Ferrari Sheppard: Black Is An Experience
Note: The following article was published in Athens New Renaissance Magazine
The interview began like many before it: there was a slight delay due to technical issues, there was a short exchange of pleasantries, and there was just enough light-hearted banter to smoothly ease into a full-fledged conversation. However, once the topic of Chicago weather was completely exhausted, Ferrari Sheppard and his words moved into deeper realms of understanding, helping to illuminate blackness itself.
Stop Being Famous’ founder and chief contributor has been in the game for nearly a decade. During his career, Sheppard has interviewed numerous famous artists and thinkers, including Mos Def, Erykah Badu, M.I.A., Saul Williams, and more. He has traveled all around the world and documented his thoughts, most famously his trip to Israel-Palestine that led to his controversial article, “I Traveled To Palestine-Israel and Discovered There Is No Palestinian-Israeli Conflict” which was published on The Huffington Post. It should come as no surprise that Sheppard has a plethora of insightful thoughts and is enthusiastic about sharing them.
Even though he spoke through a phone receiver hundreds of miles away, Sheppard’s passion for justice, the people, and current events made it impossible for anyone within earshot to become fully engrossed in his ideas. Once asked a question, he would briefly pause; then, he would let an exasperated sigh slip; finally, right when you thought you might have touched a sensitive area and should turn back, he would let loose a torrent of words. After a few short minutes, Sheppard--the social critic, painter, writer, and entrepreneur--had transformed the interview into an address, with an eager crowd of one intently listening.
Black is an experience
If you follow @Stopbeingfamous, you already know about Sheppard’s often aggressive style of address. As the old adage goes, “truth is confrontational,” and his many discussions are a testament to the phrase’s accuracy. He welcomes open and honest conversation on social media and on his site; oftentimes leaving a few egos bruised and preconceived notions torn. All things considered, this makes his voice one of the loudest and most interesting in the current landscape, especially in today’s social climate.
If you happen to have any friends who felt personally betrayed and hurt after the Michael Brown and Eric Garner decisions, chances are you have read at least one of his 140-character indictments of our country. His words and his rants, no matter how short, have become lightning rods attracting attention far and wide – some being retweeted hundreds of times.
Since national attention has refocused on racial identity and inequality, these topics dominated a lion’s share of the conversation. Spurred on by a simple question: “What does black even mean?,” Sheppard started off with a small anecdote about one of his famous friends recanting the “black” ethnological classification, much to his surprise.
“That’s where we disagree. I would say, yes, he is black. Black is an experience,” said Sheppard. “There is a way black people say ‘God Damn’. It’s like ‘Cotdamn!’ It’s deep, it comes from the stomach. ‘Cotdamn!’ That’s unique; I’ve only heard it said in the black community. It sounds like James Brown. What is it—I’ve been to South Africa, Ethiopia, Ghana, I have been to many countries—I’ve seen a lot of black people, but there is something about the black experience in the United States and Caribbean that the world identifies with. It produced Hip Hop, Jazz, Reggae, Blues, and Rock & Roll. ”
Recognizing that his answer might only tell one side of the story, he was quick to expound on it.
“People around the world contributed to humanity, but not all people are valued equally. People from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds live in the same country, but experience life through parallel realities — blacks, whites, Latinos, etc. A key portion of the black experience, particularly, is trying to educate others about what it’s like to be black; it’s as though we’re prosecutors trying to convince white America, or the world, that the burden of racism lies heavily on the backs of those who are darker, and that racial problems are beyond the control of people of color. It’s not a reality many people want to acknowledge, and that’s where the problem stems from. It’s frustrating, and that frustration is a large part of the black experience.”
I Can’t Breathe
“A metaphor would be if you are standing on someone’s neck, in essence you are trapped just like the person who is under your foot. In your mind you may say, ‘I want to let up on this person’s neck. I’m tired of standing. I want to get a drink, but if I let up on his neck, what will he do to me?’ I assume oppressors feel they’ve come too far in their oppression to stop now; it’s been five hundred years.”
This past summer, Americans watched Eric Garner’s life slowly fade away as he begged Daniel Pantaleo and the other officers detaining Garner to stop harassing him and then to stop choking him. His last words, “I can’t breathe,” have become the rallying call for many who find themselves underneath the thumb of an ever-increasing oppressive society.
“It’s not an innate hatred oppressed people feel, it’s that victimization has brewed into hatred. A reflex has been triggered; when you talk about Nat Turner, he killed his slave master, that was a reflex. When someone punches you, you may strike back. I wouldn’t even say most black people hate white America. I’d say there is an impenetrable love amongst black people for whites that stems back to slavery. A type of love that is irrational considering centuries of mistreatment. Since the Abolitionist Movement, Black people have been open to change or moving on, but it is impossible to move on when the offence is still occurring. That’s something that should be understood by everyone. Some folks say, ‘Man, just move on.’ People don’t usually tell Holocaust survivors or the children of Holocaust survivors to move on, they tell them to never forget. You can’t move on if it is still happening.”
Often when the topics of race or inequality are broached in America, it immediately becomes divisive, typically with minorities and their allies on one side, and those benefiting from or protecting the system on the other. This can be seen in the “Us vs. Them” dichotomy that has embedded itself into the speeches of police officers angered by the current wave of protests. Sheppard has come into contact with this phenomena and acknowledges its importance, but sees it as symptomatic of a much larger problem.
“I’m into gun culture, I go to the gun-range, and sometimes I’ll find myself around a bunch of cops around my age. It’s ironic, because they are scared. They’re scared—not of me—but afraid in general, worried about Zombie Apocalypses. They’re like, ‘Yo, you got to be ready for the bad guys.’ I say to myself, ‘why the fuck are they so scared,’ police are preparing for war constantly. That kind of paranoid, aggressive attitude is the result of police distributing terror and injustice to people of color and expecting retribution. I imagine what goes through some whites’ minds, ‘the blacks, the Latinos, and the Arabs are going to gang up on us.’ All of this goes back to the metaphor of standing on someone’s neck and being afraid of what they’ll do when they’re let up.”
We are broken gladiators
Prior to the Brown decision being released, Ferguson, Missouri was home to a national media frenzy. Major News Channels like CNN, ABC, MSNBC, and Fox News set up camp to watch what residents would do when justice was either served or evaded once again. In Staten Island, news camera’s lined Stuyvesant Avenue and Bay Street anticipating a reaction from the locals when Pantaleo was able to walk away a free man. It was a circus - a mad dash to get the best pictures - to boost ratings.
“The torment of black people has always been a spectacle. In fact, tell your readers to google “Without Sanctuary.” Without Sanctuary is a website that has a collection of old postcards from the mid to late 19th century and early 20th century, showing blacks lynched, tarred, feathered, and burnt - some of them castrated. These postcards were circulated among white people as entertainment. If you were white in 19th century Europe, you could look at one of the postcards from America and say, ‘Oh, look at the nigger hanging from the tree.’ It was entertainment then, as it is entertainment now. It’s compelling to see a black boy laying in the street for hours bleeding, dying. It’s fascinating to see the black community’s reaction to state-sanctioned terror because all we do is march and sing, and get beaten down by the police. It’s a sick form of entertainment, but it goes back to ancient Rome, when emperors provided “bread and circuses” to the masses. We are broken gladiators.”
The news broke that there were rioters and looters, and those who were always leery of the protestors and their movement felt vindicated.
“The Ferguson rebellion wasn’t so much dangerous in a literal sense, as it was in the sense of being dangerous to the construct of white supremacy. Believe it or not, black people love white people; I say that because feelings of love for ones abuser were ingrained in captured Africans during slavery. Even when we get angry -- and you’ll see this in Ferguson, we take it out on ourselves. We go into the respectability politics, we say, ‘Maybe if we pull our pants up, maybe society will respect us. Maybe if we straighten our hair. Maybe if we slim our noses, if we walk differently.’”
“We do all these things and then we go and destroy the property that we have been given to live in—cause it’s not our property, it’s the United States/city property, which was stolen from indigenous people. So we destroy where we live, instead of destroying where those benefiting from our suffering live -- those who benefit from white supremacy, the war on drugs, redlining, and the prison industrial complex.”
Being fed up manifests in weird ways
The release of the film “Selma” is spectacularly timely. In a year that has seen people far and wide take to the streets to fight for justice, often under the banner of youth led groups, a movie about the power of the people tired of being taken advantaged of happens to land in theaters. Sheppard has seen this agitation brewing and coming for sometime.
“I’ve talked to a lot of young people, and many of them are fed up. Our generation was pegged as being apathetic by the baby boomers and generation X. In reality we are not apathetic, we are fed up. And sometimes, being fed up manifests in weird ways.”
“Odd Future emerged as a group of black kids from the suburbs, who were on some punk rock, skater shit. Their sentiments were, ‘Fuck my parents, fuck everything.’ You have to realize, these kids grew up in a post 9/11 world, with color-coded terror alert systems and mass hysteria. If a child is fed a steady diet of fear, violence and hatred, what the fuck do you expect?”
Turns out this news was false
Sheppard’s black experience interacts with more than just white America- it has international implications. It is subject to the same external and internal factors governing everyone in the new globalized world.
“The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was allegedly on Twitter calling black people to join them. It’s ridiculous for many reasons: one being anti-black racism in the Arab world is rampant; the second being, ISIS cuts people’s heads off. When perceived foreign threats become coupled with domestic struggles, the black experience adjusts to a new wave of hysteria or falls victim to scapegoat status.”
“It’s interesting to see, because news reports recently surfaced purporting that The New Black Panthers, who have no association with the liberation group of the 1960’s, were trying to buy bombs—the reports turned out to be false, they were trying to buy handguns in Missouri, not bombs. I look at these things, knowing the history of the FBI’s COINTELPRO and its war against black militarism and the Black Panthers, and I’m concerned that federal agencies are again trying to connect black groups in United States to global terror. This happened in the past to the Black Liberation Army (BLA), the Panthers, and many other groups. It was the worst thing that could have happened because the truth of the matter is, black people don’t want to go to war with the government. Black people want to be left alone, for the most part. The calender says the year is 2015, but the social climate says it’s 1785.”
A true democracy is unstable
“We the people” are three words that signify a number of things to Americans: freedom, equality, history, degradation, and imprisonment. A phrase has never held so much promise and hope, but perhaps, it contains some falsities as well.
“I don’t believe in, I guess I have to be very careful when I say this,” Sheppard stops then starts up again, “Democracy and capitalism cannot co-exist. The system that we’re told is a democracy is actually a dictatorial corporatocracy with plutocratic undertones. In simple terms, a wealthy minority heading banks and corporations, run the government. A true democracy is unstable. If democracy existed, every 4 years, we would have the majority—poor and the middle class—taking wealth away from the rich. Can you imagine that?”
He begins laughing, “ Rich people would go crazy, ’No, this is my goddamn money,’ but majority rules, we are the people.”
“All these forms of government—whether they be socialism, communism, democracy whatever—they look good on paper, they work well on paper as a matter of fact. But, once man touches them, shit changes. Once man touches anything, it is corrupted.”
At this juncture there is a struggle going on
So given all of these varying factors, what does the black experience give those living it? Where does it lead? What does it make of it them?
“That’s the question. Today, many black people deny their blackness, like Raven Symone says, ‘I’m not a black person, I’m a human being, I’m an American.’ That’s great, that is the goal that we would all like to reach; one day we can all just be human beings, but at this juncture there is a struggle going on. We are treated as subhuman.”
The black experience is most notable, in the plethora of art it has provided, for changing the world; whether the canvas is mounted on gallery walls, eardrums, or sheets of parchment, black America’s presence is etched into pop-culture forever.
“You look at a Jewish writer from the 1940’s or even the 50’s, what they are writing about is the Holocaust and the Jewish experience in Germany. It is part of the history and it defined the Ashkenazi Jews as a people.”
“Our struggle is global, it’s tattooed into who we are, which is why it’s impossible to exclude our identity from our art.”
Welcome to A Country Called Earth
Throughout the interview, Sheppard would stop talking for a second and quickly apologize. “This is heavy man, I’m sorry,” he would say. His observation was valid, in less than a two hour span the conversation moved from Police violence, to slavery’s lingering effects on society, and Middle Eastern politics. Chicago’s weather lost its significance under the weight of the discourse; small talk and pleasantries were no longer needed, veracity had overtaken the mood.
Thankfully, he had more to offer than candor and wisdom. Sheppard mentioned a brand new company he formed with Yasiin Bey (formerly known as “Mos Def”) called “A Country Called Earth.”
“There’s going to be a traveling show incorporated. We want to show our perspective of the world. Fans don’t get to see Young Jeezy, for example, go to a place in Africa and Asia, unless it is for work, but to actually visit those places to interact with the communities, is amazing. ACCE is also a multimedia and design company.”
His website, Stop Being Famous, continues to do well, but the title’s irony level increases on the daily as Sheppard’s celebrity reluctantly rises. His fearless dialogues about race and politics may be the cause for his current social standing, but he isn’t satisfied just talking about the issues; instead he has chosen to join in the fray and help where he can. While he was speaking in his Windy City apartment, his mindset was global. Clearly, Sheppard is keenly aware of the problems black America faces, but he is quick to remind listeners of the issues plaguing peoples around the world and how these conditions are intimately connected to our politics. Sheppard isn’t attempting to become a savior, but rather to spread as much awareness to his brothers and sisters around the world as he can. He wants to remind everyone to look deeper and to realize that we are here together - that there is really only one country: A Country Called Earth.