I remember buying new clothes for high school one year. I eagerly looked for clothes at the local mall that might help me fit in. Using the money I earned from a summer job, I was going to belong with the purchase of those clothes. The problem with this scene is that I did not realize at the time that I belonged even before I purchased those clothes.
Those clothes could never define me or the spaces in which I belonged. I would come to learn that I belonged to the culture of Black people not because of my clothing or my taste in music, but because I was Black — period. The power of this knowledge gave me amazing confidence and a love of myself that meant I could boldly go into the world and love my people without hesitation. I didn’t have to fit into a stereotype or trope to be Black. I just had to be me.
Andre 3000 from OutKast sums up this idea for me in ways that other writers have not. OutKast released the album “ATLiens” in 1996 to critical acclaim. The album was markedly different from their previous offering. The group had transformed themselves from young basement dwelling players to gentlemen who were exploring their unique style and flows with the world. By their third album “Aquemini,” they were fully cemented as outcasts in ideas and style, but heroes in terms of how it resonated with the world. In a particular song from Aquemini, “Return of the ‘G,’” Andre 3000 states, “It’s the return of the gangsta, thanks ta,” and follows that up with several ideas. They include Andre’s return being fueled by the fear families feel when they are threatened with robbery, how people ignore good and thoughtful music, how people label OutKast “soft” when they experiment with new music, and when young fathers don’t take care of their children. Andre even goes on to mimic detractors by asking, “What’s wrong with Andre? Is he in a cult? Is he on drugs?” He insinuates that it is ridiculous to offer that an explanation for free thinking is cult participation or drug use.
Andre doesn’t claim he’s returning because these tropes aren’t true to an extent, but rather because they are not the only things that are and can be true for Black people — certainly not the most prevalent things. I believe Andre 3000 is essentially saying that Black people do not subscribe to a monolithic culture, and certainly not one defined by criminality or shiftlessness.
Black identity could never be monolithic. We do not all share the same worldview, religion, national origin, family structure, sexual orientation, etc. Being monolithic distorts one’s own authenticity, individuality and freedom to explore new identities. We all bring unique experience and knowledge. Utilizing those diverse experiences in our professional work allows us to show up authentically.
Authenticity is invaluable in leadership when fresh perspectives are needed and group tensions need to be explored to solve complex problems. Succumbing to monolithic Blackness stifles the diversity of thought, in turn stifling true problem solving. In his book, “The Wisdom of Crowds,” James Surowiecki writes, “Diversity and independence are important because the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus or compromise.” Andre 3000 and Big Boi from OutKast exemplify Surowiecki’s thoughts. Both are Black. Both are men. Both are rappers. Each of them write differently and bring different approaches to life and music. The music they created as OutKast was great in part because it was produced as a combination of their diversity. The music of OutKast represents the wisdom of a crowd. Produced not by a monolith but instead by a process of disagreement and uniqueness. This can be clearly seen by one of their greatest albums, “Stankonia.” Andre was utilizing singing more than often on this album and Big Boi had become a master of his flow. This is a beautiful project with a rock influenced song opening the album leading us to a journey of a sultry funk song closing the album out — highlighting the diversity of OutKast.
Similarly, Black people have very different and individual approaches to life, happiness, experiences and leadership. When Andre says “return of the gangsta”, I envision him saying that this is the time for the return of the nerd, the return of Ifá practitioners as well as Christians and Muslims, the return of the members of the LGBTQIA+ community, the return of a reality where individuals are different while sharing a common ancestry and skin color. The return that Andre is speaking about fosters a positive and affirming belief about groups of people, particularly Black people.
When I think of the word “gangsta” I think of a rebel. In this case we should all rebel against monolithic Black culture and monolithic Black leadership. Complex problems that exist in our community cannot be approached with a singular or monolithic solution. The solution must be as diverse and unique as we are as a people. So let this be a cry for the return of a celebration of diversity in our Black community, a renaissance. A time where we all accept our differences and welcome new thoughts — as leaders, as men, as women, as humans.