In this reported essay, writer Kalila Calame unpacks the concept of being “Black famous” and contextualizes it in systemic Hollywood problems concerning whose work becomes “mainstream” — and what that even means.
More than ever before, we are in the era of Keke Palmer. The actress and singer hit career milestone after career milestone, leading her own podcast, and more. In 2023, she continued her streak, most recently with the release of her visual album Big Boss. But Palmer has always been an It Girl in Black households, among her Black fans — so why has her success felt under-the-radar in so-called “mainstream” circles?
“It’s so interesting seeing the conversation around Keke Palmer having her breakout or superstar moment,” tweeted Teen Vogue editorial assistant Aiyana Ishmael. “It’s wild, we live in different worlds because in my household Keke been a star for forever. Akeelah & The Bee was my dad’s favorite movie. It went triple platinum in my home.”
There is no doubt that 2022 marked the “reinvention” of Palmer, as she said herself in Vogue last summer. The multi-hyphenate graced the cover of several magazines, such as Vanity Fair, TIME, and The Hollywood Reporter, hosted Saturday Night Live for the first time, and started her own digital streaming network, KeyTV. Arguably one of Palmer’s most significant feats of 2022 was starring in Jordan Peele’s Nope, which garnered praise from critics. The sci-fi horror film was also one of the biggest box office films of the summer. Critics described Palmer’s performance as her “breakout role.” This was especially surprising to Black Twitter, but was reported as an epiphany by others.
Palmer’s first acting role was in 2004 when she played Queen Latifah’s niece in the film Barbershop 2: Back in Business. Since then, she has starred in Akeelah and the Bee (arguably her actual breakout role), Madea’s Family Reunion, Fox’s Scream Queens, Hustlers, and countless other shows and films. Palmer was also the first Black girl to star in her own Nickelodeon sitcom, True Jackson VP, as well as the youngest talk show host in history with 2014’s Just Keke on BET.