Black Nerds: The Revolution No One Could Have Predicted

04 Oct 2007

doth halo>sex?

doth halo>sex?


On a late weekend night, two days before the release of the much-anticipated Microsoft video game Halo 3, a group of 8-to-10 black nerds in their late teens walks down the Bowery, their conversation animated. The leader of the pack, his Ben Wallace afro in full bloom, turns to the others, “Master Chief is… the Jack Bauer of… the Halo universe!” The pack, each member clamoring to respond in the affirmative before the others, turns into a burger joint.

The rise of the black nerd has been a blustery and uneven process characterized by large gains and deep swoons. Presaged by Clarence Gilyard Jr.’s portrayal of Theo, the computer ace who hacks into the building vault in the classic film Die Hard, the nerd who is possessed wholly of a black American masculinity is a specific character that enjoys a renaissance today even as the hip-hop world continues to project a cartoonishly grotesque opposite. The broadening media landscape, however, allows us greater access to the pulse of black America even as the mainstream media seems to be stuck on stupid infatuated with the images of black males that (used to) sell records.


For the savvy marketer, there is an opportunity in this inconsistency. If the general market advertising world has failed minority consumers it is in this most rudimentary of tasks: understanding them.

The most consistently perpetuated image of black males continues to descend from the penny short and hyper-masculine Tupac – DMX – 49 Cent strain that rather like influenza adapts to and attacks the public consciousness. That hip-hop, and its most commercially manifest gangsta contingent has been both a boon and an anchor to the media presence of black males is typified by Snoop Dogg’s career. Despite recent stints as a pitchman for AOL and Orbit gum, the D-O-double-G’s gravy train has been permanently barred from entering certain countries.

As evidenced by rapper 50 Cent’s recent record sales whimper in a grudge match against the more thematically moderate Kanye West, gangsta is on the wane. The album that did it? Graduation.

theo on com

It was the night before Xmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, except for the four assholes coming in the rear in standard 2 X 2 cover formation.
-from Die Hard

Theo, the black nerd at the center of Hans Gruber’s plot to steal $480m in bearer bonds in Die Hard is at once a badass and unselfconscious of his wire-framed mastery of technology. And while a film archivist might trace the revolution back to Larry B. Scott’s appearance as Lamar Latrelle in Revenge of the Nerds four years earlier, the feminized Lamar character represented no more than a farcical repudiation of the mass media’s image of blacks in that post-exploitation period. In short Lamar was weak, asexual (or gay), and like the rest of the nerds decidedly uncool — not to mention a marginal character in the films. The witty, empowered Theo, on the other hand, jumps from the screen. “You didn’t bring me along for my charming personality,” he sneers, “…though you could have.” Save for the fact that the Run-DMC-listening limo driver decks him at the end of the film, Theo’s position at the center of the story is unquestionably strong.

Steve Urkel would bring the black nerd character to the forefront of American pop culture during his reign of terror run on ABC’s Family Matters during the 1990s, but the black nerd was yet to rise to the position of misplaced yet ubiquitous appendage that he enjoys today. While the rise of counter-cultures to the mainstream is all too common, their rise within black culture, already a marginal culture with its own mores, has created unexpected hybrids. Hip-Hop producer/artist Pharrell of the Neptunes, who sometimes refers to himself as Little Skateboard P, named his quirky side band N.E.R.D. as if prophesying the coming movement… or maybe Jamal Smith? Witness: Smith, the thugged-out nerdy skateboarder.


No event underscored the rising tide quite like the release of Microsoft’s Halo 3 video game last week when Uche Nwachukwu and Darnell Jefferson were the first people in Manhattan to land copies of the coveted video game. Far be it for the mainstream media, or even the advertising world to notice, but the Uches and Darnells of the world are no longer the outliers among today’s black youth.


It is no stretch to say that the internet is alive with various honey pots of black nerdery. Andre Meadows vlogs from his gremlin-infested bedroom in Los Angeles, while the Black Nerds Network holds forth across the pond. And if dorks are allowed to join the fray, then then the online culture magazine, um, dork magazine, might also serve compelling notice that the trend itself enjoys a cresting momentum.

The proliferation of media voices and sources enabled by the internet has allowed a more nuanced and less gangster voice of young black America to emerge, untempered by market concerns and sensationalism. But you knew that. Right?

Follow up article here. I can’t believe I forgot to mention Tiger Woods.

4/11/08 MTV post about Black Gamers on the inside.


Comments:

  1. [...] You know how we were talking about Black Americans, culture and advertising the other day? Well, we’d like to make an addition to that list of interesting commentary: The Black nerd is often overlooked as a marketing demographic. For shame. For shame. Go read this stimulating piece about this demo here written by Raafi Rivero who also created that green Hummer spot. And then go read this one about the Afro-punk scene here. Posted by superspy Filed in News [...]

  2. 4 Oct 2007 Gardner Swan

    Reading this, I couldn’t help but think of a classic figure in both the “gangsta” and “nerd” pantheon, Ice-T. Obviously his music was smarter and more political than a lot of what you’re referring to here, but it’s interesting to see how he came up, and then transitioned to being in (admittedly terrible) movies like Tank Girl and Johnny Mnemonic.

    I don’t really have a point in bringing him up, but anyway, good article.

  3. 5 Oct 2007 Fae Simon

    You are WAAAAYYYY behind the times!!!

    Black people were nerds before the first white nerd ever wrote his first sonnet!!!

    Without Black nerds there wouldn’t have been an evolution in anything – that includes philosophy, science and mathematics!

    Bringing that revolution into the 20th Century – making the nerd stereotypical, you lot are still behind the times, just because our nerds weren’t on tv, doesn’t mean they weren’t integral to all living..i.e the inventor of the elevator!

    Black Nerds are not new – my favourite Black Nerd is also my first hero – my big sis who now rules the Onikaverse – check her out on: http://www.onikaverse.com

    Y’all are SOOO 80′s man!

  4. 6 Oct 2007 Kevin Dugan

    Fae brings up a good point, And I must add that nerd seems to be universal as best I can tell and does not discriminate. Nerds have come a long way since Lamar Latrell and Steve Urkell. These days it’s hip to be square!

  5. 7 Oct 2007 Luis Carranza

    Great article. I would have to say that the ultimate black nerd was George Washington Carver. He was a man of science denied access to a white school, but went on to be a professor. His contributions to science led to the start of the green movement, he advised presidents and was known for being the foremost authority on the peanut and they soybean. He was friends with Henry Ford and helped promote the use of bioplastics made from soy. He’s a great man and the quintessential black nerd.

  6. 7 Oct 2007 raafi

    Hey guys, thanks for stopping by. There’s no doubt that there have been smart black folks all throughout history. But when one of the big stories in media these days is that “geeks are the new cool,” it’s a little disappointing (though not surprising) that we’re not hearing more about black nerds despite increasing visibility.

    @Gardner: I practically grew up on Ice-T and Run-DMC. New Jack City was my favorite movie until Boyz N The Hood came out.

    Btw, Favorite black nerds? Will you please stand up LeVar Burton!

  7. 7 Oct 2007 bg

    Then there’s the Courtney B. Vance’s brush with pseudo geekness in Red October as the sonarman.

  8. 7 Oct 2007 j. brotherlove

    I understand what Raafi is referencing; it’s a topic that comes up a lot in the web/IT arena regarding the lack of black folk on conference panels or in attendance. The underlying message is that blacks aren’t in those spaces when in fact, we are. I’m happy to see an increasing amount of us embracing video gaming, comics, and the web with pride.

  9. 7 Oct 2007 Cobb

    Yeah, nerds are in this season. Black nerds aren’t hard to find if you know where to look. When I looked, I found them among the pages of Who’s Who of American Negroes, 1955. That book had 500 pages of short biographies, and so I was satisfied that I wasn’t alone.

    I would say, that my favorite black nerd, who plotted revenge, would be Joe Jett. He’s still alive you know.

  10. 8 Oct 2007 Eisa Nefertari Ulen

    Isn’t a nerd just someone who focuses on a hobby a lot? And if that’s true, then aren’t just about all the brothers in Hip Hop nerds?

    Think about how much the 5%ers influenced Hip Hop – and they are all definitely nerds. I mean, what would KRS-One be without Hip Hop? Just some nerdy guy referencing Africa and advocating vegetarianism in his everyday conversation. The reason he is KRS-One, is that the culture allowed him to reference Africa and vegetarianism with style. With pa-dang.

    First time I ever saw Jay-Z, at a press conference to discuss the death of Eazy-E from HIV-AIDS, Jay was wearing a button down oxford shirt. Tucked in.

    Think Flex didn’t collect models of cars as a kid? I’d bet a million he did.

    Intelligent brothers, making things happen: the sisters love ya. Stand up!

  11. 8 Oct 2007 JA

    As usual, the Brits seem to be the almost unwitting leaders in making television content ahead of the American cultural curve.

    Ladies and Gentlemen, I give to you The IT Crowd.

    ———————–

    As to the progenetors of Hip-hop being nerds: I think Raafi’s point is about a specific kind of present day enthusiasm for interests and aesthetics that marketers still falsely believe are limited to the white, and for that matter, male spheres.

    Every enthusiasm doesn’t make a nerd. Boxers, for example, are not nerds. Or people who wear neck-kerchiefs, who may be dorks, but don’t really strike that nerdy chord.

  12. 8 Oct 2007 Ron Eglash

    Lets not forget Malcolm X as nerd — those big horn rim glasses and his obsession with math

    For more see http://www.rpi.edu/~eglash/eglash.dir/ethnic.dir/nerds.dir/nerd.htm

    RE

  13. [...] contact ← Black Nerds: The Revolution No … [...]

  14. 9 Oct 2007 raafi

    @Cobb: Joe Jett is living proof that nerd can be fused with badass.

    @Eisa: My vote for hip-hop nerd mos def goes to J-Live, who even spent some time teaching English to 7th graders in Brooklyn. On the flip side, few things peeve me more than rappers who claim to drop knowledge while littering tracks with false information or poor math skills (I see you Canibus).

    @Ron: Illuminating essay. I’d say that Malcolm X’s ability to infuse intellectualism with a fierce black masculinity is precisely the type of nuanced hybrid of identities (as compared to the typical white nerd) that we see in Smith, the skateboarder, Theo in Die Hard, and LeVar Burton (who got his big break playing Kunta Kinte in Roots). Hmm, can I change my vote?

  15. [...] This nerd thing is taking a life of it own. It is possible nerd is hot. I heard about it in a documentary on black boys when at the end the PHD interviewed said we need more nerds in the hood. [...]

  16. 12 Oct 2007 Tim

    Raaf,

    Thank you for stepping in and defining the terms of debate when it comes to black nerd rappers. Your call out on canibus rightly sets the parameters for what constitutes nerdery. Referencing conspiracy theories, the illuminatie, universal mathmatics in the like is not nerdish, for any meathead or logcabin weirdo get be all about things that simply aren’t true but appeal to someone without enough education to get past the coincidental spookiness of a couple of mathmatical equations and the characters drawn on the dollar bill. Now we can get back to who qualifies as a bonafide nerd rather than some dudes who burned down too many blunts with the GZA (who, I’m going to say, is not a nerd, regardless of his nome de rap). Now Jeru, on the other hand, with all of his comic book shit………….

  17. [...] I would love to see a more thorough version of this essay on Black Nerds, which includes George Washington Carver, Malcom X, and African Culture, but it’s still a very well-written and thoughtful piece. [...]

  18. 7 Nov 2007 Charles

    The fact that Kanye West is shouting out John Currin is part of this convo. We shouldn’t be ‘surprised’ by it, but many are. Appropriately Complex?

  19. 26 Nov 2007 tai (vicelounge)

    not just behind the time, but uninformed. black nerd (crispus) on wired. brown eyed intelligence was doing the sexy “nerd” (no homo) 20 years ago. tyrone, mclean and arzie: cafe los negros. cool ass cats who could program. randi & grfx… math, physics and psych majors who barely lost the 3×3 reebok basketball challenge and were making designs with cafe los negros. john lee and giles art filmmakers. t’kalla and e patric coker: black cats doing forensics, from a public college, winning all the awards… while dipped in polo and girbaud.

    maiysha simpson: more degrees than a thermometer. REAL model, singer.

    lynne johnson: editor, technophile, FOINE.

    polo pat, avalon, muMs, jasiri, dp law of poemcees, asheru (boondocks theme song), fatimaa, fatimah, saul, jessica care moore… …and running your universe

    nerds.

    naw. fuck that!
    black intelligence.

    you call us nerds. we call ourselves your boss.

    -tai

  20. [...] Yeah, I said it…the Black Nerd is back. But is anybody paying attention? This means “you” marketers and image-makers. We’re not talking nerd minstrelry (ala Urkel) who can’t get a date to save their lives; rather the plugged in, “Blade Runner” loving, XBOX playing, afro-proud version 2.0. The fellas at Desedo have gone viral with their script on the black nerd and it’s worth a read. For my money BN’s are one more aspect of the black consumer that doesn’t get the play it should. When we talk about consumer segments at my agency it’s sub-sets like the BN that get us excited. [...]

  21. [...] pingback from Black Nerds: a Reprise [...]

  22. [...] Awhile back, Sam Ford wrote a post questioning whether “the black nerd” could be a stereotype that “breaks” stereotypes. I dashed off a quick comment and then went on to read the post that inspired Sam’s words: filmmaker Raafi Rivero’s “Black Nerds: The Revolution No One Could Have Predicted.” (I was interested to see that Ron Eglash, whom I noted in my comment on Sam’s post, commented on the original post himself.) [...]

  23. 28 Feb 2008 Nai

    So if Malcolm X was a nerd, what about Barack Obama? And what about Black women???

  24. 1 Mar 2008 J. Johnson

    This is very offensive. You’re saying that, due to the success of Halo, black people are beginning to be “nerdy” but not Urkel nerdy? Think about waht you’re saying. An educated black person is “nerdy” Or someone who has a strong passion is to be a “nerd?” Let me tell you: Black people have been smart, intelligent, profound and educated for years. All black people are not “gangster” just as all white people are not rich…This article is speaking to all the stereotypes of Black people.m We’ve had people like James Baldwin, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Marcus Garvey all the way to Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Obama… And women: Madam C.J. Walker, Josephine Baker, Dorothy Dandridge, Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King, Sojourner Truth, Ethel Waters…. are you serious? It’s really a shame that you categorize them as nerdy just because they have education….

  25. 7 Mar 2008 Dallas Penn

    Nice drop Raafi,
    I co-sign you thouroughly on LeVar Burton’s nerd status from his role on the detective show 10-Speed and Brownshoe, albeit Burton was 10-Speed.

    If you want to hear some horrible negro rap math listen to Foxy Brown’s verse on that Firm single. That was janky.

    It is impossible for media to recognize the emergence of the Black nerd as a lifetyle when the media on a whole chooses not to look at Black males directly in the eyes.

    In the poorest Black communities the nerds are co-mingled with the thugs, the homos, the freaks and the all around losers. Truly being poor means that you can’t afford to disenfranchise anyone. Everyone gets a seat at the table during thanksgiving and Easter. We might crack jokes on you, but you always get to break bread with your fam no matter what your backstory is.

    I’m glad that popular culture is recognizing us, if only to use that recognition to sell us more bullshit.

  26. 18 Mar 2008 dolorado $lim

    The movement has been here for quite some time, no disrespect, to the article at all. I’m digging the “NEW MILLENIUM Renaissance” Thats what i call it. Since when has there been this much artistic creativity in the world of afro-centrisity? Not for a while….its been here, but it went through all kind of phases, trends, fads, etc….Seems like the new generation is more in touch with the origional methods of HIP-HOP. u know MCing, DJing, BREAKing, GRAFing……that and the fact that if you dont have a myspace page you look like a cave man. Seems like the masses of HIP-HOP/RAP are becoming better armed for brain battles instead of guns. just my opinion….

  27. 10 Apr 2008 cybernigga

    As I state in My post black nerd revolution, your article raises several important and crucial topics. The foremost one being will I get a better hit percentage now that nerds are in?

  28. [...] Following Up on Black Nerds: You might remember Raafi Rivero’s post about black nerds from awhile back (which I discussed here). Well, Michael Hastings-Black clued me in to Raafi’s follow-up post, featuring a video of the SEO Rapper neatly illustrating a point that some readers originally struggled with: The thrust of the piece remains vital — that because of our more democratized communication tools we are beginning to see a more accurate depiction of black america. Mainly because, you know, that media is actually being created by, ahem, black people. But all of these things are articulated more succinctly by the SEO Rapper above, whose seamless integration of the swagger required of an MC with the pedantry of the digerati is too smooth for hypertext. [...]

  29. 14 Oct 2008 nerditry

    I’d like to think that the Black Nerd may not have been possible in rap without contributions from De La Soul and especially the Roots. De La took things that urban black guys would have considered nerdy and/or white in dress and vocab, making them cool because the quality was exceptional.

    Amir is THE ultimate black nerd and the leader of the Roots to those not specifically a bigger fan of Black Thought. This in turn brings us to the point that the BN is has been in control for a well long time as producer. The technical aspects of rap production, insane knowledge of esoteric beats and rappers and staying up all night in front of the keyboard and mixing board seals it.

    I think we’re looking at the BN and the white nerd finding more commonality in which nerditry can be shared. Even if they’re not the bookish variety, I know that the nerd nexus is in the world of Madden football.

  30. [...] -Raafi Rivero, Black Nerds [...]

  31. [...] Black Nerds Over the last few years, we have seen a media rise in black skaters, black rockers, black videogamers and a successful new strain of hip-hop, all of which run counter to the standard mass media image of black man as athelete/rapper/criminal. Why? Director Raafi Rivero posits that perhaps: [...]

  32. [...] and minority markets. According to Desedo’s website, their market “is a robust world of Black Nerds, Asian B-Boys, and Muslimah Bloggers. People that we know yearn for brands to better understand [...]

  33. [...] markets. Our heroes and our audience hail from the same world of early adopters, one encompassing Black Nerds, Asian BBoys and Wassup [...]