You Have Your Voice for a Reason, Even If You’re Not on TV

Key_and_Peele_Shoreline_Comedy_Jam_2012

Key and Peele at Shoreline Comedy Jam 2012

Two of my favorite comedians are Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, improv alums more commonly known as the shape-shifting, racially ambiguous, genre-parodying duo who graced both the Comedy Central network and YouTube screens for four years as the formidable Key and Peele. Whether it’s as President Obama and his anger translator Luther, or a host of college football players with outlandish-sounding names, Key and Peele turn everyday interactions and pop ephemera into memorable characters with hilarious catchphrases.

Because they are both biracial, much of their humor comes from subverting audiences’ preconceived notions of black masculinity. The various characters they bring to life (with expert cinematics from director Peter Atencio) allow Key and Peele to find their collective voice through a plethora of stylized individual voices. In so doing, a constant theme resonates through their work: there is a lot more to the black male experience than what Hollywood typically serves up.

In Key and Peele’s first full-length feature film, Keanu, two milquetoast cousins pose as hardcore gangster assassins in order to recover a lost kitten. It earns its R-rating with a lot of profanity, copious use of the N-word, and several instances of nudity—so no, your fourteen-year-old shouldn’t see it—but still, it’s very funny.

No other comedy duo could have made this comedy in this particular way. Indeed, the Key and Peele phenomenon seems uniquely suited for our age, where racial anxieties intersect with new layers of diversity. With their chameleonic ethnic looks, dialectical mastery, and keen eye for observation, Key and Peele make comedy that maintains wide appeal while sharply satirizing societal issues—not just racism but also mental health, obesity, police brutality, censorship, athletes as role models, you name it.

Thus, Key and Peele resonate because their comedy is timely. It was made, to borrow the phrase Mordecai uses to exhort his niece in the Book of Esther, “for such a time as this.”

We’re tempted to squeeze our oddly shaped profiles into the corset of mainstream culture.

What people miss in the discussion of diversity in our culture is that it’s not just important for symbolic or statistical reasons. It’s important because different kinds of people tell different kinds of stories. Unfortunately, when the only voices whose stories get told belong to a privileged few, the temptation is for those of us on the margins to try to squeeze our oddly shaped profiles into the corset of mainstream culture to become “marketable.” But this is a mistake.

God didn’t create any of us to imitate the successes of others. That doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t learn from others’ achievements, but trying to emulate their style just because the mainstream says that’s what’s marketable is a disservice to an infinitely creative God who presumably had a reason to place you in your context with your specific gifts and experiences.

Back to the TV analogy—it’s no surprise that broadcast television started to break out of its ratings tumble right around the time studio executives started allowing for the possibility that maybe there are bankable TV stars who aren’t straight white men in the eighteen to thirty-four demographic.

As believers in Christ, we have an obligation to honor the members of the body who have traditionally gone unnoticed or underappreciated. If you’re a gatekeeper in upper management, think of diversity not as another form of political correctness, but rather as a way to open up your organization’s collective vision in areas where blind spots may exist.

And if you’re still in the process of finding your voice as an artist, performer, student, author, pastor, resist the temptation to abdicate your role just because you think someone else’s voice is better. You have your voice for a reason.

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4 Comments

  1. I always find Jelani’s articles thought provoking…in a good way. But it’s hard for me to take his spiritual lessons seriously when he references such “un-God-honoring” examples as “Keanu” (above) and “Game of Thrones” (“The Power of Letting Go,” May 30, 2016).

    1. Denise,

      Thanks for your comment! I appreciate it whenever people engage with my writing.

      Bear in mind that there is a difference between mentioning a particular show or movie as a reference point, and actually endorsing said material. In the two examples you offered, “Keanu” was an endorsement (albeit with some clear restrictions), while “Game of Thrones” was a reference. I threw that in there because I know there is a subset of the Covenant readership that is already familiar with GoT, and I thought it would provide additional context that would help make my point for me.

      Also, I think it’s important that as Christians we avoid using polarizing dichotomies to describe things that do or don’t honor God. I think every person and every culture has practices, artifacts, ideas, or art forms, that have kernels of Godly truth embedded inside of it, because God is the author of all truth. So anything that is truly beautiful, noble, or inspiring (which literally means “God-breathed”) comes from God.

      That said, that doesn’t mean everything in it is fully I’m line with God’s Word and should be promoted as such. I might watch Pretty Woman with Richard Gere and Julia Roberts and see echoes of the Biblical prophet Hosea courting an adulterous harlot for his bride. That doesn’t mean prostitution is inherently honoring to God.

      My point is that just because there is content in a film that makes you uncomfortable, even if some of that content does not affirm Biblical principles, doesn’t mean that none of it is honoring to God.

      1. Fair enough. Maybe I’m the weak one in the food-sacrificed-to-idols conversation. But you have good things to say and I’d hate to think your message wouldn’t reach those who need to hear it due to a stumbling block.

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