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Aaron McGruder: ‘A lot of people are trying to reconcile their older selves and their R. Kelly fandom’

‘The Boondocks’ creator speaks up about being back in the cultural conversation

Shortly after the docuseries Surviving R. Kelly began its three-night run last week, writer, producer and cartoonist Aaron McGruder started getting phone calls of a type he hasn’t gotten in a long time.

“Yo, they’re talking about The Boondocks!” people said.

DJ Pooh, co-writer of the cult movie hit Friday, quote-tweeted someone calling him Nostradamus. Others shouted out a 2005 episode, The Trial of Robert Kelly, from his animated Boondocks television series and clamored for him to come back.

It’s a 14-year-old black cultural moment in close conversation with this current moment, and McGruder has some thoughts about that.

“That’s crazy,” he said.

The Boondocks, which began as a comic strip, was syndicated in national newspapers from 1999 to 2006. The television show ran over four seasons from 2005 to 2014 (McGruder wasn’t involved in the final year). The main character, a cynical, pint-sized black nationalist named Huey Freeman, had moved with his family from Chicago to the distant suburb of Woodcrest, and the strip often stirred controversy for politically charged or risqué content.

McGruder is glad to see it back in the national conversation. But he learned long ago to put the buzz in perspective. “This was regular when I was doing the strip,” McGruder said. There’d be “a big, giant news piece happening based on some of the work I had done, or some major controversy that other people were talking about.”

Over the years, “I had gotten really good at just shutting it all out because you couldn’t possibly get any work done and track all of this trouble you were getting into and who was saying what.”

“That said, it’s been a really, really long time,” he said. The conversation about a 14-year-old episode is “just a little jarring. I think a smaller version of this happened when Oprah was flirting with a presidential run and suddenly everyone was talking about the Return of the King episode where in the end it says Oprah’s president in 2020.” (That episode won a Peabody Award.)

“But the R. Kelly thing is bigger. It just came out of nowhere,” McGruder said. “I didn’t even know they used footage in the documentary,” which he still hasn’t seen.

The Lifetime documentary details the 52-year-old rhythm and blues singer’s alleged serial abuse of underage girls through the voices of alleged victims, their parents, psychologists and Kelly confidants.

The Boondocks episode aired during the first season of the show’s four-season run on the Cartoon Network. The animated trial, which aired three years before Kelly’s actual trial on child pornography charges, is a blistering send-up of multiple parties involved. It features Kelly protesters and supporters coming to blows outside of the courtroom. It engages defense arguments such as whether eyewitnesses, victim testimony, a video, etc., constitute a “mountain of evidence.” Also considered: the sexual proclivities of the ancient Greeks, and whether a black defendant is inherently innocent if the black prosecutor is married to a white woman.

As Kelly’s top jams, offered as further proof of his innocence, blare from a boombox, a furious Huey addresses the court:

“What the hell is wrong with you people? … Every famous n—- that gets arrested is not Nelson Mandela. … We all know the n—- can sing.”

In the cartoon, as in life, Kelly was found not guilty. Funny how that happens, McGruder said, but the painstaking animation of the series meant it was two years from concept to air, so the aim wasn’t to be right on top of any moment. “I was just trying to make a show that was funny, trying to make a show that stayed on the air.” Back when the show first aired, “we were flying blind,” McGruder said. The Boondocks was an R-rated black comedy in the style of anime, “and those two things have never, ever touched.”

“R. Kelly was a very slow-moving cultural thing that took place over years and years and years. And there was a lot of time for everyone to really think about it and mull it over and decide how they felt,” McGruder said.

“We live in the era now where we don’t do that anymore. We don’t wait for the judge and jury. We make our decisions quick. It’s a very, very different time. And I think a lot of people are trying to reconcile their older selves and their R. Kelly fandom.”

As for the renewed conversation around the episode, he mostly says he can’t engage with it. It would end up being a trap that can keep him from doing the rigorous, serious work of being funny. People say they want your voice “if it’s funny, yes, of course. If it’s brilliant and wonderful and smart and offensive, but not too much, then yes, they actually want that. Now, if it’s anything other than that, we hate you!” McGruder said, laughing.

But he acknowledges the current political and cultural times are crying out to him. People want to know that they’re not crazy, he said, and a lot of what he does “is just looking at the big, obvious stuff and saying, ‘Hey, everyone! Look at this big, obvious thing … it’s right here and we can all see it.’ ”

As he talks, you can almost hear Huey, the fierce social critic, pecking at his typewriter, detailing the conspiracies, hipping folks to the fact that they are in the Matrix.

With all the current material, he’s often asked if and when The Boondocks is coming back. It’s close, he said. Plans for a video game were announced almost a year ago.

He has to decide if there’s something worthwhile to say, that it will make people laugh and is worth sharing. It’s a high bar, and “certainly all the rules have changed. And at the end of the day, I still have to follow the rules. Back in the day, The Boondocks, as crazy as it was, was following the rules. Newspaper rules, Adult Swim rules.”

Here’s where fans want McGruder to channel Huey and give them something funny and revolutionary, right now!

“That’s not how it works,” he said. “You should express yourself in the art and forget everything else. … You don’t have to say it yourself. It’s probably less entertaining that way.”

Liner Notes

Lonnae O’Neal and Aaron McGruder are longtime friends and occasional collaborators.

Lonnae O’Neal is a senior writer at Andscape. She’s an author, a former columnist, has a rack of kids and she writes bird by bird.