monbukagakusho Scholarship”, and I was there for two years and pretty much I just hung out with rappers. Hung out with rappers, skaters, in the kind of local area that I was in, Takadanobaba, in Shinjuku, in Tokyo. And yeah, being in the scene and just sort of having this weird second childhood in my mid twenties, really just trying to catch up on everything that I’d missed. By this point, Japanese hip hop had had a golden age already and it was kind of in a weird slump and it was just about to come back in about 2008 to 2010, which is when I was there.
Dexter Thomas: I was just digging through everything, reading every… I was going to the old bookstores, getting magazines. I was talking to everybody I could, listening to everything I possibly could, collecting everything I could. And I started realizing that Japanese hip hop had a very prominent right wing and nationalist presence, which I hadn’t expected, and so I found that really interesting. And that became sort of the central point of questioning of my dissertation, which I later went to Cornell to actually develop and work on, which is, “Why is there a nationalist sentiment in a lot of popular hip hop in Japan, and what does that say about hip hop in general?” And so that’s kind of what I went for.
Henry Jenkins: Well, I was there roughly two years before you.
Dexter Thomas: Oh, nice.
Henry Jenkins: I got to shadow Ian Condry, he was finishing up his book on Japanese hip hop.
Dexter Thomas: Yes.
Henry Jenkins: And as he was beginning his work on anime. So we were doing anime interviews by day, hip hop interviews by night.
Dexter Thomas: Amazing.
Henry Jenkins: And I’d wander off to Akihabara and Yoyogi Park, which were my two favorite haunts during the week that I was there. And I sort of left with the sense that Tokyo was the web in human form, that whatever it was you wanted to search for, there was a homepage for it. Maybe a piece of turf in Yoyogi Park, maybe it was a neighborhood, that people were there and displaying their passions in a really strong way, and that’s what I remember most vividly.
Henry Jenkins: But on the racial front, I think one of the things that struck me the most was seeing these orange skin-colored Japanese hip hop fans, who had sat too long underneath sun lamps trying to darken their skin, which was very much part of what was going on in the scene at that time. So I’m just wondering what you found in terms of Japanese fans’ relationship to Blackness as they consume this hip hop, and how does that relate to the nationalist sentiment that you’re describing here?
Dexter Thomas: Yeah. I mean, the over-tanning thing was sort of a fad, and you don’t really see that, even when I was there, again, in 2008, you don’t really see that. The Kogyaru thing, if anybody’s familiar with that. We’re talking well before that, that it had kind of become out of style. You’d pretty often run into people with braids and dreads and stuff like that, or trying to make an Afro and things like that. And that’s actually not particularly new at all. You can trace that back really to the ’70s.
Dexter Thomas: Well, I’ll say this, there is an idea in Japan that hip hop is Black music, which is similar to the idea that we have in the United States about hip hop, but it’s a little bit different. What I mean by that is that there is an idea that only Black people can do hip hop, physically, only Black people can do hip hop. Right? So this is a little bit different from-
Colin Maclay: The cultural, a license to do it, this is ability to do it.
Dexter Thomas: Yeah. The cultural appropriation thing, really, it’s not in the conversation. I should say, things have ever so slightly started to change, maybe within the past two or three years. I’ll put it like this, one time I was at this punk show, a hardcore punk show. One of my good friends had taken me there and it was during the day. I mean, this thing must have started at 10:00 AM had gone to maybe 10:00 at night. It was massive. It was BYOB. It was in some massive venue. There was some legends there; Gauze was there, I mean just O.G.s, if anybody’s familiar, just real, real, real heavyweights in the game, and playing since ’82, ’83. (singing)
Dexter Thomas: I remember talking to this woman, a little bit older than me, I think. And she was there, huge punk fan, had a massive Mohawk, rest of her head shaved. I think her boyfriend was one of the bass players or something like that in one of the bands. She just started talking to me. I was the only person who looked like me there, so she struck up a conversation with me. She was asking what I was doing and said, “Oh, I’m a student. I study Japanese hip hop.” She just, “Why?” I was sort of telling her what I thought was interesting. I asked her about other music she listened to. And I said, “Oh, do you listen to reggae?” She said, “Yeah. I love reggae.” She’s telling me all these reggae artists I listen to. And I’m trying to tell her about all these Japanese reggae artists that I really like. She looks at me and is just like, “Why would you listen to a Japanese reggae artist? It’s Black music. Why do you want to listen to Japanese people making this Black music?”
Dexter Thomas: I’m sitting here and I’m watching Japanese dudes on stage, whiling out and nobody finds anything odd about it, which is to say that there is an idea that Black people are so far away from Japanese people that a Japanese person can not physically make Black music, but Japanese people don’t have that sort of mental block when it comes to what they consider white music, because they don’t even think of it as white music. It’s just foreign of music; Western music, quote unquote. Right?
Dexter Thomas: This is something I’ve written about, but you can see that in the ’70s, there was a kind of an infamous argument in the rock scene, early ’70s in Japan, which was kind of the Beatles thing was sort of played out. And a lot of local Japanese artists are trying to figure out, “Okay, we need to make our own music. We make our own scene. We need to stop doing this copying, where people are copying all these other bands or whatever. We need to stop that. We need to make our own music.” And so there was sort of two camps. There was one camp, which was singing everything in English, and there was another camp which was singing everything in Japanese. I’m simplifying it, but for the camp that said, “Let’s just sing everything in Japanese because we speak Japanese. Why would we sing in English?” And it seems super obvious right now, but for a while, it was, “Well it’s rock music and so we should be singing in English, because it’s new and new is English, and old is Japanese. Why would we want to do this old stuff?”
Dexter Thomas: It was kind of brutal… There were arguments about this. In music magazines and among artists, there was kind of a little mini-feud. But the internal turmoil that the Japan music scene had when it came to rock was over language. The internal turmoil that Japan has had over things like jazz has been over race. If you go back and you look at prewar, pre-World War II, jazz was thought of as just Western quote unquote, Western music; big scare quotes around this. People thought jazz is American music. They’re like Paul Whiteman, they weren’t really thinking about it.
Dexter Thomas: Then World War II ends, and then the US occupation begins and you have the US Army, you have the US military with the segregation, de facto or actually enforced, exists, and Japanese people start to see the way that Black people are treated and the white people are treated. They realize they actually start to feel, it’s not a theoretical thing. They start to see, “Oh my gosh, these people are different and if I’m going to pick a side, I better pick the white side.” That’s when you started to see people… E. Taylor Atkins, I think his book, Blue Nippon, N-I-P-P-O-N. This is when people started to “listen along color lines”.
Dexter Thomas: There’ll be people who say, “I only listen to Black jazz.” Nobody was thinking about this before. This is a long way to say but a lot of the ideas about race and a lot of the ideas about what it means to actually be able to make hip hop, these are not Japanese ideas. They are not traditional ideas. These do not come from any old views about the value of white skin or the beauty of black, nothing like that. These are products of American imperialism and white supremacy, and nothing else, and just local interpretations.
Colin Maclay: So it goes from other folk, all others being other and foreign to creating a distinction between Black folks and white folks when the American come there?
Dexter Thomas: Yeah. I mean, it’s sort of-
Colin Maclay: That’s intense.
Dexter Thomas: I’ll say this. It is something akin to the model minority issue that we have in the United States. This is me speaking as a scholar of this stuff. A really good book on this is Helen Heran Jun’s book, I think Race for Citizenship, I think is what it’s called.
Dexter Thomas: To summarize it, I would say if you show somebody that they are third class citizens, namely black people, if you give them the option to be second-class citizens, often they will take it.
Henry Jenkins: So given what you’ve described, what accounts for the fact that there are Japanese fans who strongly identify with so-called Black music and construct Black-oriented identities for themselves? Are they accepting for class citizenship and that model you just used? Is there a way in which they’re elevating Blackness as a source of cool, as it frequently operates in the US, exempts it from the racism? How are they processing that?
Dexter Thomas: Absolutely, yeah. Blackness in a sense is a source of cool. So, here’s the thing. Hip hop, I think very early on, and this is something that you can see in … This is not something I’m making up. This is something that rappers will say including in their own autobiographies.
Dexter Thomas: One of the O.G.s, one of the godfathers, Zeebra says … I’m paraphrasing in his autobiography that came out I believe in 2007, 2008. That when he was young, when he was getting into hip hop, he had a real identity crisis because he was trying to figure out, “Wait, all these Black rappers, they’re talking about acknowledging your history.”
Dexter Thomas: He’s listening to the Jungle Brothers, and they’re talking about, “Acknowledge your history. Think about how our culture was stolen from us by the white man. We were kings in Africa,” and all this other thing. He’s just, “Okay. That’s cool, but where do I fit in there?” He can’t figure that out.
Dexter Thomas: So there’s the physical aspect, which is one thing, but then there’s political aspect. Where the hell do I fit in with these people who are talking about being oppressed? Because even if you didn’t fully understand all the lyrics, Zeebra at this point is basically fluent in English but a lot of people weren’t, but they had an idea of what was going on.
Dexter Thomas: So where do you fit there? Well, where you fit there is and this is where he goes with it. He says, “Well, wait a second. Japan had a bomb dropped on us by Americans, and we were occupied by Americans,” which, white-dominated. “So really, if you think about it, black people and Japanese people are on the same side.”
Dexter Thomas: It’s a very short logical jump, but once you’ve made it, everything else just falls in line. So, that’s why you get these weird soft nationalist lyrics that you see sometimes, and everybody just rolls with it for the most part. (singing).
Dexter Thomas: When I was there anyway, there wasn’t a whole lot that dissent about it. You actually had some legit racist rappers who were I would say fomenting actual hatred, saying some actual hateful lyrics against minorities there. Ethnic Koreans, Chinese people, this would happen.
Dexter Thomas: There was a rapper who performed for a mayoral candidate, mayor of Tokyo, which is extremely important post. This particular candidate had written a paper and published it basically saying that the Massacre in Nanking either was grossly overstated or was actually provoked by Chinese people themselves. So, some have compared him to the equivalent of a Holocaust denier.
Dexter Thomas: I’m not sure that I can say that specifically, but I think there’s a spectrum there. I think my guy is on that spectrum. Here’s a rapper performing a campaign song for him. Something that we would think of as unthinkable in the United States, but the strange but predictable thing that’s happened is that there’s been a desire to align oneself with Black politics, which again is something that we see this in the United States because nobody wants to think of themselves as an oppressor. If you ask anybody, and they can be as far right as you want. Really, it’s anywhere. Really honestly, anywhere on the spectrum left as well.
Dexter Thomas: Nobody wants to think of themselves as an oppressor. One feels much better if they feel like they’re fighting against some oppressive force. That’s the way one can morally justify a lot of things. So, this is what happens. I mean this is why one can see all sorts of people in the United States invoking the name of Martin Luther King to justify all sorts of things which the man himself may or may not have agreed with. But if you are able to … The United States specifically, and because the United States is so powerful, this works all over the world, but if one is able to align oneself with a certain sort of safe Black progressive politics, then you can justify just about everything.
Dexter Thomas: This is why you can see people say, “Oh, well this isn’t what King would have wanted,” when referring to protests and things like that. How can you say this? I mean you have to dig a little bit deeper, you have to think about, for example, the famous quote, “The riot is a language of the unheard,” Letter from a Birmingham Jail, all these sorts of things. But yeah, so I don’t find it to be unique to Japan either.
Colin Maclay: There was a time in January of last year, I swear to God, the New York Times every other day was coming out with the TikTok story. And I was talking to people in all these different walks of my life, from teenagers to a 60-something-year-old professor friend of mine to whatever, just all these different universes, and they’re all like, “TikTok, that’s where it’s at.” And then, examples of all different kinds of crazy behavior, positive and less positive, and I don’t know.
Dexter Thomas: No, I mean it’s funny because a couple years ago, I remember some people in Japan actually telling me, “Yo, TikTok is this app that’s in China. As soon as they release it outside of China, this thing’s going to blow up. You have to get on it.” And it took a while because at first it was just really just weird cringey kids just lip-syncing music, but extremely quickly it became … I mean it’s a actual phenomenon, and fairly quickly also. I mean one thing that I found in reporting, along with some other people that work with some of my colleagues, is that TikTok is very much one of the major sites of activism, especially among young people. And they figured it out before everybody else did. They figured it out before everybody else did. And it took a long time for larger companies to say, “Okay wait. How do we figure this out? How do we get on this?”
Dexter Thomas: There is a right wing TikTok. There is a ultra right-wing TikTok. There are different brands of … There are different flavors of leftist TikTok. If you watch one too many videos on, I don’t even know … If you watch one too many videos on protests or whatever, at some point you’re going to get deep into Marxist TikTok. People legit just quoting Marx at you. So you can understand actually okay, here’s what he was trying to say in Capital. Let’s read this. Same thing, if you watch one too many vague right-leaning things, eventually you’re going to get down a very strange rabbit hole of some very strange people who I’m not even going to name, their personal philosophies and political thought. And the algorithm works not dissimilarly from the way say Facebook works, except even more powerful, as at a certain point TikTok’s algorithm figures out ah, you like this and you don’t like that, so I’m only going to show you this.
Dexter Thomas: And there’s such hyper segmentation on TikTok. I mean it’s absolutely fascinating. I’ve got a friend who is … There are different TikToks. I’ve got a friend who she’s been telling me about frog TikTok. This is her big thing. There’s just frogs. People just post pictures of frogs, and just frogs doing weird stuff, and that’s what it is. And people love it. And people have tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of followers, and these things are getting millions of views, and it’s just a frog. And I didn’t know this niche existed. You know what I mean? Mine looks a little bit more just weird, awkward humor. And so it’s fascinating. I mean I think one of the things, and I’m going into a tangent here, but one of the things that the internet has done that I found extremely interesting from a cultural perspective is if you think back, if we just speak culturally, culture broadly, in the late ’90s to early 2000s, I’m in high school. I was into Wu-Tang Clan.
Dexter Thomas: If you were into Wu-Tang Clan and you wanted to see the new Wu-Tang video, you had to sit through Jewel, you had to sit through the Jewel video, you had to sit through that damn Mambo No. 5 video, you had to sit through all these things you have no interest in. I don’t like country. I don’t like this. I don’t like that. I just want to see … I want to see The Prodigy, I want to see Wu-Tang, and I want to see Puff Daddy. That’s the only things I want to see on the MTV Countdown, but I got to sit through it. But what that meant is you went to school and you had a shared language. So that everybody at school, I know who Jewel is. Jewel’s actually cool, but I never would have chosen to listen to it. It was kind of forced on me, but again, we had a shared language.
Dexter Thomas: It is entirely possible now, it’s increasingly possible, you can have absolutely no idea who Ariana Grande is. You can not have heard a single song. You can not have heard a Drake song. It’s also possible, which is unthinkable for somebody at the top of the charts. The charts, they’re becoming meaningless now. There’s such hyper segmentation, which it’s always interesting watching people complain about music. It’s, “Oh, music back in the day was better.” Speaking as somebody who’s into hip hop, that weird hip hop conservatism that I see a lot which, “Oh, hip hop was better back in my days.” No, it wasn’t. It was cool. But the stuff they’re doing now is so much more interesting and fascinating.
Dexter Thomas: I mean, it’s a complete product of capitalism, but it’s totally possible for you to be completely into a genre that somebody never heard of. I mean, I bet there’s a lot of people listening to this who’ve never heard of Vaporwave. (music)
Dexter Thomas: One of my favorite thing.
Colin Maclay: That’d be me.
Dexter Thomas: Yeah. Vaporwave is amazing. It’s basically just slowed down Diana Ross music. That’s all it is. That’s the main Vaporwave song. It’s a bunch of slowed and J-pop. J-pop music, early J-pop stuff, really city pop. (singing).
Dexter Thomas: I’m super into it. If you go on YouTube, you can find videos with millions of plays. It’s just weird, quirky stuff that the internet is allowing you to come together around the shared interest that you just discover on accident. The various algorithms can lead you to. It’s very freeing, I think because you can connect with somebody on the other side of the planet and not only share a passion for something but actually develop that into something else. You can develop a community around it.
Dexter Thomas: What it also allows you to do, though, is be completely disconnected from people around you, completely disconnected, which there are arguments, I think, against that. The obvious ones are, “Oh, well, this nation is being divided,” but it’s always has been. The vision we’re hearing about, “The nation is divided.” It’s a thing that you hear. I’m not even talking about what you hear in the news necessarily. That’s a common thing you’ll hear people say in general, is that “Oh, well, we’re so divided now.” Sure.
Dexter Thomas: I would also tend to say that. I think it’s not that things are divided, or opinions are more divided than they used to be. I think it’s also maybe, more importantly, that there were a lot of people who we simply weren’t hearing now. The internet is allowing for a lot of people to, at least amongst themselves, be a lot more heard, at the very least amongst themselves. It’s a super-powerful thing, but if people are scared, I fully understand because it’s a little scary.
Dexter Thomas: I mean, we have to remember that a lot of the political groundwork for discourse, right now, was born in the chambers of 4chan. That’s where this stuff came from. So much of this stuff came from, and that started out as a bunch of weird nerds posting animate porn. That’s what 4chan was.
Colin Maclay: Now, they’re putting words into Tucker Carlson’s mouth and into Trump’s tweets.
Dexter Thomas: Yeah. To bring it back around, that is why it is disappointing when I was hearing really early people talk down on TikTok, was just, “Do you not realize that this is where the political action is happening?” It’s moved online. There always will people still be in the streets, and this is before the pandemic really started, but it matched up perfectly with the pandemic. The protests happened where one lives, where you live. People increasingly live online. This isn’t just kids. How many baby boomers do we know who are completely addicted to their cell phones, who cannot get off of Facebook. Super common, super common.
Dexter Thomas: I would argue actually older generations have almost a harder time getting off of their phones than kids do. I see millennials really talking about, “Yeah. Let’s get off of our phones,” and all this self-development, self-help stuff, personal development. “Here’s how to break up with your phone.” Nah, man. It’s baby boomers. They’re locked in, locked in, a lot of people, not everybody, but a lot of people. But watching people really talk down on “internet activism,” some of the stuff has been so creative.
Dexter Thomas: I mean, one thing that I can think of, for example, is you would see a lot of younger people, for the most part, posting these bait and switch activism stuff. The best example that I can of is with the case of Breonna Taylor. One of the refrains has been, “Today would be a great day to arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor.” I’m sure you’ve seen that. Online, before this, you would see much more direct, “Hey, in this case. This is clearly racist. This is what’s happening.” But you’ll see people post… On TikTok, they’ll start talking about something. They’ll start cooking, saying, “Hey, here’s how you cook a pizza. I’m going to show you how to get the dough. By the way, did you know? Here’s what’s actually happening in Louisville.”
Dexter Thomas: And the idea is to actually trick you. The idea is to trick you. There’s two kinds of people who will watch this. Well, maybe three. Some people who will watch it and be angry because they feel like they got tricked. And it’s just, “Hey look, you were telling a joke about cows or you were making a pizza and all of a sudden you’re talking about politics, get this shit off my feed.” There’ll be people in the middle and there’ll be people on the other side who know the joke and it was, “Yeah, man, this is great. You got it. You got it. Do it. Yeah. Speak your truth. Go for it.”
Colin Maclay: It’s the rick-rolling of today, right?
Dexter Thomas: No. Really it’s political rick-rolling. Political rick-rolling is huge right now. And that is just one of those tactics that have just materialized out of the ether. I would say primarily on the left and it’s fascinating. And then you’ll have the people who do get tricked, but then they say, “Oh, huh. Yeah. You know what? I was interested in this pizza thing, but maybe I will look this up online.” And by the way, this is something that absolutely though, you’ll see men’s rights’ activists doing this sort of stuff. You know what I mean? You’ll see weird, Reddit troll-type stuff. People do this. They’ll do the same thing.
Dexter Thomas: From what I’ve seen, this sort of thing, this particular political rick-rolling, I would say started on the left from what I’ve seen again. It could just be the algorithms that I’m seeing, but no, this is 100% where the activism is having. Because younger people really were the people who were the ones who were defining how TikTok works and what works on TikTok and what wasn’t. And it’s been, “Whew.” This is where it is. And then when the pandemic started, of course not everybody can go outside and not everybody feels comfortable going outside. And so the political conversations, including arguments that happened in the comments, its happening on TikTok.
Dexter Thomas: And if you were only paying attention, it would have been so obvious, so obvious, but the, “Oh, this is armchair activism.” It’s just yo man, all the activism has happened in the armchair. That’s where it’s happening. It’s all online. And you cannot discredit it, in the same way that if you were discrediting what was happening on 4chan in 2015, 2016, you were missing it, you cannot be discrediting what is happening on TikToK right now and on Instagram.
Colin Maclay: So you’ve just finished this Ph.D., killing it on Vice, the world has either or the nation has either ended or is coming to an end or I don’t know, what’s happening. Is there anything that’s putting a bounce in your step? Like in the people that you’ve talked to around the country or the corners of the internet that you visit, are you seeing things that are giving you hope for, where we go from here?
Dexter Thomas: I’m not sure about hope, but I think there’s certainly is an opportunity. I think what has happened both with protests that have been happening immediately after the deaths of both George Floyd and to a large degree, Breonna Taylor, and also with the pandemic is I think… This is the thing, what protests do, right. Protests, really the purpose is if you ask somebody, “Why are you doing this?” Often one of the answers will be to make people pay attention. Because they’re not paying attention now. Why do you stop traffic? To make people pay attention, to stop business as usual. And I think a lot of the things that COVID has exposed, a lot of the things that the protests have exposed, a lot of things that a lot of these videos have exposed, is that there are a lot of things that for a lot of people, they feel like they are broken.
Dexter Thomas: And that a lot of people feel America has been broken for some time and has worked fairly well for some people, but often at the expense of a lot of other people. And I think there has been an opportunity to actually acknowledge that and to actually learn from that. Here’s the thing. I occasionally get asked, “Yo, is covering all this stuff hard?” And it’s a weird question because I almost feel like who am I to say this is hard? Some of the people that I speak to, they’re enduring the worst moment of their lives. And so who am I to say it’s hard. I was outside, in Portland and I had armed agents shooting in my direction, for hours. Tear gas, flash bangs, pepper balls, you name it.
Dexter Thomas: First night, I went there, I had something sail over my head and that made me realize, “Oh, I really need to wear a helmet.” Because, it put a dent in the car right next to me. Had it been two seconds earlier or two seconds later, the thing would have hit me in the head. I’m not really sure what have happened to me, but I was one of many people who that could have happened to.
Dexter Thomas: And this is something that a lot of people are just going through and it becomes routine. I did a piece on this, you know what, it’s very strange for something like that to become routine. I think it’s very strange to live in a city where there’s a two block radius, where the government is firing things at its own residents. I also think it’s got to be extremely strange to be the person pulling the trigger. That’s got to be a hell of a mind trip. Figuring that out in your head, that’s got to be weird.
Dexter Thomas: So is that hard? I don’t know, right? What I’ve found maybe the most disheartening is realizing there are a lot of people who don’t care, who just simply do not care. Who feel that it does not affect them and that it doesn’t really affect their life because they don’t want it to. And I think that is a lot of the frustration that I see when I go out and I speak to people who are protesting. Well frankly, I mean, I’ve had conversations with police who are probably frustrated about some similar things but the unsurprising but perhaps disappointing part is that, yeah, there are a lot of people… Disappointing to a lot of people, I think, is that there are a lot of people who would prefer not to care.
Dexter Thomas: The thing is it’s getting harder to ignore, the protests have made it harder to ignore, I think, by design. The pandemic, obviously, has made a lot of inequalities extremely hard to ignore, but there is a desire, I think, on the part of a lot of people to try to shut that out and try and not pay attention and the thing is, it takes effort. It takes a lot of effort, I think, to shut that out and it’s just sort of wild to see. It’s hard to say much more than that.
Colin Maclay: It’s certainly a lot to process either way. My feeling, my hope is that the multiple pandemics of racism and antiblackness, COVID and Trump’s attack on all government institutions combine… They all have an equity piece to them and they combine to say that we don’t want to go back to where we were. That was not a good place. That was a good place for a small number of people, as you said, who were supported on the backs, literally, and the pain of a much larger group.
Colin Maclay: We’ll see. We’ll know more tomorrow whether people have heard the protests and have watched the footage and are maybe opening their minds a little bit to say, “We need to do some change.” And then all that does, if there is some change politically, I fear is that all that does is open the door to possible gains. We still have literally the entire mountain to climb before it’s a place that you want to live in.
Dexter Thomas: Yeah, I think, again, one of the things that this moment that we’re in has exposed is that nothing is going to happen, either way. Whichever way you believe things should go, nothing is going to happen without a lot of work. And there are some people, there are a lot of people on the right, a lot of people on the left, putting in a lot of work. Putting in a lot of work.
Colin Maclay: Well, that may be an appropriate place to wrap as we parachute into the unknown and unknowable, with hope that the folks on the side of democracy, human rights, care are outworking the other side and that we have something to show for it.
Dexter Thomas: Yeah, just to add to it, I mean, one of the things I see a lot is this idea that things will get better. You just wait.
Colin Maclay: Yeah. Right.
Dexter Thomas: If we’re just patient things will get better, progress will happen, and that’s just never been the case. That’s always been a battle of some sort and that’s the things is that, I think right now, again, if you look outside or even online, there are a lot of people who are really fighting and that is going to determine the way the country goes and because of the status of the United States, the way the world goes, I think.
Colin Maclay: Well, I guess we will see you on the other side and hope that it bears fruit and opens up people to be being willing to keep fighting for some progress.
Henry Jenkins: Yeah, so I guess we’re now on the other times, the other side that you were talking about.
Colin Maclay: Well, we’re getting closer to it. We’re still climbing over that wall, right?
Henry Jenkins: Yeah, it’s a prolonged transition point in to what the other side may look like. I’m not sure I’m any more certain now than we were when we did that interview a week or so back, what it’s going to actually look like but one of the things it’s going to look like is this is our last episode of what has been a very, very strong season for us. We’ve had a great line up of guests. I think you and I are hitting our stride in terms of figuring out how to make this thing work, how to ask interesting questions, how to shape interviews together. And I think we’ve hit a broad range of themes this go round, as well as a very diverse mix of guests this season, which have made this, I would say, our strongest season episode by episode, so far.
Colin Maclay: Yeah, well of course, I’ve liked all our guests ever. They’re all, as in Lake Wobegon Days, they are all above average, they’re all fabulous and I really do, I think things came together wonderfully this fall as, I guess in one way, just as evidenced by the fact that so many of these conversations are just still banging around in my head and I find never have I quoted our podcast so many times to friends and colleagues like, “Well, we were just talking to someone the other day and I learned this. You should really listen to this.”
Colin Maclay: I just feel like we were really fortunate to get great people at a unique moment, where a lot of us are reflecting in different ways and things that are maybe not always up for negotiation, or renegotiation, or reconsideration, really are. It does feel like a dynamic time, in both good ways and in troubling ways, that there’s just so much on the table in a unique way. I think that has lent itself to some really great conversations.
Henry Jenkins: Yeah, this one was so long, and so deep, and so rich that I don’t think we’re going to try to do our usual dissecting the key strands from it, but we wanted to call out that you’re not going to miss this all together during the break, that we just introduced this new feature called, What’s Making Us Sappy, where we talk to some of the guests on the show about what they’re enjoying in the media around them. So, as we go into the end of the semester, into the winter holidays, you will be able to hear some of our favorite guests from the last season plus, talking about their faves, whether it’s music, books, comics, television shows, films, things that are making them sappy, excited.
Henry Jenkins: For me, as a fan of the NPRs Pop Culture Happy Hour, which has a recurring feature called, What’s Making us Happy this Week, this is our tip of the hat to that. The title is both a spoof and a tribute to the great work that that podcast does. Our efforts to do something similar with our interesting guests who sit at that threshold between pop culture and social change.
Henry Jenkins: So, with that spirit in mind, I thought I would share a couple of brief recommendations to people, not necessarily the favorite things of the last few months, but things that I think are particularly timely or important for the themes of the show. I have two that I was going to do shout outs to. One is a show called Utopia, which Amazon has been running and had the misfortune of dropping at the worst possible time, and yet, that’s what makes it timely. Utopia was a British science fiction series about a group of comics fans who have been dissecting in great detail this comic book, only to discover that it’s actually true, that it’s telling us something about a real world conspiracy. Why it was a terrible time, was that it’s all about a pandemic.
Henry Jenkins: It is a dramatization of what a world of a pandemic might’ve looked like produced before COVID-19 kicked in. It raises weird whacked out conspiracy theory version of what’s going during the pandemic. It may be too violent for some people, it may be too conspiratorial for some people, but I think it speaks to a lot of things we’ve been discussing all semester in terms of the seasons worth of podcast.
Henry Jenkins: The other, is The Good Lord Bird, which is Showtime’s series about John Brown. Particularly strong is the relationship between John Brown and Frederick Douglas. But it’s about the politics of race, and racial uprising, and white saviorism, and how those things came together in the mid 19th century. It’s full of interesting things. Again, it’s maybe good TV and not great TV. It’s a mixed bag, but what it’s doing, and what it’s talking about at the current moment, could not be more timely.
Henry Jenkins: Again, it had to have been conceived and produced well before this summer. That’s what makes it interesting here, is that bringing together of long-term genre developments with contemporary social developments to have a show that just is so much of the moment that it almost feels raw to watch. But both of those, I think, if people are interested in an intersection of pop culture and social change, are shows to be paying attention to.
Colin Maclay: Well, I didn’t know we were going to do this, and I’m definitely not going to try to top your recommendations either in terms of discovering unique things or explaining why they’re relevant. And I’m just going to blame it on the clock, which, this episode is getting along. Let’s leave yours on the table and promise our listeners that we’re going to have more, I think, basically, every week coming here on out. So, lots of great stuff for y’all to discover in a variety of different media. Hopefully, it will also remind you of the episodes that you might’ve missed or ones that you want to give a second listen to.
Henry Jenkins: Well, it’s been an incredible ride this semester, Colin, and I can’t wait to get started with next year’s episodes.
Colin Maclay: Yes, let’s hope that happens when we are actually on the other side.
Henry Jenkins: You too.
Colin Maclay: Well, we are normally hosted by the University of Southern California here in Los Angeles, although we’re at home right now. USC and our homes in Los Angeles, sit on the traditional lands of the Tongva people.
Henry Jenkins: We are ably assisted by our wonderful producers, Sophie Madej and Josh Chang.
Colin Maclay: We’re so appreciative of the unwavering support of the MacArthur Foundation and the production of this podcast.
Henry Jenkins: You can find us online at howdoyoulikeitsofar.org or on Instagram and Twitter @hdylisf_pod.
Colin Maclay: That’s easy for you to say.