Five black Philly radio hosts talk superheroes and sci-fi—and show the world that geek culture isn’t as white-and-nerdy as the media would have us believe.
RANDY: If something in Toy Story 3 doesn’t make you cry, you have a black, black soul.
ERIK: The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice.
—Black Tribbles, episode 47, April 13, 2012
If any city ought to know what black sci-fi geeks look like, it’s Philadelphia. Since 2001, we’ve had one of America’s greatest science-fiction authors, Samuel R. Delany, heading up Temple’s graduate creative writing program. Author Linda Addison, a Philly native, has won the Bram Stoker Award for horror poetry three times in the past decade, most recently this March. Acclaimed Philly choreographer Charles O. Anderson, after winning a 2007 Pew Fellowship in the Arts, promptly produced a dance work inspired by African-American science fiction. Heck, when America elected its first black president in 2008, the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society immediately followed suit.
But popular culture has long presented the black geek as an anomaly—an almost unthinkable deviation from both the stereotypical image of the geek, usually portrayed as white or Asian, and that of the black youth, usually portrayed in one of several unimaginative ways: as “street cool” via hip-hop or sports; as the affable and/or doomed sidekick to a white hero; or as a drug-dealing thug. And the new mass-culture of the Internet, where geeks congregate most enthusiastically, isn’t a lot better. “If you see a meme going around the Internet with a photo of a black person, any black person at all,” Jason sighs, “expect to see it eventually show up with a KFC bucket or a watermelon Photoshopped in.”
Len Webb wanted to change that. A producer for G-town Radio with a background in children’s theater and improv comedy, he’d spent three years running the fledgling online radio station’s two most popular talk shows: first a local culture show called The Rec, and then a sex-discussion show called The Pleazure Principles. As the latter program wound down its run in early 2011, Len started mulling over the idea of finally doing a show about what he really held dear.
“I grew up loving comic books,” says Len, who, at 45, is the oldest of the Tribbles. “And I fell in love with Batman. I’d say to my twin sister, ‘Leslie, draw me Batman!” and then I’d copy hers. Then I realized if I could do that, I could just copy the comic book myself—so I did, and drawing became my thing. But I always knew it wasn’t cool. I wasn’t the cool guy on the street.”
If liking superheroes wasn’t cool for a little black kid in Philly in the ’70s, it was nonetheless another pop sci-fi series that helped Len figure out how to construct a personal identity that could flourish in his Mt. Airy grade-school social circle. “When Mork & Mindy debuted,” he remembers, “man, Robin Williams was just totally unfiltered, batshit, ‘Nanu-nanu!’ I went to school the next day—it was Catholic school, shirt and tie—and at recess I was Robin Williams, I was a nut, like Daffy Duck bouncing off the walls. It was a license to come out of my shell, and people could just deal with it or not.”
That newfound, alien-inspired extroversion led Len over the years to the drama club at Martin Luther King High, to professional theater around the city, and eventually to G-town Radio. He conceived the basic format of Black Tribbles together with local actor Reginald Brown, and the two of them assembled the team of on-air talent before Brown bowed out a few episodes into the show’s run to pursue other projects.
It’s that team’s broad spectrum of backgrounds and interests that makes the show come so vibrantly to life. Kennedy, like Len, is a veteran comedy performer. Jason is a professional graphic designer, comics artist and geek-event producer—his website, J1Studios.com, is hosting its second annual Playstation tournament/music festival in West Philly on May 20. Erik is a videographer and filmmaker working on a documentary about a Pennsylvania man who may have been wrongly imprisoned. And Randy is a touring musician as well as a comics retailer.
One thing is foremost in the producer’s mind as he plans the content of upcoming episodes: “Presenting this culture in all its aspects in an entertaining, diverse, inviting and educational way. Sure, we’ll do the shows where we imagine how we’d cast a Justice League movie, but we’ll also do shows talking about what it’s like being a black geek, or about how superhero comics portray homosexuality. Next we want to do a show looking at the treatment of women in this culture. Let’s pick this stuff apart.”
KENNEDY: I would love, more than anything else, for Wonder Woman to finally get some respect ... We went to Comic-Con in October, and one of the crowd members asked [DC Comics’ animated-TV chief] Bruce Timm flat-out, when are we gonna see a Wonder Woman series? And he couldn’t give a concise answer. “Oh, well, I’d love to see it too, but—[she puts on a “Peanuts grown-up” cartoon voice] Wah wahwah wahwah wah wah.”
LEN: Always that “but.”
JASON: [sings] Big ol’, big ol’, big ol’ butt.
KENNEDY: [squeals] Aaaaoooow!
—Black Tribbles, episode 45, March 30, 2012
The 50 greatest Philly pop songs
PW's Summer Guide 2015