Dont miss the Black Bart Gallery above the image!
Browsing the Net, I came across a recently produced homage to the once ubiquitous "Black Bart Simpson" tee-shirts of the early '90s. These homages started popping up on streetwear blogs a couple years ago and are really well done, but of course, nothing beats the real thing. Which got me reflecting on my teenage years during that time and how heavily The Simpsons (and in particular, Bart Simpson) captured the nation's attention. Even more specifically, how the Black community took embracing Bart to the next level.
In 1989, The Simpsons television program debuted on the FOX network, after first appearing a few years earlier as brief interstitial shorts on the sketch comedy series The Tracey Ullman Show. These were the nascent days of Simpsons-mania, and I — out of an inescapable affinity for the show's little rebellious rugrat — eagerly purchased one of the first licensed Bart Simpson tees on sale at my local Miller's Outpost at the Fox Hills Mall. (I was maybe 18 years old, and an early adopter, so to speak.) Soon after, when I rocked that tee proudly around town, I was the man to passers-by who would point at my shirt and yell, "Bart Simpson!" One night, I wore it out to a club. I was young and penniless and when I arrived at the door of the venue, I faced the stinging reality of a $20 cover charge. I probably had half as much in my pocket and was sure I would have to turn around and look elsewhere for the night's entertainment. But tellingly, the big (and yes, Black) doorman stopped me before I could leave. He looked me up and down and without the slightest hesitation said, "Aw fuck it man, you got a Bart Simpson tee-shirt on. Dude, go on in." Say, word.
It was then that I learned that Bart Simpson was currency.
The animated series was surging in popularity, and particularly resonated with Black folks. Songs and dances were inspired by the show, and the idea of Bart Simpson as a "surrogate Black man" was something that African-Americans seized on. Says Media Assassin Harry Allen in a 1990 interview with The Washington Post: “I think the Bart character is appealing because — I don’t want to say he’s kind of black. I don’t mean that. He’s just got some very unusual characteristics, from his haircut to his use of the word ‘homeboy’ infrequently, to even his general sassiness.”
People could relate to him, and so, they adopted him. Bart's anti-establishment stance fused easily with the burgeoning Afrocentric, knowledge-of-self movement that was overtaking hip-hop, which expressed itself in the clothing that we wore. If you didn't wear some kind of "Black and Proud" statement on your person, whether it be in the form of leather Africa medallions, a "Negro League" baseball jersey, an "African American College Alliance" sweatshirt, or an oversized tee with some other "I'm Black" affirmation on it meant, well, you just weren't down for the cause, G.
Enter "Black Bart," and the bootleg tee shirt cottage industry that sprang up in the months following that early appearance on the racks of Millers Outpost in the Fox Hills Mall. His yellow skin turned brown, "Black Bart" as worn by youths in the 'hood as well as the Black Student Unions in colleges across the nation, spoke the latest slang. He wore Air Jordans. He was anti-Apartheid. He could dance as good as MC Hammer. He was every Black person under the age of 30 and… he was a license to print money.
As I started writing this blog, I spoke to an old friend of mine who recalled his days at Morris Brown College in Atlanta during that Simpsons craze, where he worked his way through school silkscreening and printing the illicit wares to a hungry, culturally-awakening campus audience. "I must've made like 20, 30 thousand dollars on them things," he told me. "I could not hold on to them long enough." This pretty much sums up why the bootleg tees were sold on street corners, swap meets, and hole-in-the wall shops from Canal Street to Crenshaw Blvd. The Black Bart Simpson craze was a culturally specific generational phenomenon. It was the kind of thing that the younger versions of ourselves easily embrace as we look for acceptance before defining ourselves as individuals. Its was the kind of thing that I will likely never participate in again. But looking back on it reminds me that when you’re young, anything goofy and fun is possible. Something to keep in mind next time some skinny jeans get you all worked up. "Don't have a cow, man!"
M.C. Cooley Cool — "The Simpsons Dance" (1990, Def City Recods).
Before it spread out into its various sub-genres, hip-hop was first and foremost party music. And until the early '90s there seemed to be a new dance every other week inspired by something in popular culture. Dances like the Reebok, the Roger Rabbit and the Pee-Wee Herman caught on in Black communities across the nation. M.C. Cooley Cool's contribution, "The Simpsons Dance," remained more regional and, nowadays, seemingly all but forgotten. But this song (and video) is a real gem.
Cooley Cool's flow evokes a less confident Chill Rob G, or maybe Lakim Shabazz in a silly mood on a bad day, but still. The comedically sad "wamp wamp" horns are infectious and it looks like they had hella fun making this video. Note how everyone is wearing a either a legit Simpsons tee or one of the many bootleg "Black Bart" tees that proliferated in the 'hood.
CLICK THE THUMBNAIL IMAGES ABOVE THE VIDEO TO SEE MORE BLACK BART
"The Simpsons Dance" 12" Label.
Peep the shout outs on label.
"I'm Black Bart Simpson..." Tee.
Is there a more definitive declaration of the trend than this? Gold teef, Africa medallion (I had one, too) and a pair of Nikes. Not to mention the Cameo cut. He looked like everyone I remember seeing walking around my Uncle's Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn. (Nobody skated though.)
Black Wit' Attitude. Fused with one of the more popular tee-shirt slogans of the Afrocentric era: "It's A Black Thing, You Wouldn't Understand." Looking back at it, I can only imagine how much these kind of bold declarations confused and pissed off a lot of White people back in the day.
"We Shall Overcome" Tee.
Though he is curiously yellow (word to Vilgot Sjöman), Bart is sportin' a pair of specs clearly inspired by the character Dwayne Wayne from the sitcom A Different World, unshackling chains and bustin' through the continent of Africa, which should more than answer anyone who questions his Blackness. Light-skin brothers, stand up!
"Mandela The Dude's My Hero!" Tee.
Bart got so Black he looked towards Africa. But really what makes this tee so dope is that it encapsulates the strong sense of Pan-African solidarity that was on the minds of hip-hoppers during the late '80s/early '90s.
"U Can't Touch This" Tee.
Now here's where things get interesting. On the one hand, you had the whole parallel M.C. Hammer "U Can't Touch This" bootleg tee-shirt phenomenon happenin' (as immortalized by Ice Cube in his song "Steady Mobbin'"). And then on the other hand, you got the Black Bart popularity popping off. And then some ingenious silkscreener took a look around and played mad scientist like Dr. Yacub. All of a sudden tee-shirt world's are colliding like a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup. These DO taste great together...
"M.C. Bart" Tee.
...except when there's train wrecks like this one. Let me be clear: I cannot deny the power of the illustration. But the messaging is a muddled mess. Why it reads "Kid In Play, Don't Hurt Em Hammer" is anybody's guess. (Although Kid In Play does sound like it would hurt.) I suppose there is some kind of relation since both K 'n' P and Hammer were known for getting their dance on. But why bother placing the tiny Kid 'N' Play figures on the lower left at all, when clearly the pimpin' "Hammer" flanked by two bangin' shorties is the reason why anyone would decide to rock this funky joint in the first place? Maybe this bootleg tee was designed in Japan.
"Juicy Got 'En Crazy" Tee.
The Oakland influence continues with this one, re-interpreting the title of Oaktown 357's 1989 dance-rap hit "Juicy Gotcha Krazy." So strange. Whoever did this one was conscious enough to include the apostrophe before the E, but still contracted the word "them" as "'en."
"Air Bart" Tee.
Bart Simpson as Michael Jordan, espousing the swaggerific words of M.C. Hammer with the knock-off Nike Flight logo thrown in for good measure. It doesn't get more "1990" than this.
"Air Bart / Chicago Bulls" Tee.
Another Bart Simpson as Michael Jordan tee, rocking the clean shaven look.
"Air Simpson" Tee.
Still representin' the 23.
"Teenage Mutant Ninja Simpson" Tee.
Yung Simpson as one of the martial arts savvy reptiles. Strangely enough, there isn't any real reason for Bart to be Black. It's just a bonus (unless you want to read into the whole "ninja" aspect).
The Washington Post.
The Black community’s enthusiasm for the hip-hopified Black Bart Simpson tee-shirts did not go unnoticed by the mainstream or Simpsons creator Matt Groening.
This 1990 Washington Post story reported about the phenomenon and reached out to Groening for comment:
Matt Groening jokes: "I can’t decide whether it’s that Bart lives up to their stereotypes of how stupid Whites are or whether they know the secret truth — that Bart is Black himself."
But while he admits he is flattered by the appropriation, Groening did indicate he was also conflicted about the proliferation of bootleg tees:
“I must say I have mixed feelings. You have to have mixed feelings when you’re getting ripped off.”
Read The Washington Post. story here: PDF
Luke ft. The 2 Live Crew — "Do The Bart" (Luke Records, 1991).
A year after M.C. Cooley Cool's regional hit came this dramatic departure via Miami's bass'd gods, Luke and the 2 Live Crew. By eschewing the bootleg apparel and any references to it, not to mention the dancing Kid Rock twins dancing in the video, Luke and 2 Live Crew distanced themselves from the street level embracing of Bart Simpson. Their take on the Simpsons phenomenon — from their Banned In The USA album — brought a predictably more "adult" angle and aimed for a wider (pop) audience. Arguably, the Black Bart trend was over.
"Do The Bart" 12" Single Cover.