Dave Chappelle, Meme Magician
Thoughts on the controversial comedian's screening of his documentary "Untitled"
Note: This article is not intended to take sides. I’m interested less in whether Dave Chappelle’s views on trans gay rights are right or wrong (perhaps a bit of both, maybe more wrong than right in relation to the times), and more in how he’s playing the mass persuasion game. The man is a veteran of the culture wars, and a masterful strategist when it comes to setting himself up as the hero of a narrative and a leader of a community. Brands and politicians take note!
Dave Chapelle told the Bay Area audience, “you don’t even know the history you’re making tonight.”
Maybe not, but here’s what I do know:
The movie and concert were fun, but you can see how being there was like being conscripted into a culture war.
Dave needed to prove he could deliver an audience regardless of what pressure the LGBTQ community (or those who purported to speak for them, according to Dave) would be putting on the major networks. Prove that for every voice denouncing him across media platforms, there were hundreds more that would pay top dollar to sit in his audience.
So he promised everyone a show and the screening of a movie that correlated the Black Lives Matter movement during COVID with his summer concert series. Then the credits rolled and suddenly just by attending the screening, you were at a rally supporting Dave Chappelle.
Fitting, perhaps, that the screening took place in the town that invented “Shanghaiing”. San Francisco naval recruiters used to throw beer parties where guests would wake up hungover on a vessel bound for military service in China.
The documentary was propaganda, it was designed to make Dave and his entertainer friends look good. Merry pranksters in an uptight Ohio community.
Heroic comedians surrounded by authoritarian censors,
Arguing for their place and value during times of crisis like COVID.
Afterward, Dave brought a literal party.
This is the game played on a masterful level.
To get ahead of an army and make it look even bigger with sound and lights and smoke and fun.
This is leadership. If you want people to follow you, it needs to be easy and meaningful. If you want them to agree with you, the message has to be simply agreeable.
I wasn’t so sure about following. As I said, I felt Shanghaied a little bit. The issues are far more complex and nuanced than either side wants us to believe. But I’m nobody’s ideal audience member. And I get that he’s trying to control the narrative.
Present his side strongly so as to set the stage for reconciliation.
What I do like about Dave is that it’s never about pandering.
He is doing everything he feels is right
And his instincts happen to line up with the zeitgeist.
Is Dave actually right? Does it matter? How would he find out?
In the past, discourse happened in the marketplace,
Over long conversations witnessed by all.
Today, that discourse is more than rhetoric
Or rather, rhetoric is more than voice and hand gestures,
Pitch and tonality.
Today, it’s all of that, but conducted through images.
We talk through memes, through humor and emotion, through well-crafted documentaries designed to make you like the advocate.
And if you don’t have a film crew, rights procurers, and all the legends of East Bay music with you to make your point?
You show up.
You must attend the things which you support,
And critically evaluate not just the quality of the performance but the content.
My old teachers in persuasion used to say, “if you want a dog to take its medicine, wrap it in a piece of meat.”
Don’t just enjoy the meat, check to see if you are swallowing medicine or poison.
Refuse to be Shanghaied:
Try the other side.
Cheer and boo and laugh and cry.
And then, if you have the time, check the news.
Because turning up to public squares, taking in speeches, attending gatherings,
Getting current events unfiltered,
That’s how we take part in our world.
That, imbued with the changes we make in ourselves that then ripple outwards—whether from the chorus or center stage—is how we change history.