Unpredictable 2022: Mostly devastating losses, with one bright surprise

Kanye and Herschel, Will Smith's slap, losing Bob Saget and Coolio: I didn't have any of this on my bingo card

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published December 16, 2022 9:00AM (EST)

D Watkins (Photo illustration by Salon)
D Watkins (Photo illustration by Salon)

I learned to expect the unexpected a very long time ago. That means I plan, but I don't really plan. I have faith in people but don't really have faith in people, because just like plans and the weather and political leaders and coworkers and our waistlines and our favorite watering holes, they change. 

With that acknowledged, I still entered 2022 with a standard bingo card in mind, or rather a mindless list of expectations for the year that weren't too farfetched: Billionaires would keep their money, artists from my heyday would reemerge with Christmas albums or reality shows, and longtimers in Congress would remain constant. And like every year, I was wrong, wrong, wrong. 

"You know your boy on that stuff again," my childhood friend Darnell told me on a phone call. "He checks himself into rehab, and then comes home and do the same sh*t, over and over again." 

That was February. The call started to be about my birthday plans but quickly turned into the Rod show. What's Rod up to, why is Rod getting high, Rod knows better, be there for Rod, pray for Rod, I miss Rod, I'm not f**king with Rod, Rod, Rod, Rod.

I love Rod. We are old friends. And I hate hearing stories about his addiction and decline, mainly because I feel powerless to help. In addition to my responsibilities as a mentor, I also have my own family, a wife and daughter to protect, a sick dad, and a list of others who need my support in some way. There's not much time these days to pull up on the block, find Rod and try to talk him away from the smack. Maybe 10 years ago, I could have found him and said something fiery, inspirational and slick. This year, I've been spread too thin. I have too much going on in my personal life, fighting to hold on to my own sanity. 

"It's not my place to get into it, man. I'm not really doing anything to help him out," I said. "People gonna do what they do man, you feel me? You can't stop a person from getting high."

That's how 2022 really started for me — my friend getting high and me accepting that I can't do anything about it, which didn't feel like me at all. That marked the beginning of this lopsided year. All those unexpecteds. And at the top of the list, directly behind Rod, is Ye. 

That's how 2022 really started for me — my friend getting high and me accepting that I can't do anything about it, which didn't feel like me at all.

I've had a rollercoaster relationship with Kanye West's work for years. I wrote him off back in 2008 when I wasn't really feeling "808s & Heartbreak," but then "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" and "Watch the Throne" pulled me right back in. And I liked his sneaker designs for a while. I wrote Kanye off again in 2013 after "Yeezus" because I couldn't connect to that album or any he dropped after that, but I still bought the shoes, until I didn't. Typical ups and downs for an artist's output and my personal tastes.  

But then Kanye said Trump was like a father figure while proudly sporting a MAGA hat, on top of his comments about slavery being a choice, and I was officially done — done — with that guy. And then he disappeared from headlines, seemingly distancing himself from MAGA. In February, Coodie & Chike dropped the epic Netflix trilogy "Jeen-Yuhs." The docuseries was a long nostalgic reminder of why we loved the old Kanye in the first place. It forced us to consider his struggles with mental illness in combination with the impact of his mother's untimely death. Dr. Donda West's presence and soft voice of reason, healing and understanding in "Jeen-Yuhs" felt like a gift from heaven — no, more like a storm from heaven — that washed away Kanye's ego and the rest of the filthy MAGA debris. I thought we were ready to bring West home. But then this guy hated on Virgil Abloh's designs and selfishly made the late, great designer's death and legacy about himself, baselessly claiming LMVH CEO Bernard Arnault "killed my best friend," all to promote his corny, childish attention-seeking White Lives Matter shirts. That upset Virgil's fans, along with most of the elite Black fashion community. 

Kanye being done as far Black culture was concerned isn't exactly the biggest surprise. We all could have guessed that day would come based on his unpredictable past behavior. But who would have thought Mr. "George Bush doesn't care about Black people" would start spewing antisemitic rants, morphing into the real Uncle Ruckus slash Clayton Bigsby by buddying up with people like Candace Owens, and even hardcore white supremacists like Nick Fuentes? Definitely not me.

Speaking of Black people and white supremacist weirdos, Herschel Walker was almost elected to the United States Senate, campaigning on such serious issues as werewolves vs. vampires. And what's sadder is how many people voted for this man. If the requirements for serving in the Senate included being transphobic, having a dossier full of lies, running a 4.2 and a 40 with the ability to pound defenders into the dirt, and giving ridiculous speeches that don't make any sense, then Walker would have been the perfect candidate. Our divided system almost sent this clown to Washington, where we are also losing one of the strongest party leaders in American history with Nancy Pelosi passing the torch of House Democratic leadership. I imagined she'd be Speaker or Minority Leader until the end of our lives, I guess. 

And we are supposed to approach 2023 with hope?

This year, watching Coach Prime two-step around the Jackson State University locker room on Instagram had me believing the school would be building a huge statue of Deion Sanders in front of a mega state-of-the-art football stadium he would be responsible for helping the school build, putting all of his charisma and coaching ability to work. But the University of Colorado dangled some money and recruiting resources in front of Prime and he danced his way right out of the locker room to the same tune he arrived with two years prior. Alumni, fans, and social media followers motivated by Deion's work at Jackson State were left crushed by his decision to leave. But at least in 2022, Sanders taught us all that nothing lasts forever, and that love — earned or not — can be snatched away just as quickly as it's delivered. HBCUs lost Deion's spirit, but at least we are still alive.

Speaking of how quickly we can lose what we love, I'd like to honor some icons who transitioned this year. 

I'll start with NBA legend Bill Russell of the Celtics — a true champion whose intellect and grace taught millions of kids like me, who would never get to meet him, the power of teamwork and of knowing our history, and that conduct on the court is just as important as off.

Bob Saget was another unexpected loss. As a fan who remembers him playing the perfect dad on "Full House" and the coke head on "Half Baked," I didn't know how much I needed his work until I found out I would never hear anything new from him again.

Watching Take Off take off with Migos' success, in combination with what he accomplished on his own, was extremely inspiring to me and my students at the University of Baltimore — we had a great time comparing his lyrics to rappers who dropped albums 30 years prior in my hip hop class. The news of his death crushed us. He was only 28, and he became just another example of the gun problem we have in this country.

We also lost Coolio, one of the funniest and most talented rappers from my childhood. Coolio's untimely demise sparked an important conversation on why Black men in America are not getting the chance to grow old. I'm hoping that his loss helps to energize our communities to focus on wellness and health in light of the stress that comes with being a Black man in America. The kind of stress that even Will Smith apparently was carrying. 

The biggest shocker of 2022 to me was seeing Will Smith slap Chris Rock on stage at the Oscars. I couldn't believe it. My wife couldn't believe it. We watched it in real-time and we still couldn't believe it so we rewound our television back to the moment and watched the slap again and again, then checked Twitter to see others posting it, to make sure it really happened. When we woke up the next day we watched the news to make sure we didn't all just imagine The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air slapping Chris Rock. It happened.

It's been months since the slap, and I still can't believe Will Smith slapped Chris Rock. If Will Smith, who had a reputation as one of the nicest guys in Hollywood, is capable of slapping Chris Rock, then what dark, crazy things am I capable of? Honestly, I was kind of ready to jump ahead to 2023 after the slap. This year just felt off. But I'm glad I didn't. Because my last public speaking event of the year, at Morgan State University, was life-changing. 

At this seminar on free speech, I shared the stage with an attorney from D.C. who ran off a series of questions about the First Amendment. These are always rich and complex conversations because, on one hand, we want students to speak freely; however, we also dream of eliminating hate speech, which can ultimately rob a person of their freedom to express themselves. 

As we wrapped our conversation, a line of brilliant young people formed, all with questions about Ye, politicians, NBA star Kyrie Irving, who was penalized by the league and lost his Nike deal after sharing an antisemitic documentary on social media, and other questions that pushed the free speech conversation forward. I was burned out by the time I got to the last question, so much so I was thankful when the guy said, "I don't really have a question, but more of a comment…" 

I'm normally annoyed by a "more of a comment" know-it-all like every else, but when the brother said the system robbed him of his choice and freedom to speak back when he was a juvenile, I caught a second wind. That critique forced me to sit up straight in my chair as the brother continued. He sounds familiar, I thought, as I squinted my eyes and focused on his face. It was Rod. What in the hell is Rod doing at Morgan State?  

"I'm so happy that I'm learning all these things right now," Rod continued. "And that I get to support people like my good brother D. I want to be positive like D. I'm four months clean. I'm righting my wrongs and getting better every day."

The crowd stood and clapped. Rod paused. "I was stealing soap and lotion to sell for dope five months ago and now I'm here supporting my brother," he said. "God can make anything happen."

A clean Rod wasn't on my bingo card. Hearing him tell a crowd that I was an inspiration wasn't on my bingo card, either, after I felt I had been powerless to help him. I'm thankful that I don't have all of the answers and will continue to embrace all that comes, good or bad. And I'm also thankful that I got to call Darnell back and tell him Rod is clean. Good luck to us all in 2023. 

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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Best Of 2022 Chris Rock Commentary Herschel Walker Kanye West Nancy Pelosi Will Smith Ye Year-end