Monday evening, during the most watched presidential debate of all time, Apple Music released promos via social media for The 411 with Mary J. Blige, a new talk show hosted by the singer. That Mary J. Blige has a new talk show wasn’t the big news, however. What really got people talking was the fact that Blige’s first guest will be Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. And the topic of their conversation? Police brutality.
“If an officer stops you, always be polite,” Blige sang to an either confused or concerned Clinton in one of the ads. “And never, ever run away, promise mama you'll keep your hands in sight. Is it a gun? Is it a knife? Is it a wallet. This is your life.”
The jokes, writing themselves, flooded Twitter immediately.
The absurdity of the Democratic presidential nominee doing a rare sit-down interview with the “No More Drama” singer was perhaps best illustrated in a meme that went viral Tuesday. It shows Blige, in a still from one of the promos, reaching over to Clinton and clutching the politician’s hand earnestly. Over it, there’s text that reads, “What will you do to fix the national epidemic of hateration in this dancerie?"
"what will you do to fix the national epidemic of hateration in this dancerie?" pic.twitter.com/jVDy3eJBCP— Deaux (@dstfelix) September 27, 2016
The promos for The 411 with Mary J. Blige have offered some much-needed laughs in the final months of one of the most exhausting presidential election seasons in recent memory. Beyond the jokes, however, the interview with Clinton is troubling. Its mere existence suggests that the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party either misunderstand or don’t take seriously black Americans and the issues that impact us disproportionately—particularly police brutality.
It also shows the extent to which politicians like Clinton create shiny moments of political theater to make them seem responsive to communities of color while actively dodging substantive engagement. In fact, Clinton’s sit-down with Blige might be her first one-on-one on the topic of policing since she called into Hot 97 in April. Before that, she tackled policing with Power 105.1’s The Breakfast Club and Lena Dunham—not Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jamelle Bouie or Michelle Alexander, but Ebro, Charlamagne tha God, and Lena Dunham.
The awkwardness of Clinton's interview with Blige—and, frankly, the others on policing before it—is really grounded in the fact that there’s no obvious reason for a conversation between the parties involved. I mean, it’s obvious why Apple and Blige might want a moment with someone who has a pretty good chance of becoming the leader of the free world, but it boggles the mind why Clinton and her team would use The 411 With Mary J. Blige as a vehicle to explore police brutality—especially given how few sit-down interviews the candidate has given on the topic and the importance of the issue to black voters.
All of this is not to knock Mary J. Blige for her involvement in the interview—Blige is an icon and her status as a famous entertainer certainly doesn’t preclude her from having legitimate, maybe even incisive, questions about police brutality. But could you imagine Clinton sitting down with Taylor Swift to discuss college affordability or a foreign policy conversation between the candidate and Adele? If not, then why, after weeks of her opponent calling for “law and order” and while there are still protesters on the street in Charlotte demanding justice for Keith Scott, is Clinton sitting down with Blige to discuss an issue as nuanced and salient as police brutality?
The answer is probably because doing so is easier and less risky politically than sitting down with journalists who cover the issue or organizers within the movement for black lives. Or it’s something more insidious. It could just be that, to the Clinton campaign and Democratic Party at large, Blige rises to the level of “black leader,” thus making being sung at by her sufficient engagement with black Americans. It wouldn’t be the first time a Democratic politician gave black voters and issues short shrift—lest we forget President Obama’s awkward sit down with slapstick YouTube personality GloZell for a conversation that focused on police shootings.
Recent polling by Gallup found that black Americans rank race relations and unemployment as the most important problems facing the United States. More in-depth polling from this time last year by President Obama’s former pollster Cornell Belcher also found that “fighting racism” is the single most important election issue for young black Americans.
If issues of racist policing and brutality are as important to black Americans as the polling bears out, Clinton should certainly be tackling the issues on a big stage. An interview with Mary J. Blige is inappropriate, though. While the singer may appear on the covers of Ebony and Essence more than any other public figure, her sitting down with Clinton for an “intimate conversation” is such a reach that it borders on comical. The question, however, is if the joke is on Blige and Clinton or black voters.