2017 was a year for artists of color making money moves

On the triumphant successes of Tiffany Haddish, Cardi B., Jordan Peele, and more.

CREDIT: Art by Diana Ofosu
CREDIT: Art by Diana Ofosu

You couldn’t have scripted symbolism this on-the-nose. La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz had finished his Academy Awards acceptance speech for best picture — even taking the time to pour 8,000 adjectives over “my kind, generous, talented, beautiful, blue-eyed wife” — and producer Marc Platt was done, too, having told us all that “the dreams we dream today will provide the love, the compassion, and the humanity that will narrate the stories of our lives tomorrow.”

It took nearly three full minutes for presenter Warren Beatty to realize there’d been a mistake, at which point Horowitz announced that the best picture winner wasn’t La La Land after all. It was Moonlight.

Even without the blunder, a Moonlight victory would have still felt like a pointed upending of the standard proceedings. The win came after two years in a row of #OscarsSoWhite debacles: In 2015 and 2016, zero actors of color received any Academy Award nominations. This sparked not just your standard issue internet outrage but — do you believe in miracles? — actual, honest-to-goodness change.

The Academy quickly announced plans to “mak[e] its Oscar choices more diverse” and rolled out major changes aimed at doubling the number of female and minority members by 2020. When the Academy introduced its newest class of members that spring, the numbers bore out the beginnings of a promise fulfilled: Of the 683 inductees, 41 percent were people of color.

If 2016 was a year of reckoning with how systemic racism can be felt in every nerve ending of the entertainment industry, 2017 brought an exuberant response: Triumphs for artists of color across pop culture, from film to music to comedy, behind and in front of the camera.

It was a year that started with Moonlight winning not only best picture but two other Oscars as well (best adapted screenplay and best supporting actor for Mahershala Ali) and ended with a slate of Grammy nominees so diverse it seems more possible than ever that the Recording Academy’s awards show might actually transcend its notorious history of under-appreciating or altogether ignoring black musicians. In between, a fleet of black artists succeeded across genres in record-breaking, cultural-conversation-dominating ways, claiming the top spots on the Billboard charts and at the box office, booting the usual suspects from their respective perches at the peak.

Though Taylor Swift is constitutionally incapable of not casting herself as the victim in the situation, it’s been years since she could credibly claim “underdog” status. This year, that designation belonged to none other than a regular, degular, shmegular girl from the Bronx: Cardi B.

Before she released the infectious, hell-yes-get-yours anthem of the summer, Cardi B. was a stripper, then a social media star, then an absurdly watchable, quotable cast member on VH1’s Love and Hip-Hop. These are the kind of credentials that are typically deployed to dismiss a woman, not to elevate her; even the raucous, near-perfect Girls Trip (more on that in a minute) has disdain to spare for an “Instagram ho.” But there was no denying Cardi B. or her smash, “Bodak Yellow,” an exuberant, defiant, touchdown dance of a song: “I just checked my accounts, turns out, I’m rich, I’m rich, I’m rich!

Taylor Swift is, literally, the almighty voice of a Big Machine. And yet her industry clout, even coupled with her access to the biggest producers on the planet, from aging hitmaker Max Martin to modern pop’s white-woman-whisperer Jack Antonoff, couldn’t give Swift the single she needed to not just take, but hold onto the number one spot. The lead single off Reputation, “Look What You Made Me Do” — a song that is both musically and politically tone-deaf and that Swift built around a sample from Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” — clung to number one for only three weeks before “Bodak Yellow” dethroned it. (Swift sent Cardi B. congratulatory flowers for the occasion.)

In taking the top spot, Cardi B. became the first female rapper to land a number one Billboard hit without any other artists on the track with her in almost 20 years. Meanwhile, “LWYMMD” slipped six spots down in what Billboard reported was “the largest fall from the top in the chart’s history” and tumbled from no. 5 to no. 20 on the all-format Radio Songs chart, “the biggest fall from the top five in that chart’s 27-year history.”

It’s been months since these singles debuted and Swift is still looking up at the red bottoms of Cardi B.’s bloody shoes: At press time, “Bodak Yellow” was riding high at no. 7, while Swift’s highest-ranking single, “…Ready For It?” hovered at no. 31. (“LWYMMD” had plummeted to no. 60.) And “Bodak Yellow” isn’t just winning a popularity contest, it has out-critical-acclaimed Swift’s summer single, too: The hit is up for two Grammys, two more than “LWYMMD,” the only one of Swift’s Reputation songs to be released during the eligibility period.

Speaking of the Grammys: 2017 was such an obviously phenomenal year for black musicians that even the Recording Academy — which has long treated being a white artist as all but a prerequisite for winning album of the year — took notice. The seven most-nominated individuals are people of color, led by Jay-Z with eight nominations for 4:44, followed by Kendrick Lamar with seven for DAMN. Bruno Mars scored six; Childish Gambino, Khalid, SZA, and No I.D. each earned five. All the lead nominees (so, excluding featured artists) for record of the year are also people of color. And of the five nominees for album of the year, the highest honor of the night, only one nominee is white: Lorde, for Melodrama. The other four slots went to Childish Gambino, Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, and Bruno Mars.

Tiffany Haddish grew up in South Central Los Angeles, with, as she wrote in her new book, The Last Black Unicorn“a mother who was mentally unstable and often violent. I was in foster care and homeless at times, and later, I escaped an abusive marriage.” As she worked her way up the comedy ranks, she was homeless for a stretch, living out of her car.

“I’ve been through some tumultuous situations,” she said recently on Good Morning America“I always try to find the bright side of anything dark going on. Anything hard to deal with, I always try to find: What’s the funny in this? What’s the fun in this?”

It feels right, then, that Haddish’s breakout year was 2017, a year in which it felt like everything  going on was shrouded in darkness and we were desperate for a bright side. She was a jolt of hilarity, charisma, and unfettered joy everywhere she went: In her star-making turn in this summer’s Girls Trip; on Jimmy Kimmel’s couch, regaling him with the story of how she took Will and Jada Pinkett Smith on a Groupon swamp tour (a video so viral it has been viewed over 2.4 million times to date); in her Showtime special, She Ready! From the Hood to Hollywood; in her memoir, The Last Black Unicornpublished in December; on Saturday Night Live, where she made history as the first black female comic to ever host the show. She made it basically impossible to even think the word “grapefruit” without laughing so hard you could pee yourself.

Audiences and critics alike spent the summer rejecting R-rated comedies, even those with A-list stars at the center. Flops included Rough Night, starring Scarlett Johansson; The House, which paired two of the most universally-adored comedians in America, Amy Poehler and Will Ferrell; Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck follow-up, Snatched, which paired her with Goldie Hawn; and Baywatch, which even The Rock and Zac Efron’s grapefruit-sized biceps (…see?) couldn’t lift from the bottom of the box office.

But Girls Trip — a movie primarily about the relationships among black female friends, not their romantic entanglements with anyone else; and one based on an original script, not an existing intellectual property — was a stunner. It broke $100 million domestically in just four weeks, an outstanding feat by any measures but an especially sweet one when you factor in the fact that its success made it the first film written (Kenya Barris and Tracey Oliver), directed (Malcolm D. Lee), produced (Lee and Will Packer) by and starring African Americans to do so. (Haddish shared the screen with Pinkett-Smith, Regina Hall, and Queen Latifah.)

And it would be impossible to talk about box office records without getting into Get Out. Jordan Peele’s social thriller, easily among the most critically-acclaimed and talked-about movies of the year, was made with a budget of only $4.5 million and has grossed over $250 million worldwide. It is, domestically, the 13th-highest grossing movie of 2017 to date. Peele became the first black director to cross the $100 million line on his first feature, and Get Out is the highest-grossing debut film for a writer-director based on an original screenplay, ever. (That title had been held by The Blair Witch Project, another scrappy horror flick that could, since 1999.)

As Peele put it in a recent Vanity Fair interview, “The idea of different voices, fresh voices, under-represented voices for so long was considered bad business in Hollywood. It seems like the world is getting sick of the last 10 years of film, and they want a new perspective; they want something fresh. It just feels like it could be the beginning of a special time in Hollywood.”