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Barbershop: Chris Rock, Nina And Kendrick


Now it's time for the Barbershop. That's our weekly conversation with a group of interesting folks to talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Sitting in the seats for a shapeup this weekend are Kara Brown. She's a writer and a blogger for Jezebel. Hi Kara, good to have you back.

KARA BROWN: Hi, thanks for having me again.

MARTIN: Also welcoming back filmmaker and actor Ravi Patel. You may have seen him in the TV show "Grandfathered" or in his documentary "Meet The Patels." Welcome back, Ravi. Thank you.

RAVI PATEL: Hi, thanks. Good to be here.

MARTIN: And joining us from New York City is Alex Gale. He is a senior editor at Billboard. Welcome to the Barbershop.

ALEX GALE: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: So I just wanted to start with a quick whip around about the Oscars last Sunday night because of course the show went on after we went off the air. So we just want to check in. We talked a lot about the controversies leading up to the event. And now that they've all been handed out, I just wanted to circle back and just ask each of you how you think it went. Did you think Chris Rock was good or bad? Kara, I'll start with you.

BROWN: I thought it was OK. I thought Chris Rock was OK. I didn't love the monologue. I thought it had some good points, but I thought that there were a couple of moments - obviously, there was the moment with the three little kids that was really insensitive and weird and kind of racist. And so there were ups and downs, but, you know, it is also the Oscars. I don't have, like, huge expectations for the show anymore.

MARTIN: OK. Do you want - shall I play that joke, the one he brought out three - I assume they were Asian-American kids - to the stage here? Here it is.


CHRIS ROCK: As always, the result of tonight's Academy Awards have been tabulated by the accounting firm of Price, Waterhouse and Cooper. They sent us their most dedicated, accurate and hard-working representatives. I want you to please welcome Ming Zhu (ph) Bao Ling (ph) and David Moskowitz (ph). Thanks guys. Thanks a lot. Now, if anybody's upset about that joke, just tweet about it on your phone that was also made by these kids, OK?

MARTIN: You know, that sounds even worse to hear it the...

BROWN: Yeah.

PATEL: It sure did.

MARTIN: ...Second time that it was...

BROWN: And it's not that funny...

MARTIN: Anybody else - yeah...

BROWN: ...You know...

MARTIN: Let's hear from - Ravi, what do you think? I'm just going around everybody.

PATEL: I found the show entirely disappointing. I think - I've never seen Chris Rock do such a terrible performance. I found the writing and the messaging to be entirely contrived and just beaten, like, over our head. It was so awkward. And you know what? All would have been forgiven if it was even slightly funny or intelligent, and it just wasn't.

MARTIN: Some people thought it was funny. A lot of people thought it was funny. I mean, it's interesting, the critics...

PATEL: Nobody I knew.

MARTIN: ...Were all over the place. OK, but poor Alex, I have put you...

GALE: No, no...

MARTIN: ...In a terrible position where now I have to ask you what you thought. And I've put you in this terrible position where if you don't agree, you know, you're like odd man out. But I still want to ask you, what did you think about it?

GALE: Well, I do agree. And, you know, aside from it not being funny, which I think was the main problem is that it just wasn't that funny. And especially if you're going to be offensive, like when he brought those Asian kids out - you know, there's a line with comedy. Sometimes you offend people, you can get a reaction out of them. But if it's funny in the end, sometimes you laugh. I mean, Louis C.K. has definitely told jokes that could be seen as racist and things like that, but he'll surround in a context and also just make it funny.

PATEL: By the way...

GALE: But...

PATEL: ...He was the best part of the show, if I could...

BROWN: Yeah, that was. Yeah.

PATEL: ...Just say that.

GALE: Right, he absolutely was, which is very ironic. But to me, Chris Rock has - is just such an amazing comedian and he, you know, just a legend honestly to me. And he's been known throughout his career for bringing uncomfortable race conversations to the mainstream, into the world. And he had this perfect chance to do that. And I think it was a little bit neutered, honestly. It wasn't - a lot of the jokes to me were actually excusing Hollywood. A lot of it seemed to be downplaying the controversy, which was a little disappointing because usually - I mean, even a couple of years ago, he wrote something great for the Hollywood Reporter talking - that really accused Hollywood - white Hollywood - of some of these problems.

MARTIN: Interesting. Well, you know, this is kind of related but not the same. A trailer for the Nina Simone biopic was released that stars Zoe Saldana in the lead role. But there's been all this - like, after the trailer came out and then the poster art, it seems as though she's wearing a prosthetic nose and dark makeup for her portrayal of the singer. And talk about, you know, Twitter on fire about this. I just - who wants to go first on this? I don't know, Kara, do you want to go first?

BROWN: You know, I wrote about this. I think it's a really good example of the fact that we all have blind spots and that if you don't have diverse people making something, you don't have perhaps a black woman to say hey, maybe don't, you know, put dark-brown makeup on a lighter-skinned black woman, particularly when she's portraying a woman like Nina Simone, who was very - you know, had a very interesting relationship with her blackness and her features and her color and being a dark-skinned black woman, how that affected her career...


BROWN: ...And how she saw herself.

MARTIN: OK, go ahead Ravi. You wanted to say something else.

PATEL: Well, OK, I want to ask all three of you this. Here's a hypothetical, OK? You're the executive - let's say you're the guy who funded this movie, OK? And you're looking to cast the lead. You recognize that having a big lead in a film is a big part of the financial success of the movie. You go out there and you originally tried to find someone who physically represents Nina Simone - you know, the same pigment of skin with the body and the lips, all that stuff. And your best option in terms of an actress ends being someone who isn't 100 percent those things but embodies her fully in many other ways - spiritually. That person ends up being Zoe Saldana. If you're the executive, on a moral level, would you say the right choice is to take someone who looks more like her but is a lesser actress or someone who is a better actress and embodies her spirit better...

BROWN: Yeah.

PATEL: ...But physically doesn't necessarily look like her, but you think you can make her look the same.

BROWN: I really think that people would have reacted better to Zoe Saldana if they hadn't put her in the makeup and hair that they did because to me, if - we live in the time of "Hamilton." If you're such an amazing actor and if you can so embody the spirit of Nina Simone, to me, you don't need to make your skin four shades darker in order to do that.

PATEL: But I thought you just said, like, one of the most...

BROWN: Yeah.

PATEL: One of the most important...

BROWN: Yeah.

PATEL: ...Parts of Nina Simone is, like, her physicality and the darkness itself.

MARTIN: Exactly - no...

MARTIN: I think - doesn't Alex want to get in this? Alex, go ahead, jump in.

GALE: Well, I just wanted, you know, to talk about Nina Simone because some of it actually has to do with - in terms of what Kara is talking about, a lot of this is also very specific to Nina and her music and the legacy that she left behind. I mean, she was more than just a musician. She was also a civil rights activist. And she dealt with so much - not just because of her race but because of her less-European features - her darker skin color - and she really spoke to it in a very outspoken, blunt way. I mean, she had a song called "Aint Got No, I Got Life," where she, you know, basically - she starts the song by listing all the things she doesn't have, basically says that she has nothing, no material possessions. But what she does has is herself and her body. And she lists her hair, her nose, her lips, her curves, all these different things that were - when you see her perform and when you listen to the song, it's very much about embracing who she was and her features. So this casting seems to kind of ignore that.

MARTIN: Before we go, got to talk about Kendrick Lamar. He dropped a surprise all this week. It was Thursday night, actually. It's called "Untitled Unmastered."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNTITLED 06 - 6.30.2014")

KENDRICK LAMAR: (Singing) My mama told me that I was different the moment I was invented. It's strange, baby. No, I'm not ashamed. I recommend every inch of your lunatic ways...

MARTIN: I think it caught a lot of people by surprise. But Alex, you are the music guy here, so we're going to start with you. This is one of the several recent surprise releases - or at least unpredictable releases from artists. Recently, the was Kanye West's "Life Of Pablo." There was Rihanna's "Anti," Beyonce's "Formation" video. So - OK, forgive me, is it just the clueless ones that didn't know about this? Did you have a clue that this was coming or did you...

PATEL: Did I have a clue?

MARTIN: Alex - yeah, Alex, you're...

GALE: I probably shouldn't...

MARTIN: Sorry.

GALE: ...Totally say this, but I did have a slight clue. But that's really all - I can't say much more than that. But I don't think other people did. This was, like, a very - kept very, very close to the chest.

MARTIN: I think Ravi was telling us he knew, too.


PATEL: No, I had no idea.

MARTIN: You didn't know it? Thank you...

PATEL: I thought you said - I thought you were specifically addressing me because you said clueless ones.


PATEL: And I was like clearly I'm the clueless one in this group.

MARTIN: Well, no, I didn't know either. We all came in, people were, like, vibrating with excitement. Kendrick Lamar - he dropped that new album, he dropped that new album. OK, well, here's one of the unusual things about this. It is available on all the main streaming platforms - Spotify, Tidal, iTunes, Apple Music. But a lot of the releases lately have been exclusive. And so Alex, one of the things I wanted to ask you is - like, is this the best of times or is this the worst of times for music fans? Because it seems to me that, you know, when we were kids, that was one of the things you would do is share your music. I mean, you know, your friends would make a mixtape or you'd go, you know, home on vacation, you'd share your music. How do you do that these days?

GALE: You know, I think rather than saying it's better or worse, it's just different. Not to hedge my bets but in some ways it really is better. I mean, 'cause as you can hear this - you couldn't even - first of all, you couldn't even have this surprise album. That just couldn't happen back then. When I was growing up - just to show my age a little bit - Nas' "Illmatic" - the album came out in 1994 - the fact that I was in New York allowed me and a lot of other just kids then to hear some of these songs months before the album came out. We knew it was coming because underground radio would play some of these songs. The only way someone across the world could get it would be if they had a cousin in New York who was going to mail them a cassette, you know? And I think it's amazing - like, why should people only in one place or people with only access to certain things get to hear music? So...

MARTIN: But isn't it that way though because unless you are subscribing to all these different streaming services, how else do you - in a way, isn't it that way anyway just if you stay in one place?

GALE: That is...

MARTIN: It's a paywall world.

GALE: ...Definitely - you know, these exclusives are sort of a new thing, and I don't know if that's the way it's going to continue. I mean, Beyonce's definitely going to be someone to watch because, you know, she's - her - obviously, Jay Z is a big part of Tidal, and that's her husband. And, you know, Kanye, another person closely linked to Jay Z, only put his album on Tidal. So is everyone going to do that in the future? We don't really know. I definitely hope not.

MARTIN: What do you think, Kara? I just wonder - I just think of myself as a teenager when music...

BROWN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Was so important to your life.

BROWN: Well, the funny thing is I think about it in terms of, say, like Beyonce's new album, which, you know, when she dropped the "Formation" video, there was some sort of prompt to sign up for the free Tidal subscription for three months. And I did it, and I guaranteed you she's going to drop that new album three months and one day after my subscription ends. Like, I am convinced that it's a plan. But, you know, $10 a month for Tidal, I'd rather just pay $10 for Beyonce's album because that's probably the only reason I'm staying on Tidal anyways is because it's going to be exclusive to Tidal. So I'm concerned about my access to the new...


BROWN: ...Beyonce album. And after that, I can work it out, you know?

GALE: Yeah, Beyonce overall is most important, you know?

BROWN: Yeah.

GALE: I think we can all agree with that.

BROWN: Yeah.

MARTIN: OK, we'll leave it there for now. That's Billboard's Alex Gale, also with us, Ravi Patel - actor, director, superstar, savant. And Kara Brown...

PATEL: The last part clearly made up.


MARTIN: And Kara Brown, who writes for Jezebel, all here with us on our Barbershop this week. Thank you all so much for joining us.

GALE: Thank you.

BROWN: Thank you.

PATEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.