Open Mike Eagle wants to expand the world’s concept of blackness. As a rapper who has earned critical and cult accolades with his self-described Art Rap, he’s mastered the craft of not fitting into any pre-established outlines of what a hip-hop artist “should” be. His newest album Brick Body Kids Still Daydream is a perfect example of that. The album uses Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes, a massive public housing complex that was demolished in 2007, as the inspiration and backdrop for 12 tracks of emotional social commentary with a graphic novel storytelling dreaminess.
Perhaps it’s that outsider mentality that attracted him to comedy. Mike isn’t a working comedian, but he’s drawn to them, leading to frequent collaborations and appearances on each other’s projects. He’s done videos with Hannibal Buress, tested his physical abilities on The Eric Andre Show, and turned The New Negroes – a live monthly showcase with Baron Vaughn – into a TV show for Comedy Central. I talked to Mike about how the new album and upcoming TV series are poised to open people’s minds to the variations of the black American experience and why he feels that comedy is such an important art form.
I’ve been listening to your new album a lot. There are two ways that I enjoy it. The first is that it’s good summertime music for me.
I mean, the lyrical content is more serious, but I like barbecuing to it, skateboarding to it.
That’s so surprising.
The other way I like listening to it is to smoke out, lay down, put on my headphones and really listen to it. That’s when it really hits me. Would you consider this your most thematic album?
Maybe my most overtly thematic album. I’ve made albums in the past that were themes, but I didn’t really bother to tell anybody what they were, which I realized was a mistake. But just in terms of putting it out front I would say yeah.
What is your relationship to the Robert Taylor Homes?
My aunt lived there for a long time in those buildings. Having left Chicago for college around the time they got demolished, I think because of the age I was too, it didn’t really register with me what it meant for an entire complex. For a building system to have 30,000 people and then the city basically votes one day that it’s all going to be torn down after having been there for 50 years…thinking about that and thinking about the time I spent there and then going back and looking at the place where it once stood and realizing the city hasn’t really developed anything there, it kind of messed with my head in a lot of different ways. I started writing stuff from there.
I get that when we’re kids we don’t get the gravity of much of anything, but what is it about where you are now that made you connect to the history of that place? Is there something going on with you personally or with the world that made the Robert Taylor Homes a symbol to you in some way?
Definitely in terms of the decision, how the decision to level an apartment complex comes about. I don’t think people are necessarily wired in such a way to think about the ramifications of that socially and what it means to the families inside. It’s kind of a traumatic experience. Even if it’s kind of a downtrodden place, families have been there for three generations and that’s all they’ve known. Then suddenly their building is destroyed, their neighborhood is destroyed, and they kind of get carted out and shipped all over the city. That reminded me of what happens a lot of times when black men are killed by police. The reaction of some people isn’t to have empathy for that person’s family or any understanding of the social ramifications. It’s almost like it’s expected, not really thought about, or is only thought about on a surface level like, “Oh, it happened again.” That disconnect between trauma and people’s feelings about it kind of resonates with me. If you look at everything that’s been happening in Chicago since then and the fact that people weren’t able to draw a direct correlation to the randomness of street violence in Chicago to the destruction of these complexes all around the same time, it’s insane to me that nobody considered that.
You mentioned police shootings. I think so often when something like that happens people boil it down to two characters: the victim and the offender. But there’s a ripple effect that hits families and communities that is often ignored.
That’s part of what ties it all together. The way we as a country think about and process trauma leaves a lot to be desired. The level of empathy when someone experiences trauma, I don’t see it in people’s reactions to things. You see it when there’s a school shooting, the kind of empathy we’re capable of as a society. I think people tend to be able to relate to that. But I think we fail people who are victims of trauma when we don’t give that full palette of empathy out all the time.
I think it’s even more difficult when it crosses racial lines because of the difference between sympathy and empathy. To me, empathy is feeling what that person is feeling because you’ve gone through that experience and can see it from their perspective. I can be sympathetic and very affected by something I see, but I have never lost a sibling, a parent, a child to senseless violence.
I guess the question is: Does it necessitate having that shared experience? I have a child, but I’ve never lost a child. But when I hear about somebody losing a child I feel like I can put myself in that position. I won’t be able to feel that pain exactly, but I think what I’m able to access I would call empathy.
The cover art for the album is incredible. Who designed it?
A guy named McKay Felt. It was something I envisioned and he was able to execute.
How did you describe to him what you wanted to get out of it?
I had a photo of the Robert Taylor Homes from different perspectives. I told him I kind of wanted to personify them in that way. He changed the perspective and made it a lot more dynamic than what I was thinking. He made it so you could see it more as a cluster of buildings instead of just one. He really nailed it.
Another big thing coming up for you is the Comedy Central version of The New Negroes, which is a live show that you’ve been doing for a while. Can you take me back through the history of the live show and how it ended up being a TV show?
Baron Vaughn started the show at the Bridgetown Comedy Festival probably like four years ago. At that time it was a way for him to assemble the new voices in black comedy that had been invited to the Bridgetown festival. I think that first year he did four different showcases with completely different lineups. There were that many comics around the country that people weren’t really aware of who were killing it. Doing it at Bridgetown kind of became a tradition. I joined him there, I want to say, three years ago and started doing it with him. Then we brought it to LA as a monthly at UCB on Franklin. Since then we’ve done it in San Francisco, Denver, and New York. Comedy Central has purchased the television rights to it and we’re configuring it for television now.
The title of the show is drawn from Alain Locke’s literary collection, The New Negro, which was a pretty influential book in the early 20th century. How is The New Negroes holding up the legacy of that work?
That collection was put out at a time when it was critical for America to understand about who they thought the negro was. There were a lot of negative characteristics ascribed to the American negro at the time. There were so many varied experiences happening in cities around the country and so many different minds with so much to say that it made sense to have a vehicle called The New Negro to kind of put out front so that people could upgrade what they thought the negro was capable of. It kind of connects to what we were talking about in the modern day in terms of empathy. I feel like part of the barrier to people being able to empathize with black people’s trauma now is that a lot of times people’s expectations of black lives in America are set up in such a way that when these traumas happen it’s not seen as any sort of surprise. It’s not seen as, “These people should have the same safety that everyone else has.” When a black man is killed in a police brutality incident, there are a lot of people online whose first instinct is to think about what the victim did wrong, blaming the victim. I think what we’re trying to do with comedy, and we have done with our monthly show, is to show that there’s so much more to black comedy than what people might expect and what people have been used to. I think that’s a representation of the variance of black lives in America in general. Of course, it’s a much different level these days. We’re not fighting the same type of overt oppression that we were then, but I think everything we can do to show that blackness is not just one thing kind of helps people connect to us.
What is your personal relationship to comedy? You have a lot of comedy friends and do collaborations with comics.
I just really love the craft. I love the art form and love being around it and consuming it. I’ve dabbled in it some too, but it’s not really my thing though. I really feel like comedians are on the forefront of thought. Even when I was a kid watching somebody like Richard Lewis on television, or Steven Wright, I felt like I was hearing advanced, weird, personal philosophies. That’s always kind of stuck with me – the ability to present one’s thoughts in a way that’s overtly entertaining. It has to be entertaining, but it captures these feelings of vulnerability and dissatisfaction with society. I think comedy does a lot for me as an individual, as a consumer. It’s important to me.
Check out all of Open Mike Eagle’s upcoming tour dates here.