10 Modern Heroes of Black Nerddom (and Urkel Is NOT One)

Thursday, February 27, 2014 at 6:00 am


For me growing up in the '80s as a (black) fan of comics, video games and anime, it was rare to come across anyone who looked like me and had the same interests. The only model for the black nerd was Jaleel White's character on Family Matters, which, you know, is kind of terrible.

He wears a pair of bulky glasses, speaks in a high-pitched voice, refuses to use contractions, and probably made out with his evil clone. Probably? Definitely. Seriously, forget Steve Urkel.

Which is why I think the current generation has it made. And with Black History Month drawing to a close, we're going to focus our eye lasers on some of the creators, innovators, and otherwise excellent types who get us hyped about the universe, science fiction, gaming and pop culture as a whole.

10. Jean Grae: Rap Game Something Something

If Sin City had a hip hop soundtrack, New York native Jean Grae would be the one scoring it.

The 37-year-old (AKA Tsidi Ibrahim) might be familiar to some of your 2013's Gotham Down cycle of singles and videos, a comics and noir-inspired concept piece which allowed the rapper to hold forth on love, life and death across the three-part EP. An NYU dropout, she's been hustling to get her name out there for over 15 years before starting to get noticed toward the tail end of 2012 and throughout 2013.

And I'm just realizing Grae is what would happen if Gail found a way to walk off of the comic page, adopted the moniker of her favorite dead X-Man, picked up a mic and started spitting grim, fatalistic rhymes (without the fetish gear and weird Miller-ian libertarian nonsense).

9. Michal Jai White: He Played Spawn Once (But Don't Hold That Against Him)

Seriously, the man did the best he could with what he was given.

And it all could have gone another way for White, the charismatic martial artist who spent the better part of the aughts watching the likes of Steven Seagal get top billing while his lone scene in Kill Bill: Vol. 2 didn't even make the final theatrical cut (eh, it's not great).

Then came Black Dynamite.

See, White is also a really, really funny guy and with director Scott Sanders, White helped make the second-best blacksloitation comedy since the Wayans Brothers attempted to hip '90s America to the ills of OG'ing. You know how Vin Diesel is a notorious D&D nut? White is like that about kung fu flicks and '70s exploitation movies (and points to White for not inflicting the Necroverse upon us).

The man mixed martial arts, funk guitar, killer Richard Nixon and Arsenio Hall(!) for one of the funnier movies of the last decade that also served as a love letter to the cheapie genre that spawned it. Black Dynamite came along as comics and pop culture were reconsidering the pulp of the '70s (if you'd asked me ten years ago, White would have been my pic for a hypothetical Luke Cage feature). The film has spawned a pretty damned good animated series (featuring White's voice) and a planned sequel set in the Old West.

Hell, just for getting Arsenio back into the public consciousness, White deserves a place on this list.

8. Pam Grier: Keeping it Foxy and Badass


It's one thing to be expired by the heroes of the blaxsploitation era and it's another entirely to be one - and that's the indomitable Ms. Grier. Ms. Grier isn't a nerd per se, but the Coffy and Foxy Brown star has become a pop-cultural muse, informing everything from what we think about badass black ladies in the '70s to hip-hop identity, and if you really want to get the lowdown on how nuts her career was, you should definitely check out Machete Maidens Unleashed.

Oh wait, did I forget to mention she once threatened Superman?

Yeah, that's right. Besides starring in Tarantino's second best film (ask me another time which is his best), Grier brought us TV's first live-action incarnation of "The Wall," Suicide Squad boss Amanda Waller, arguably one of the most dangerous women in comics who made the leap to the small screen in Smallville back in 2010.

And that was just her second brush with the DCU, having voiced the Martian Manhunter's wife in a pair of Justice League episodes for the Cartoon Network and WB.

Grier isn't a nerd inspired by pop culture - she's the pop culture that inspires nerds.

7. Janelle Monáe: When Androids (in Love) Attack!

Because creepy accused sex offender R. Kelly shouldn't have a monopoly of R&B concept albums, in comes a pompadoured lady android from a dystopian future with the purring voice of a diva superheroine.

Citing nothing less than Dorothy Gale as her inspiration, Monáe crafts literate, emotional songs that also happen to be set in dystopian metropolises where feeling can get you messed up.

But instead of being twee, impenetrable, or worse - boring - Monáe's music makes you get up on your feet and dancing (while the cerebral types pore over her lyrics for reference points and some insight into the young singer's brain space).

Plus, if you've never seen her perform live, imagine a mixture of death by laser, twin go-go dancers, escaped mental patients, and so much choreography in white. It's what would happen if the offspring of Parliament Funkadelic tried going legit, gave up, went to drama school and found a bunch of swing records.

But if we're talking crazy, pop culture-infused reinvention, then our next industry is your man.

6. The RZA: AKA Bobby Digital AKA the Rapper With the Geek Flow


A rap persona made of equal parts New York streets, a seemingly endless record collection and a stint in the temples of Shaolin (by way of Times Square), the leader of the Wu-Tang Clan has been going strong in the worlds of hip hop, film, comics, and animation for over two decades.

The secret to the RZA can be found in the producer, The Scientist, the man who samples, twists, manipulates, and shapes his influences into something sharp, something new, and often, something just this side of strange. I'm gonna go ahead and credit him with the existence of other martial arts/rap mashups like Samurai Champloo and Afro Samurai and just dare you to try and convince me otherwise.

But instead of a confused blender approach, RZA, like any mad scientist, knows how to tap into the virtues of his monstrous creations' various pieces, how to give us something new with something old, and how to make us nod our heads (or at least lean forward) the first time he hits us with it. He makes house calls.

Sure, his first feature film effort was a bust, but The Man With the Iron Fists shows someone so deeply enmeshed in the alternate universe where kung fu and hip hop were born, that he had to put one of their movies on our screens.

If the RZA didn't exist, then we would have had to invent him.

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