Laughing At Or With Antoine Dodson?

Technology commentator and blogger Mario Armstrong, and comedian, author and self-described ‘vigilante pundit,’ Baratunde Thurston, talk about how and why Antoine Dodson became an internet celebrity.

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ALLISON KEYES, host:

As we just heard, Antoine Dodsons rise to fame on YouTube has brought him a T-shirt line, a Facebook fan page and now even a telephone line dedicated to some of his most ardent supporters. But as we said, not everyone has been jumping on the Antoine Dodson bandwagon. Some were disturbed by the news story in which he was featured, feeling that it reinforced racial stereotypes and perpetuated those stereotypes to a much much wider audience as the video went viral.

We wanted to get a sense of just what YouTube stardom means in todays social media-savvy world, and also where Antoine Dodson can be placed in our current cannon of YouTube stars, popping into the emails boxes across the nation.

Joining us to talk about it is Mario Armstrong. Hes a regular technology commentator on TELL ME MORE and NPR, and he also blogs about technology at marioarmstrong.com. Also joining us today is Baratunde Thurston, a comedian, author and self-described vigilante pundit.

Thank you both, gentlemen, for joining us.

Mr. MARIO ARMSTRONG (Technology commentator): Thanks for having us.

Mr. BARATUNDE THURSTON (Comedian, author and self-described vigilante pundit): Thank you.

KEYES: Mario, let me start with you.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Okay.

KEYES: Just how long does your 15 minutes of fame last these days?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Thats a good question because everyones certainly seeking to get it. To me, everyone is a brand out there, so some people, I think are better at leveraging their brand than others. The key to this whole thing of whether or not you could be successful off of doing a series or a YouTube video is whether you have some type of sustainability, and whether you can really kind of parley that, maybe flip that moment into multiple product lines or multiple sustainable revenue streams.

So I think it takes a certain level of business savvy. Otherwise, you just become a form of entertainment with no monetization behind it and eventually that flame will probably die out.

KEYES: What is it Mario, that people are into? Is it quirky? Is it just people wide-eyed at the spectacle? I mean whats catching peoples eyes out there?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yeah, I mean, you know, its all about quirkiness for sure. People like anything outside of the normal. People love to see things that they aren't exposed to, so I think this definitely has that element. I also think that things that are attached to anything that's current, or anything in pop culture that really trending fast, but things that are also heart-wrenching or causing a type of movement for a certain reason. But then also just being funny or hilarious. Those are just some of the things that I think can make a video go viral.

KEYES: Baratunde, let me turn to you for a second.

Mr. THURSTON: Mm-hmm.

KEYES: As I said earlier, not everybody is jumping on Antoines Facebook fan page. What is it about him that strikes a nerve, particularly with middle-class African-Americans, in Huntsville?

Mr. THURSTON: Well, I think when you look at the very first video that came out, it was sort of an unauthorized upload of the news clip, raw.

KEYES: Mm-hmm.

Mr. THURSTON: And the headline on that clip was not, you know, local man calls out area rapist. It was something along the lines of look, this is so funny.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: Oh, no.

Mr. THURSTON: And it completely undermined the seriousness of the content of that video. And then you saw a lot of people mocking Antoine in their knockoffs. You know, the Gregory Brothers thing was actually pretty hot. Thats one of the beats I've heard in a while. But, when you look at you can see white people putting Afro wigs on and do-rags and trying to talk like they think Antoines talking. Its just highly uncomfortable. And for a lot of black people who I know, and many of others who I've read online, it was just a little too close to home for people whove never really had control of their media image, have always been defined by someone who wanted to paint a very specific, narrow picture of what black people are not, Antoine got a bit close to that for them.

KEYES: What was interesting though, a lot of those videos seem to be pretty rainbow. I mean it was everybody: black people, Latino people, white people.

Mr. THURSTON: Well, yeah. I mean the beauty of it is Antoine did a lot of amazing things in that interview. And there's a great website run by a woman, Dr. Goddess. Shes drgoddess.blogspot.com. She did a lot more research and found out it was Antoines family that actually called the news. The police never responded, they had been waiting for a while, so they called up the news folk, who, they were shocked, actually came to cover it. And as you heard in the interview just now, he has talked about, you know, crime in his community before.

KEYES: Mm-hmm.

Mr. THURSTON: So he is a very compelling figure. And even in the interview, he sounds sweet, and loving and conscious of everything thats happening. I think he tapped into something universal in all of us, that gets outraged when some sort of injustice goes down. And the fact that he spoke out against it so soon is also rare in cases of sexual assault. He was defending his family, he was calling out his perpetrator, so theres a lot to love about what he did.

KEYES: Mario, why do you think people care what Antoine Dodson says to a reporter at a tiny TV station in Huntsville?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: The community at-large thats watching YouTube, I dont know that that community cared about why he was meeting with a local reporter. I think it goes back to what Baratunde was saying, is more about, you know, look at this funny video. You already heard him talk about how, you know, the police do not show up, they dont respond, and hes kind of become this local activist that takes things into his own hands. So I think it became something that people cared about once it became something that could be seen as maybe a parody or being used in some type of entertainment fashion.

But as Baratunde mentioned, I totally agree with him that the raw content the raw issue - was being over passed. I mean it was just it wasnt being seen for what the real issue was. It was transforming into something that he couldnt even stop. He couldnt stop the train and I think thats what got people excited. And so I do think it comes down to people wanting to watch something that they think is funny, not something that they think is a real serious issue.

Mr. THURSTON: And I'd love to tag on to something Mario said earlier, about why this video was so interesting to folks, and you said something like, you know, they're seeing something they're not exposed to. And I think, therein, lies the attraction and some potential problems.

I know that not everybody whos watching the Antoine video - whether the remix, auto tune version, or the original - is explicitly trying to get their ghetto fix on, because they dont have it in their daily lives. But some are, and theres a history there that must be acknowledged that, you know, we still have a relatively experience-base divided nation, and so when you are able to kind of dip your toe into someone elses life, and that first reaction being like -oh, ha, ha, thats so funny - that's a bit problematic.

KEYES: So Baratunde, does that mean he deserve congratulations for taking advantage of this movement and making it mean something monetarily to their family, or scorn, or something in between? What do you think?

Mr. THURSTON: That is absolutely, I mean, I have a lot of feelings about this video. But the more I have followed Antoine on Twitter and Facebook, the more admiration I have for him, because I think, collectively, if you want to make this about race and there's also an element of sexuality in this. Theres a southern thing going on. There's a lot of things happening in this story. But if you want to look at the race angle and the quote/unquote "embarrassment factor," I think what hes been able to do by grabbing control of his own mean and identity and really riding the wave and helping direct it and extract money from it and getting his family out of the hood, is the story that collectively many black people have not been able to do. That we still have questions of representations of ourselves in the media, and whos a news executive and whos a producer and whos an editor at an organization.

And Antoine, who was initially not a part of this at all. He didnt upload the first video. He didnt make the mix. This was all without his permission, said okay. Okay, I see. Heres my T-shirt. Heres my website. Heres my new song. And so he has taken control, where many of us, collectively, have not necessarily been able to. And I think that is a testament to the times we live in, the technology we have and who he is as a person, whos much savvier than many expected.

KEYES: I'm glad that you said that, because Mario, I wanted to know, could this have happened at any other time than now?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: No, I dont believe so. In my opinion, absolutely not. And this goes back to the earlier point, where I said everyone truly is a brand. Whether you want to be brand or not, you are representing something. Youre representing a style or a look, a cause. Youre representing something. And in this case, Antoine may not have known what he was really ultimately representing. And I think, you know, hes representing several different things all at the same time.

Hes representing justice. Hes representing getting out of poverty. He representing the idea that you can take control of your image, to some degree. At least, not just stand by and let it happen, but decide to flip it, decide to monetize it, and participate and take it to the next level. And I have no problem with anybody legally trying to flip their way out of the hood.

So no, I respect his ability, and I really hope that he can really make some smart decisions to really figure out how he can not only flip this monetarily, but also continue the civic cause, the activism that I think he represents to a lot of young people that can really inspire a generation.

KEYES: Wait a second, I want to ask you both a question. Mario first, is it problematic for you that most people, I mean almost 95 percent of the people seem to be more laughing at him than with him?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: That's a tough one. Yeah, it bothers me. Absolutely, it bothers me because, you know, its still, you know, it takes me back. You know, I'm not too young that I dont remember what my parents would talk about in terms of stereotypes on television.

KEYES: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: I'm not too old that I dont remember, you know, seeing black face and things of that nature. So I have an absolute sensitivity to it. So thats why I'm saying its imperative that someone like Antoine, takes this fire and takes this momentum, and turns this into something as positive as possible.

KEYES: Well, gentlemen, weve got to end it there on the radio today. But you know, the conversation never ends on TELL ME MORE. Go to the program page at npr.org and click on TELL ME MORE.

Baratunde Thurston is a comedian, author and self-described vigilante pundit. He joined us from our New York bureau. Mario Armstrong is a regular technology commentator here on TELL ME MORE and he also blogs about technology at marioarmstrong.com. He joined us from member WEAA in Baltimore.

Thank you, gentlemen for you thoughts.

Mr. THURSTON: Thank you.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Thank you, Allison.

(Soundbite of music)

KEYES: And that's our program for today. Im Allison Keyes and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Lets talk more tomorrow.

(Soundbite of music)

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