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?
Fallon’s apoliticism is seen by some as a political statement in itself. As a consequence, his audience has shrunk considerably in proportion to his colleagues, peers, and rivals such as Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel. Some have attributed this to his audience’s displeasure at a perceived soft-soaping of Donald Trump during the Presidential campaign of 2016. Fallon never used his platform to press Trump on the issues, which in turn contributed in the eyes of many to normalizing his inflammatory and offensive rhetoric during a critical time when his political ambitions could have been blocked most easily. Fallon’s response was met with all types of backlash from those who think it is necessary to be political and to stand up for what is wrong if you’re granted a public platform.
But maybe more fascinating than Fallon’s apoliticism is how he’s decided to be apolitical while he is simultaneously, quite literally backed by one of the most political acts in hip-hop. This is the band that named their breakthrough album after Chinua Achebe’s novel about the effects of colonialism in Africa, Things Fall Apart. Questlove wrote a book chronicling the history the revolutionary television show Soul Train and curated a vinyl box set of radical African musician Fela Kuti. This is from the band that is fronted by the lyricist that said, “The city’s like the Audubon Ballroom waiting on Malcolm / ‘Cause people wanna see my blood flow like fountains / I got nowhere to go, and still feel like bouncing.”
The mainstream often calls on public figures to flatten the most intriguing and powerful things about themselves in order to stay in the industry — in any industry. Nobody knows the debates or dialogue Fallon and The Roots have about politics in private, but the public result is that he’s comfortable being largely silent during a politically polarizing times. And complicated questions arise: Have The Roots ever pushed Jimmy Fallon to be more political? Does The Roots’ association with Fallon somehow compromise the band’s integrity? Are there some topics and moments that you can’t possibly be silent about no matter what? I believe if you’re interested in being favored in the eyes of history, you must dissent against cruelty in the present.
The problem with Fallon’s insistence on silence is the simple fact that his success is attributed to his perception in the public eye; he is seen daily as a part of a team, a family. In order for the Jimmy Fallon show to be possible, he, the host, needs both the audience and the band. His decision to remain quiet does not just shade how we see Fallon, but how we see The Roots who play behind him and the audience that decides to tune in every night.
Fallon’s political silence reveals something even greater about silence in general: When you are silent, you are not necessarily only silencing yourself. In American culture, we hardly ever arrive at a platform as an individual. Most of us arrive as a sort of ambassador for a community and experience. This happens whether we consent to it or not. What you say reflects back on the gender you come as, the race you come as, the class you come as, and those associated with you. And this is also true for what you don’t say.
In an age where most everyone has access to a platform, speech and silence are powers we all have access to. The question becomes, who might you be silencing and flattening in your attempt to stay neutral or non-controversial? Fallon’s decision to flatten how he is seen doesn’t just affect him, but it has affected his band, which ironically is one of the most provocative and political voices in music. The decision is an allegory for everyone with a platform: Be wary of everyone you render silent when you decide to go quiet about the status of the world.