Investigating the Link Between Blackness and Celebrity

By: Abbey Delk

Dr. Brandy Monk-Payton has been fascinated by the mythic character celebrities take on in popular culture for her entire life. She was once a frequent reader of gossip rags and tabloids (before celebrity gossip moved to social media), and her thesis as a graduate student in New York University’s Media, Culture, and Communications program centered on Britney Spears, where she contrasts the musician’s labels of “a defilement of glamour” and “the dysfunctional female celebrity.” This interest in the culture of fame and her academic background in the study of media and race have culminated in her latest research endeavor: a book examining Blackness and celebrity.

Monk-Payton began researching this subject for her dissertation at Brown University as a doctoral student. As a professor in Fordham’s Communications and Media Studies department, she has continued to deepen her understanding of how race and fame intersect for Black celebrities. Both her work on her dissertation and the additional research for her upcoming book investigate “the paradox of what it even means to be a Black celebrity.” 

“What does it mean for Black people to transition into this environment of enfranchisement and fame and fortune?” Monk-Payton posed. “How does the slave become the star?” 

While Monk-Payton has studied Black representation and influence in media across American history, she chose to focus the research for her upcoming book on the last 30 years of contemporary celebrity culture. She begins in the 1990s with the controversy surrounding O.J. Simpson and its implications for “Blackness and scandal.”

During her years of research on Blackness and celebrity, Kanye West proved both a fascinating and challenging subject of study, said Monk-Payton. While Kanye West was a part of her original dissertation, Monk-Payton was able to delve more deeply into the development of his celebrity persona in her new book.

“He sort of comes out as this fresh-faced and preppy rap star/producer and then gets really politicized,” she explained. She examined how his political persona has evolved over the last two decades, from a harsh critic of George W. Bush to a fervent Donald Trump supporter. 

Monk-Payton’s current research is largely focused on the intersection of television and digital media, and she has spent a lot of time looking at “Black Twitter” and the conversations that start there. Her biggest logistical challenge in conducting research for this project is the rapid nature in which pop culture news grabs hold of public attention and then loses relevance just as quickly.

“My preliminary argument is that you can’t think about Blackness and fame without thinking about infamy,” she explained. “My project is really thinking about questions of notoriety and racialized notoriety and how that manifests in different elements of our popular media culture.” 

“It’s messy, but that’s part of what I like about the work,” she said. “I’m using a lot of different methods and approaches to thinking about celebrity, and that provides a kind of dynamic writing environment.” 

Last summer’s widespread protests in support of Black Lives Matter—and the discussions these demonstrations sparked online about racial injustice—served as another lens through which to examine Blackness and celebrity. The online conversation surrounding Black victims of police violence led Monk-Payton to reflect on the ways that the specter of the Black figure killed by police becomes a sort of celebrity too. In particular, she said she was disturbed by the way Breonna Taylor became a sort of widespread meme on social media and was glamourized after her death in a strange and unsettling way. 

For example, Monk-Payton is critical of the reaction on social media to Breonna Taylor’s appearance on the cover of Vanity Fair. “I heard people talk about it using the language of ‘Breonna Taylor graces the cover of Vanity Fair,’” said Monk-Payton. “I don’t know how to square that glamorous kind of language and the murder of this Black woman.” 

Overall, Monk-Payton said she felt that understanding the relationship between Blackness and celebrity is important not only for academics but for all Americans. 

“These icons are venerated, they’re praised when they subscribe to certain ideas about America and the American Dream,” she said. “And then they’re denigrated and devalued when they resist that kind of image and ideal.”

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