The audience roars and claps their hands manically; the band plays; the host tells jokes. This is the recipe for the late-night show that has worked for decades now. When Jimmy Fallon took over The Tonight Show in 2014, he clung to the late-night show tradition — he’s white, heterosexual, male, and mildly funny. However, he did bring something new to the show: the hip-hop band, The Roots. Prior to 2014, The Roots weren’t well-known to the mainstream public that would be watching The Tonight Show, even if they were well known in the hip-hop community for being one of the most politically active rap groups of the ‘90s and ‘00s.
The Philadelphia group has always centered an Afrocentric aesthetic to accompany their politics and sound, so it’s a strange thing to witness the flattening of The Roots when they are backing up Jimmy Fallon. The Roots’ frontman, Black Thought, is known for his hard-hitting and political lyrics, and he exists in the hip-hop imagination as a kind of KRS-One-meets-Stokely-Carmichael character. Yet, on the show, he is just an attractive man with a sense of humor.
On The Tonight Show, he is seen freestyling about going apple-picking to a Rolling Stones-esque melody by the suggestion of a middle-aged white woman. This is a contrast to the man who rapped on “Making A Murderer”: “It’s disturbing when a murderer enjoys homicide / Talented Mr. Trotter squad, beyond qualified / Multiplying the dollar sign, the grind is real it’s Palestine / My sidekick came from Columbine.” Most importantly, he exists in the world of the show as a nicely-suited, non-threatening Negro.