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.
Questlove, who is a kind of walking Black music and cultural archive, along with his role as the drummer and pulse of The Roots, is just a band player with an afro on Fallon. Fallon’s image, when he is backed by this band, is a strong visual argument that he couldn’t possibly be complicit in the actions and thoughts employed by this current administration. Every night, the scene says, “I can’t be racist or affiliated with any of the horrible deeds happening at this moment because I am backed by these Black men. Look, one even has an afro!”
This is a group that ushered in a hip-hop scene rife with other politically and socially aware hip-hop artists like A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and Arrested Development. The Roots have only gotten more political in their music as the years progressed, yet, most of their cultural context has not shown up on Late Night. Maybe this is just a case of having a day job to keep the passion projects going; sometimes you do what you have to do to be able to do what you want to do, or even what you feel pulled to do.
Fallon doesn’t handle The Roots negatively on the show. He always honors them with the “legendary” moniker, making it clear that even if Fallon’s audience wasn’t aware of The Roots’ impact on culture, Fallon himself is. With that, came an implicit respect — Fallon knew this wasn’t just a background band, but a national treasure. And, so far, that was good enough. That is, right up until Willie Geist asked Jimmy Fallon about his apolitical stance on his show, and Fallon responded, “It’s just not what I do. I think it would be weird for me to start doing it now.” Statements like this beg the question if it is possible to stay neutral and quiet without being complicit with domination in this cultural moment, no matter what the reasoning?