So much of Dave Chappelle’s power lies in his voice. In the 20 years since his first hour-long stand-up special, as he has spoken eloquently, brilliantly, even sloppily about race, his metaphorical voice has been singularly influential. But it’s his literal voice that harnesses so much of his strength. Chappelle’s jokes nestle in inflection — in his tonal changes and the spaces between them.
Think about his truly iconic comedic moments. “I’m Rick James, bitch” is defiant, with enough of a space and deep breath before the “bitch” to drive it home. “Where is Ja?!” is even, loud, and exasperated. “I’m not a nigger, either” from the Netflix special Sticks & Stones is soft, cocky, and fully aware of the fact that he’s driving his point home perfectly. Chappelle has worked his vocal inflections to the point that just him raising his voice ever so slightly gives the crowd the cue that that a joke is coming. He knows this; it’s why he takes us on rides solely with the use of sound, building anticipation with each elevated octave before the crescendo of his nigh-squeak.
The audience is as unsure as I am watching at home; you can feel them expecting a punchline and feeling the weight of its absence. The heaviness is suffocating. For the audience. For Chappelle. For America.
That’s why Chappelle’s latest “comedy” special for Netflix — 8:46, a sitcom-length stand-up ruminating on the death of George Floyd and race in America — is such a jarring watch. The special starts with some lighthearted banter about the impending discomfort audiences can expect from him. The laughs are scattered, partly because the crowd is scattered — socially distanced outdoors as a reminder that through this all there is a damn pandemic going on.
Then, just before the six-minute mark, Chappelle starts to deploy his vocal magic.
“Who. Are. You. Talking. To?” he says, addressing the MPD officers. “What are you signifying? That you can kneel on a man’s neck.” He gets on his knee to replicate the way Dereck Chauvin kneeled on George Floyd’s neck and his voice rises. “For eight minutes! And 46 seconds! And feel like you wouldn’t get the wrath of God.” It’s the signature Chappelle rising action and climax. But there’s no joke. No punchline. It’s dead-ass serious. Even his yelling is different: There’s an added rattle at the back of his throat. A guttural growl that we’ve never quite heard from him before. His fists are balled up. The master of making a stage feel like his living room, of having audiences in the palm of his hand, has finally lost control of his emotions.
Or maybe he’s as in control as ever. Maybe Chappelle is giving us insight into his real emotions to drive home the gravity of the fight for Black lives. The audience is as unsure as I am watching at home; you can feel them expecting a punchline and feeling the weight of its absence. The heaviness is suffocating. For the audience. For Chappelle. For America.
What follows is a history lesson full of rage and passion from one of the most captivating people to ever hold a microphone on a stage. Chappelle takes us through a history lesson on Eric Garner, the Black Panthers, Chris Dorner, and the Black lives lost in between. The true jokes are few and far between — though his blasting Candace Owens and Laura Ingraham is a welcome, hilarious release — but Chappelle is still as enthralling as when he’s unloading an arsenal of jokes.
One of the criticisms of Chappelle since his return to the public eye is his need to center himself in so many topics. That has caused blind spots in his speaking and has sullied his name for large swaths of fans who adored him. Chappelle still centers himself at times here, even as he defers to young movement leaders as the folks who have pushed the country to the brink of change.
For example, he notes that he can’t get 8:46 out of his mind because that’s the time he was born. He can’t get Kobe’s death out of his head because eight and 24, Kobe’s two numbers, are the day Chappelle was born. He feels intimately attached to the life and death of Chris Dorner because the slain former LAPD officer name-checked Chappelle in his manifesto before going on his spree.
Yet, ironically, placing himself at the center of the narrative works here. It shows the way we internalize these traumas we witness, how we’re unable to shake them away. Black folks all see ourselves in George Floyd, because we know he could be any of us on any given day. That’s the reality of Blackness in America. Chappelle drives that point home even harder when he reminds us that he was pulled over by the cop who would go on to kill John Crawford in a Walmart the next day. It’s a painful reminder that our skin color puts us in proximity to unjust death.
Dave Chappelle is the preeminent voice of this generation’s cis-het Black man. That means he often comes with the transphobic, misogynous language that stops us all from being free, even as he speaks with surgical precision about the way racism wraps its calloused hands around the necks of Black men across the country. It should be noted that he doesn’t mention Breonna Taylor, whose name has been yelled across the country by those not wanting her to be overshadowed by protests over dead Black men. In fact, he doesn’t mention any Black women killed by police in the entire stand-up. In that regard, there’s still a massive amount of work to do. And it’s understandable if people, fed up with his past antics, won’t kneel at the altar of his exceptionalism.
But the special is a reminder why he has captivated a generation of Black folks, of Black men especially, for better or worse. He can speak to the pain of Blackness in America, the anger, and the twisted beauty of what it takes to survive. Through all the agony in his voice, his echoing quote is a message of congratulations and encouragement even in the midst of bodies he reminds us. “We’re not desperate for heroes in the Black community,” he says. “Any nigga that survives this nightmare is my goddamn hero.”
And therein is the Chappelle experience. Through the gritted teeth, the tears, and the despair, he still finds a way to make us smile.