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.
Most weeks, Randy joins the show remote by phone rather than coming into the studio with the other four. That’s because, much as he loves his Tribble identity, he’s already juggling two other personas: as assistant manager of Comics and More, a comic-book shop in the Plymouth Meeting Mall, and as a serious hip-hop artist who goes by the name R-Son and tours as a member of Gangstagrass, a Brooklyn-based rap/bluegrass hybrid that recently played SXSW and can be heard performing the theme song to the FX television drama Justified.
“I’ve been geektastic since I was yay high,” Randy says, holding his hand at waist level. His cousin introduced him to Dungeons & Dragons at age 8, and from there he followed the familiar ’80s progression of comic books, G.I. Joe, Transformers.
“Comics expanded my vocabulary,” he says. “Comics taught me the speed of light, and I never forgot it.”
Randy, at 38, has an 8-year-old and a 6-year-old of his own now, and he’s more aware every day how important it is for young kids of all backgrounds, boys and girls both, to see themselves reflected in the heroic imagery that pop culture provides. He was startled recently to realize how deeply he was touched when Marvel introduced a new, alternate-world version of Spider-Man, a brown-skinned teenager named Miles Morales who takes up the identity out of respect for the previous web-swinger, the familiar Peter Parker. “Miles is black and Puerto Rican, like my son,” Randy says softly. “That’s my little dude up on the webs.”
It’s simultaneously a complicated issue and an incredibly simple one. Because all the major superhero figures in American pop culture were created between the 1930s and the early 1960s—Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, the Hulk, etc.—black kids have always grown up thrilling to the exploits of white heroes, but white kids haven’t been called upon to step outside their own racial existence in the same way. Len recalls hanging with Randy at the comics shop one day and talking with a white superhero fan who said he could never really get into the black characters, like Marvel’s Power Man, because he couldn’t identify with them. That’s a common platitude in fandom—but this time, Len didn’t want to let it stand. “Look,” he told the guy, “Batman is my favorite thing. I’ve got a Batman tattoo on my shoulder. If I can identify with Batman, well, I ain’t rich, and I ain’t white. Randy here, he’s all about Superman, and if he can identify with Superman, well, he ain’t a farmer from Kansas and he sure ain’t an alien from outer space. So why can’t you identify with Power Man? His thing is that he protects the inner city. What’s so hard to appreciate about that?”
The guy got it. Next time they bumped into each other in the store, he told Len and Randy that he’d started reading Power Man and Black Panther.
That’s the sort of impact the crew wants Black Tribbles to have: taking advantage of the intimate, conversational nature of talk radio to bring that chat to lots more people than they could reach hanging out in the comic-book shop. To bring together fans of all different backgrounds and let them appreciate life perspectives they hadn’t considered up close and personal before—and, along the way, to inspire those young black kids, in Philly and everywhere, who otherwise may never have been given the cultural blessing to take a superhero as their role model. “Man, I would love to open a comics store in West Philly,” Randy says. “I would love to have a big Spider-Man statue out there on 38th and Market.”
In March, the Tribbles were invited to participate as judges at the 33rd annual George Washington Carver Science Fair—named, of course, for American history’s foremost black science geek. Hundreds of students from around the city convened at Temple for the fair, one of the biggest such in the nation; Len and Jason judged students from seventh to 12th grade in the computer science category. “It was cool!” Len says. “This one seventh grader was taller than all of us, had a jacket and tie, and was studying how artificial intelligences respond to human interaction… The amazing part was how this young man was so smart about it, had it so well thought out—he’d even color-coded his project with blue labels and he was wearing a blue tie. Really, the fun of it was seeing these kids invested in stuff, not just in being basketball players, rapping—these kids were like, ‘I want to be a scientist, want to be a doctor.’ Little, little kids thinking like that. It was the gamut of kids: white, black, Asian, Hispanic, Arab, Jewish, it didn’t matter.”
Len says Black Tribbles couldn’t have done any of this without G-town Radio’s vital and wholehearted support; at the same time, his visions of the show’s future are bigger. He’s picturing satellite radio. Or even a TV version on a network like the ever-geeky G4. “I think it’s a damn good show. Does it have some things that aren’t quite polished? Sure. But that’s part of the charm. The people involved deserve to be paid for it. Yeah, we do it for the love—but I think it can be more than that, if the fates align.”
He sees the way their local fans light up, responding to the Tribbles’ unique radio voices, when they make public appearances at events like comics conventions. “When we go out, they look for Jason to say something stupid, for Kennedy to be Kennedy, for Erik to drop in some bombastic couplets once in a while, and for R-Son to bring his knowledge from on high. And I—I just steer the ship.”
Which, for any geek of any background, naturally begs the question: If Len’s at the helm—which starship captain is he channeling? He stares for a moment before breaking into a sheepish grin. “It’s a little bit of hubris, but I would say I’m Picard.” He pauses. “I’d like to say Sisko, but I’m probably Picard.”
Black Tribbles will be celebrating Free Comic Book Day on Sat., May 5, with a day of public recording from Comics and More at the Plymouth Meeting Mall, including a contest to give away tickets to the upcoming Wizard World convention. A second Tribbles team will be at the Creation Star Trek Convention in Cherry Hill the same day. More info: blacktribbles.com
Follow the Black Tribbles on Twitter here.
The 50 greatest Philly pop songs