Just shy of four decades on from its 1977 television debut, Roots remains one of the most watched TV dramas in American history. And while the mini series' influence is certainly evident in the ratings numbers, it's also reflected in wider popular culture...
"King Kunta" by Kendrick Lamar
Last year hip hop artist Kendrick Lamar released this track, comparing himself to Kunta Kinte in the chorus:B*tch where you when I was walkin'? Now I run the game got the whole world talkin' (King Kunta) Everybody wanna cut the legs off him (King Kunta) Black man taking no losses
The oppression of black people and oppressive structures more broadly, are themes of Lamar’s third studio album To Pimp a Butterfly, with Kinte being used as a strong symbol of resistance. Interestingly, Lamar crowns him “King” as a mark of respect that stands in stark contrast to his reality as a slave.
In a 2012 sketch on his iconic show, the Playa Haters travel in time to a Roots-like setting aiming to end black slavery. Dave Chappelle's character says, “In the future, all black people will be free” before pulling out a pistol and shooting dead the whip-wielding master.
Three years earlier he also parodied the series in a segment that sees him play Kinte in a fictional behind-the-scenes look at the production. In the iconic “what is your name scene”, Chappelle suddenly breaks character to turn around and intimidate the actor playing the slave master for supposedly whipping too hard.
A scene from Family Guy also references the whipping scene with Kinte responding that his name is, “Tobi with an ‘i’ with an accent over the ‘i’ and a little line over the ‘o’ so you know it’s a long vowel sound and not a short one.” When the slave master looks confused and lashes him again he says, "honey you keep that up it's whatever you want it to be."
Coming to America
Eddie Murphy stars as an African prince searching for love in the US in 1988 film Coming to America. In one barber shop scene he is referred to as Kinte as he walks in the door and opens his mouth. “Hey, it’s Kunta Kinte”, yells a white client much to the amusement of the barber.
But that isn’t the film's only reference to the miniseries. In fact, it actually stars a number of Roots cast members including John Amos, who played Kinte, Cleo McDowell who played Kinte’s wife, and James Earl Jones who featured as Kinte’s descendant Alex Haley Jr in 1979’s Roots: The Next Generations.
"No Vaseline" by Ice Cube
Kinte is also mentioned in Ice Cube’s 1991 diss track "No Vaseline", where he takes aim at his former NWA band members Eazy-E, Dr Dre, MC Ren, DJ Yella and their manager, Jerry Heller.So don't believe what Ren say, Cuz he's goin' out like Kunta Kinte But I got a whip for ya Toby Used to be my homey, now you act like you don't know me
Cube again mentions Kinte in his film Boyz N the Hood when young character Tre is told to do chores in the garden and his friend says, “Damn, your daddy mean... Gotta do all these leaves. Who he think you is, Kunta Kinte?”
Do the Right Thing
Classic 1989 film Do the Right Thing references roots in a similar way when Mookie's sister Jade is pressing him to go back to work. "Slavery days are over. My name ain't Kunta Kinte," he says.
Saturday Night Live
Jimmy Fallon referenced Roots’ lead star LeVar Burton’s acting career while commemorating the 25th anniversary of the mini series. “For those of you who don’t remember Roots, it follows a saga of Kunta Kinte from young African tribesman, to slavery, to becoming literate, and eventually being the top of his class at Star Fleet Academy,” he joked.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
Will Smith made a passing reference to Kinte in his long running series, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. An episode in season three sees Smith joke to his friends, "Stand back ya'll! I gotta a banana, and if either of you take one more step, I'll fill both of ya with potassium!
"You're lucky I ain't gonna do you like Kunta Kinte and cut off your foot."
"Work It" by Missy Elliot / "Never Let Me Down" by Kanye West
Both Missy Elliot and Kanye West mention Kinte in their lyrics, with the former being in her 2002 hit "Work It"...Prince couldn't get me change my name papa Kunta Kinte a slave again, no sir Picture black sayin' 'Oh, yes a master'
On West's track "Never Let Me Down", J. Ivy references Kinte's strength of spirit in his verse...Yeah I need my loot by rent day But that ain't what gives me the heart of Kunta Kinte
Roots premieres on Wednesday 27 July at 8:30pm on SBS and encores on Saturday 30 July, 9.30pm on NITV. After they air, episodes will be available on SBS On Demand.
Watch the preview right here: