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'Black-ish' creator Kenya Barris: The purpose of art is to 'start a conversation'

"Black-ish" creator Kenya Barris with cast members on the set of his ABS series.
Ron Tom/ABC

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The violent events of the past week have roiled the country and artists are already responding. Jay-Z has released a song called “Spiritual.” And the singer Miguel has posted a new song called “How Many?” Both songs are indictments of police brutality.

But the killing of five police officers in Dallas calls for a different type of reflection about the role of artists in society. Writer and producer Kenya Barris created the ABC sitcom, “Black-ish.” The show may be a family comedy but it has taken on a number of serious topics, such as use of  the "N" word and police violence toward African-Americans.

We reached Barris at his production office where he is working on the next season of his series. He spoke with The Frame's John Horn about using his sitcom to address serious matters.

Interview Highlights:

How have you processed the past week: as a parent, as a citizen, or as a writer and producer?

I just think as a member of humanity you have to react and say, This is a loss of life. It's a continual sort of story that seems to be a theme of what it means to be a certain segment of this population. 

Does that mean that you start to think of yourself as a storyteller in relation to these events and how you might process them and share them with a broader audience?

For me, as a storyteller, your stories just come from your own personal experiences. Of course, this is not something that I'm thinking about telling a story about, it's just something that I'm sure as I begin to start talking about things in my life, this will have an effect on it, as it always has. 

What are some of the conversations you've been having with people over the past week about what's been happening?

Just outrage. Just sadness. Just confusion. I think this, coupled with the really interesting political campaign that we're seeing happening right now, the time period that we're living in, the fact that I just had another child — it's just a really confusing time. It causes a lot of questions as to what is the right way to handle things, or what's the right thing to say and how I'm supposed to feel.

As a parent, you're raising kids in a world that's incredibly fractured. How do you hope that they can understand and maybe help change the world? Do you think that as an artist you can help guide them through that process?

I think as an artist, I want to tell stories that may help inform what the world is feeling. I think as a father, I feel a great amount of turmoil, not really understanding what is up and what is down. There is a level of intersectionality that I come to between being a father and being a black man. My kids are going to come to that same point between being members of society and being black children. I feel like I don't necessarily know for them what comes first. If you use this week for example, I feel like them being black children comes first over being part of society because we're not looked at as the same as the rest of society so I have to lead with that.

In the other sense, I saw some police officers were killed last night and that's loss of life. They're part of humanity and part of our world and my heart goes out to them and their families. I want to mourn for them and I do mourn for them, but it's such a confusing time and I'm trying to keep an open line of dialogue. That's the same thing I'm trying to do in terms of [being] a writer. I'm trying to not land in one particular place, but open up a conversation that hopefully leads to some sort of change. 

An episode of yours from last season, "Hope," is loosely about the police's violent treatment of a young man, but it's really about how the Johnson family debates race, injustice and speaking truth to power. In the scene the family's watching the news about whether or not the police are going to be held accountable and the mom is explaining what's going on to the children. What were you trying to say with this episode?

There's just a lot that goes on in this world. The idea of what you talk to your kids about and how you speak to them — you don't want to scorch the earth for them based off of travels that you've had, but at the same time you don't want to not give them a sense of the world around them because they have to have their eyes open. That's sort of the challenge now as a parent with media outlets having so many different sources for them to speak.

The Internet and social media are very challenging. That particular episode was talking about exactly what we're saying right now. We see these things happen ... my daughter is literally perplexed with not being able to really express her feelings because she's scared. She's scared of what's going on around her. As a father, I want to talk to her and be open-minded, but I'm angry as well, so it's hard for me to sometimes keep that mindset as open as it should be.

What must be hard for you is, you're angry and you're trying to deal with incredibly difficult issues, but you're working in a medium that is mostly comedic. How do you manage to do all of those things at the same time?

I have a really eclectic staff of talented writers and we are friends and have really open conversations about what we're feeling without judgement. I think that leads to bigger and more varied dialogue that allows us to open those doorways and open those conversations in a way that doesn't lead us down one particular path.

When do you know that you're getting the right tone of humor and seriousness?

I think when we hear it out loud at the table read. Sometimes you feel it when you read it, but I think particularly when you hear it. Our actors are so gifted that they give us a really good sense when those words are read for the first time whether or not it's working or not. 

The episode we've been talking about ends with a John Legend song, "If You're Out There." There's a montage of protests about gay rights, women's rights and the Black Lives Matter movement. Are you always trying to think about how the specific can be more universal? 

I think the universality of this episode is in the specificity of it. When you try to speak universally you end up probably reaching less people. I think for us we don't speak to everyone, we speak to what our family on this show in particular would want. Hopefully if we do it right, that reaches the people that we wanted to reach in the way we wanted to reach them.

Broadly speaking, what kind of role do you see for yourself in the show? Should artists, in general, be making sure that people who watch entertainment or popular culture come away with a better or clearer understanding of their role in the world?

The purpose for me of art — of any type of art, whether it's media art, television or music — is to start a conversation and to evoke some sort of emotion. If you are doing that and you are doing it well, then one of those things will happen. It's not the obligation, but I think it should be the goal of art to start a conversation or evoke an emotion. 


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