Super Professor: Adilifu Nama Talks African American Studies at LMU, Black Panther, Prince, and Pop Culture

It was 10 years ago that Professor Adilifu Nama made his way from California State University Northridge to LMU’s African American Studies Department. His research, and the courses he teaches, focus on the intersection of ideology, pop culture, and race in America. He is also an author and popular commentator exploring how Blackness has been imagined and reimagined in science fiction films, comics, Quentin Tarentino’s movies, and most recently, Prince’s artistic projects.

“My work is the analysis of the meaning and cultural significance emanating from film, music, comics and television; and how these works provide our society the opportunity to look at itself, to contemplate itself, and to engage in confronting various issues that are socially vexing,” explains Nama. While some people reject pop culture entertainment as escapist, Nama believes the desire behind the creation and consumption of pop art and escapist entertainment is what makes it worth studying. “With all pop culture there is a component of escapism; escapism from the doldrums of everyday life, the mundane. But I would argue that it’s not necessarily escaping from something that is the question but escaping to something and why? Where are we escaping to and what does popular culture provide us when we get there?” says Nama.

Another topic that Nama grapples with in his work is the place of Black people in American pop culture, and how this particular intersection affirms or challenges established discourses. “Black representation also becomes an example of the type of cultural discourse circulating in society at a particular time and reveals the type of common-sense assumptions that are riddled throughout our everyday understanding of race. When you put race into the mix, there is a way in which a myriad of racial issues come to the surface, but one still needs to be leery of Black folk as novelty or merely niche, where Blackness becomes a novelty commodity to be consumed or even fantasized about but never given full expression in the culture. For example, horror films with Black folk must now say something about race, as if horror films with Black folk are relevant only concerning racial allegory rather than being scary. So those are ways in which pop culture and race can become problematic when they intersect,” explains Nama.

While he wrote “Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Super Heroes” in 2011 just before coming to LMU, his earlier research concerning Black influence on popular culture, Afrofuturism, and sci-fi symbolism continues to be relevant and applicable to recent representations of Black super heroes in works like Black Panther and HBO’s Watchmen. “What makes the film Black Panther special, he contends, is that the comic book Black Panther was always Afrofuturistic so it’s not a matter of it being in sync with the popularity of Black superheroes, but that the Black superhero expands our understanding and appreciation of what is possible in terms of Blackness as a symbol and source of meaning in our society.”

His most recent book “I Wonder U: How Prince Went Beyond Race and Back” explores how Prince became a national phenomenon across all demographics in the United States while maintaining credibility with Black audiences and musicians. From Professor Nama’s perspective, part of what makes Prince a fascinating object of study is that he expanded the image of what creative Blackness could look like by transcending the boundaries of race, gender, and music. “I think there is a connection between a national ethos and, the projection onto Prince and his ability to create a way for us as an audience to experience a more racially expansive reality thorough genre defying music. Prince stakes out some interesting racial space through the use of androgyny and appropriating the white glam rock trope but mostly the new wave Romantics of the early 1980s, that allow him to circumvent and expand the contours of consideration for what is Black music.” This doesn’t mean that Prince or his music is somehow “less Black” either. Nama explains, “Make no mistake, even given the broad range of sonic incarnations that are Prince, dude played Black music.”

One of the things Nama appreciates the most about pop culture is that it provides a starting point for meaningful engagement with important issues, and his students are often ready and eager to contribute their ideas. “One of the interesting byproducts of being a scholar of popular culture and race is that all students have an opinion about the material we review in terms of how people feel about it, if it is good or bad, or if we like it or dislike it.” This is unique compared to other disciplines that deal with more unfamiliar subject matter. “If we’re going to study the French Revolution, we may know something about it and that there’s this guy called Bonaparte that plays a part in it but compare that first day of class conversation to a discussion about the politics of cultural appropriation concerning Taylor Swift or Katy Perry. That is the way pop-culture can fuel our discussion and reflection around race, and I certainly have enjoyed and benefited from this approach and scholarship,” says Nama.

In fact, much of his teaching involves helping his students to re-examine and look at the well-known through a new lens. The ability to acquire some real understanding of the familiar is rooted in interdisciplinary study. “This is the strength of African American Studies at LMU. Because of our critical and intersectional orientation, we can look at the familiar from multiple perspectives and different angles and begin to draw out some important points where it concerns how Black racial formation is woven into the very fabric of our society and even how to ethically engage the LMU community in a way that is a robust and diversified in perspective.”