Comedy Central launches season one of a trenchantly funny stand-up/music show, “The New Negroes with Baron Vaughn and Open Mike Eagle,” Apr. 19 (simulcast on BET). The eight-episode series’ frank title, according to its hosts – Los Angeles funnyman-actor Vaughn and Chicago-bred, L.A.-based, satirical/cerebral rapper Eagle – was inspired by Harlem Renaissance herald Alain Locke’s culturally momentous 1925 anthology book, “The New Negro.”
‘The New Negroes with Baron Vaughn and Open Mike Eagle’ When: 10 p.m. Apr. 19 Where: Comedy Central/BET
“That particular volume was about black thinkers and writers feeling it was necessary, in that time-space, to redefine what it meant to be black Americans,” Eagle said backstage at Schubas Tavern earlier this month, shortly before delivering a knockout headlining set to the shoulder-to-shoulder homecoming crowd. “That’s the same place our series comes from.
“A lot of people think of black entertainment [in general] as all one thing,” he continued. “That goes for stand-up and that goes for rap music – and, in some ways, for how black people [themselves] are perceived. So part of the show’s purpose is [to say], ‘Blackness comes in all these different flavors.’”
In each 30-minute installment, Eagle and Vaughn present stand-up performances by three different comedians, capped by an original song/music-video collaboration between Eagle and that episode’s musical guest star. Dropping by throughout the series are such marquee hip-hop names as avant-hardcore Detroit rapper Danny Brown, masked and mysterious MC/producer MF Doom, Grammy-nominated rapper/singer/producer Phonte, breakout Twin Cities MC Lizzo and living legend Method Man.
The Wu-Tang Clan icon’s contribution was “extra-special for me,” Eagle said of their joint project, titled “Eat Your Feelings.” “To think that Method Man wrote a verse based on some weird idea I had is, like, mind-blowing.”
Comics showcased on season one of “The New Negroes” include a variety of stand-up up-and-comers alongside established performers like Dulcé Sloan from “The Daily Show,” “Chappelle’s Show” veteran Donnell Rawlings, comedian/actor Lil Rel Howery (Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning “Get Out”), and “Saturday Night Live” cast members Sasheer Zamata (past) and Chris Redd (current).
Redd, a Second City alumnus who grew up in the Chicago area, guests on episode one of “The New Negroes.” “He’s been rockin’ with us for years,” Eagle said appreciatively, noting that he met Redd not here but in Los Angeles.
Eagle had been raised in Chicago’s now-razed housing project Robert Taylor Homes, immortalized in his vibrant, lionized 2017 concept album “Brick Body Kids Still Daydream.” The young man had gone West after completing his education in the Land of Lincoln: he graduated in 1998 from Chicago’s Whitney Young Magnet High School, subsequently earning a psychology degree at Southern Illinois University in downstate Carbondale – where he was an R.A. in the dorm housing future stand-up star Hannibal Buress. Buress himself makes a special appearance on “TNN”’s premiere.
Interestingly, it was Eagle’s 2015 stint as musical guest on an installment of his former student charge’s Comedy Central series, “Why? With Hannibal Buress,” that served as a catalyst for this next leg of the rapper’s ever-evolving career.
“It was a very big moment for me,” Eagle said. “A lot of people became aware of me due to that appearance, which was my first time being televised doing music.”
Eagle met his “T.N.N.” co-host Baron Vaughn “seven or eight years ago, at a comedy rap battle in L.A. called ‘The BEATdown.’ I knew a bunch of comedians, and they’d invite me. And the comedians who were brave enough to rap would rap.”
That competition downplayed the intricate craft of freestyle rhyming, Eagle noted, “so I would lose these things because I was so focused on craft. ‘BEATdown’ distilled a rap battle down to the zingers – the people who were able to narrate their real, honest psychology of the moment were the ones who’d win.”
Baron Vaughn was just such a champion. “I’d recognized him from ‘Black Dynamite,’ the [2009 parody-blaxploitation] movie, but I didn’t really know him,” Eagle remembered.
“I was just so impressed. He knew how to rap, right? But he chose [to act out] a kind of slick-talkin’ grandfather character, and every one of his rhymes was connecting to that energy. We talked afterwards and it turned out he’d been a fan of mine; we clicked creatively.” Open Mike later joined Baron in an early, live comedy-festival version of “The New Negroes” that Vaughn had debuted.
Open Mike Eagle’s uncompromising lyrics continue to resonate
“We’ve been big fans of Baron and Mike and ‘The New Negroes’ live show for years,” said Jonas Larsen, executive vice president and co-head of talent and development for Comedy Central. “We were really excited to see how they would execute their vision in a more extensive, amplified way for TV.”
Eagle is simultaneously expressing his vision through a stimulating new music project. “I’m currently obsessed with the cross-section of black Americans and Japanese animation,” he said. “That stuff resonates with black people in a way that there’s some magic to it. I want to make music that explores and reflects that.”
Citing anime’s “traditional power fantasies,” the rapper ventured, “I think there’s really something to that for oppressed people. What I would love to do is actually develop an anime story with black characters.
“But I’ve already said too much,” Eagle concluded in a stage whisper. “Far too much!”
Moira McCormick is a local freelance writer.