Early this morning, Canadian R&B singer Daniel Caesar very likely woke up to a big bowl of “Yikes” for breakfast. Overnight, a video recording from an Instagram Live stream he made spread across the internet like wildfire, engulfing social media in the flames of outrage, with Daniel himself as the target. In the video, he tries to defend his problematic friend YesJulz, who once again found herself at the center of racial controversy, but he quickly veered into some pretty accusatory dialogue of his own.
After wondering why “Black people are being mean to Julz,” he expanded the line of questioning to include white people in general, saying that Black people can’t take a joke and basically accusing us of being reactionary and sensitive. It follows a line of thought that often crops up when a celebrity or public figure is being grilled on social media, a worry that “cancel culture” has gone too far, that the rhetoric of vilification is more harmful than whatever toxic comments or behaviors the original speaker made or engaged in.
Of course, people took that condemnation about as well as you’d expect, lining up Daniel for cancelation himself. Within hours, Twitter was deluged in missives decrying everything from his comments to his music to the gap in his teeth. To be fair, he expected the backlash, brashly challenging viewers on his live stream to “cancel me.” It seems they’ve taken him up on his offer in spades. However, as with any situation involving controversy online, some have come to his defense, wondering whether there is at least a nugget of truth to his words and just why Twitter is constantly canceling folks, to begin with.
First off, let’s ask: Why did Daniel Caesar, a 23-year-old, Oshawa, Ontario, Canada-born, Seventh Day Adventist-raised singer feel the need to weigh in on American racial politics in the first place? Let’s be fair, here — social media has made “experts” and pundits out of all of us, even in areas we have no business spending our two cents. It should be pretty clear from the jump that Daniel doesn’t have the proper context to address the complexity of race issues in America, but that social media gave him a platform to voice his underinformed opinion — he doesn’t really deserve to be punished for that.
He does, however, need to be held accountable — as does anyone with a similar platform who says or does things that advance or propagate harmful narratives that have real-world consequences. Let’s look at another example of a celebrity sticking his proverbial foot in his mouth and how his words and deeds spiraled into a direction he never intended them to go because he lacked the education and intent to keep them from doing so: Kanye West. Remember last year’s Kanye cancel-fest that began with his appearances in a Make America Great Again hat and ended with a bizarre, embarrassing trip to the White House?
In Kanye’s mind, he was very likely proudly flexing what he thought were original, rebellious ideas about shaking up the status quo. Instead, he lent ammunition to the worst kinds of opportunists like Alex Jones and Candace Owens, who used his implicit co-sign of their own radical, anti-Black agendas to advance projects and ideas that have a proven, detrimental effect on Black lives in America — which will always, in turn, have a detrimental effect on America itself. When some citizens are unsafe and lack opportunity, it undermines the entire democracy.
Daniel Caesar, in his own way, tried to contextualize what he was seeing in the backlash to YesJulz through his own limited experience, without understanding why YesJulz was being taken to task or why his Black fans online would be hurt by his accusations. In his community, the dynamics are likely very different from what Black Americans experience, and without studying the macro implications of those experiences — Caesar was educated at his church’s private school — he probably has little understanding of how seemingly minor infractions from the white majority have a cumulative effect on the collective consciousness of the Black American community.
To him, he may see a case of his friend, who has always been nice to him, making an honest mistake. To the larger social sphere that she regularly engages, though, Julz is a habitual line stepper, who uses her problematic actions to provoke reactions then hides behind a facade of victimhood — the very thing that Caesar accuses Black fans of doing. The “jokes” he says that we can’t take, individually, don’t seem to be a problem, but they minimize any issue we may have and accusing us of sensitivity undermines us when we do speak up.
That’s why, when larger problems present themselves, like disproportionate police violence and incarceration rates against Black people, or environmental racism, or disparity of education, or all of the other myriad, systemic racist issues we deal with are met with a collective shrug and a wonder if we’re being “too sensitive” or “looking for racism” or “playing the race card,” phrases like Daniel’s feel like a slap in the face. They reflect this nation’s general attitude towards all our problems, from the smallest of microaggressions to the deadliest policies and directives of our government itself.
While he may have a sliver of a point about our messaging, Black folks have every right to be angry, outraged, and upset — our people have been oppressed. Could we catch more flies with honey than vinegar? Of course! Do we have time to worry about the feelings of people who clearly can’t be bothered with our legitimate, concerns? Absolutely not. Our backs have been against the wall since the first ships landed at Plymouth Rock. We’re fighting for our lives and that means every slight, every abuse, every insult matters. There’s a reason one straw broke the camel’s back. Here’s the secret: There are a million other straws underneath it.