The Johnson family is bursting out into song in Black-ish‘s season 4 premiere. After Dre (Anthony Anderson) watches his children perform in a historically inaccurate musical about Christopher Columbus, he enlists Aloe Blacc to help him create a musical about the holiday celebrating the end of slavery because he feels there aren’t enough black holidays. What ensues is a Hamilton-inspired, blunt discussion about the country’s uncomfortable past.
“It is a love it or hate it episode,” creator Kenya Barris tells EW about the musical season premiere. “I feel like any time you take a swing, and at the conceit of that swing, you’re saying, ‘talking about this makes people uncomfortable,’ then when you talk about it, you theoretically might make people uncomfortable. So, I did not have any question that it was going to be something that made people uncomfortable.”
Below, Barris previews the powerful season premiere and explains why he decided to tackle such a fraught topic.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did Hamilton inspire this episode?
KENYA BARRIS: Hamilton, I think, inspires anyone who watches it; I’m a huge fan of [Lin-Manuel Miranda] and what he does. But more than that, the idea of a historically contextual musical that — at the same time that it entertains — educates and gives you a perspective that you didn’t necessarily have was just a world I wanted to get into and tackle on the show.
Why did you want to talk about Juneteenth?
It came to me because my son came in from school and I was watching something about Columbus. My son was 7 and said, “Dad, you know Christopher Columbus never set foot in North America?” I looked at him and was like, “I think you’re mistaken, son.” And we started looking it up and I was like, “Oh my god!” I was blown away because I grew up in the era where it was, “Not only did he discover America, but he said that the world wasn’t flat” and all these types of things, and this was all not true. Then, I saw the dark side of who Christopher Columbus was and I was like, “Why are we celebrating this guy?” Then I really started thinking, we as a culture, black culture — and as an American culture — really don’t want to step up when things make us uncomfortable, and it would be uncomfortable to say who Christopher Columbus was. At the same time as it would be uncomfortable to say what Juneteenth was about.
Juneteenth, for me, was a joke growing up. Then I started thinking, “Why is the last official day of slavery a joke?” That should be the opposite of a joke, but it’s so uncomfortable for me in this country to talk about slavery because it makes other people uncomfortable. We sort of wipe away and wash away things that have to do with our culture, things that are specific and make other people feel uncomfortable: Kwanzaa or Juneteenth or slavery or Christopher Columbus being a war criminal. It made me really want to embrace that.
I’m not sure if you watch Donald Glover’s show Atlanta, but they also did a Juneteenth episode. Have you seen it?
Did Donald’s take on the holiday inform this episode in any way?
Not at all, because the Juneteenth episode — and I love Donald and I love Atlanta — but the Juneteenth episode of Atlanta was sort of exactly what I’m talking about in that it looked at it in sort of a jokey way. You know, it had a black woman who was married to white man, who was a negrophile, and people were celebrating it, but it was sort of looked at as a thing of the bourgeoisie, and I think that’s what it has become. But in the bigger scheme of things, isn’t there a real argument to be made that, isn’t the real Independence Day — and I love the Fourth of July — or another Independence Day, if we’re not going to skip the real one, the day that all of us were free? How are we having our independence when the country itself wasn’t truly independent, when the inhabitants of the country weren’t truly independent? For me, that did not inform the writing. I appreciated the episode, though, but it did not inform the writing.
Musician Aloe Blacc guest-stars, and the Roots helped out with the music. What made them the right collaborators for the episode?
I felt that [the Roots] would be amazing people to involve in this. Ali Shaheed Muhammad from A Tribe Called Quest is also involved in it in a big way. I wanted people who are really musical and at the same time really understand the culture and understand what we’re trying to do. Aloe Blacc helped us arrange and write, along with Fonzworth Bentley, who also worked with Kanye West on his last album, and the writer Peter Saji, who wrote [the premiere].
How did the cast react when you told them about the episode? Did it give any of them of pause?
They were blown away. One of our writers, Gail Lerner, had suggested we do a musical. She might’ve jokingly thrown out Juneteenth or Ellis Island or something like that, but we knew that we wanted to do it. The cast had been asking to do it because they’re all so musically inclined, the majority of them.
Hamilton star Daveed Diggs plays Bow’s brother on the show — will he be in this episode?
We couldn’t work it out scheduling-wise, and I have to tell you — and I love Daveed — I’m actually happy that he wasn’t in this episode. It would have felt too on the nose.
Black-ish premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.