'Luke Cage' Stirs Hip-hop and Comic Books Into Bulletproof 'Lemonade'

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Power puncher: Colter as Cage, “the bulletproof man,” in Season 2. The idea, says the show’s creator, is for viewers to get to the finale and say, “Man, I don’t even know this dude.” David Lee/Netflix

The Netflix series Luke Cage debuted in 2016 with some timely symbolism: Its lead, the first African-American Marvel superhero to headline a TV show, wore a hoodie punctured with bullet holes, invoking the fatal wounds of Trayvon Martin. A series marrying one of the most emotionally divisive issues of the day with comic book escapism was a bold statement. But the further intention of creator Cheo Hodari Coker was not to remind viewers that Black men and boys are getting shot by police; it was to offer hope that one day Black people wouldn't have to worry about it.

Luke Cage debuted on the page in 1972, an ex-con imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit. Like his fellow Marvel character Jessica Jones (who has her own Netflix show), Cage gained his "bulletproof" powers through involuntary experiments. And like her, he grapples with the psychological impact of having them, and of the role he feels forced into: "Hero is your word, not mine."

Season 1 was about Cage reluctantly coming to terms with his abilities. It also established his mission: to protect Harlem—from drug dealers, guns, gangs. In Season 2, he realizes he can't save everyone. It also raises the eternal dilemma of power and its tendency to corrupt, says Coker: "If you control crime; are you a criminal? These superhuman heroes have very human fallacy."

Coker, a music journalist turned TV writer, used one of his own heroes for inspiration: artist-activist-actor Tupac Shakur, who had an intriguing evolution of his own. "The thing that was fascinating and frustrating about Pac was that he clearly knew better than to go down the gangster road that he went down," says Coker. "Pac knew, and he was right, that thug energy could be redirected into fearless positivity. The Black Panther Party never took out the thug. With Pac, in order to reach the youth, he had to talk to them in that same way and, at the same time, inject these kids with a fearlessness—to look at their communities and show them you could do both."

Early in the second season, Cage (played by Mike Colter) is humiliated by a new villain, Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir). The confrontation forces Cage to reciprocate with a brutality he's tried to avoid, prompting a massive identity crisis. Coker cites a famous Mike Tyson line: "Everyone has a plan until they get hit in the face." The idea, he says, is for viewers to get to the 13th episode, the finale, and go, "Man, I don't even know if I know this dude."

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Coker says Tupac was one of the only artists of the 90s era he never had a chance to interview. Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Coker thinks of the show as a Trojan horse, delivering ideas that open a door to conversations and new insights. Among other things, he wants "viewers to get a deep dive into cultures they may not have been thinking about, particularly if they are just comic book geeks."

Growing up, music was Coker's way of understanding, calibrating and assessing the world, and he uses it liberally on Luke Cage as a layer of storytelling. "It's no different than Martin Scorsese leaning into the rock 'n' roll of his youth," says Coker. "From that, Scorsese got a swagger and confidence. My era was '90s Carhartt-and-Timberlands hip-hop. That's my rock 'n' roll."

He describes the first season as the "Wu-Tang-ification of the Marvel Universe"—introducing leading Black superheroes two years before Black Panther came out. With Bushmaster comes a new layer with its own Caribbean soundtrack. "When you scratch the soul of hip-hop," says Coker, "you find R&B and funk but also reggae." The perfect soundtrack for a villain both loose and taut.

One of the first major hip-hop DJs was Kool Herc, who was born in Jamaica and moved to the Bronx as a teenager. He introduced the tradition of the "sound system," which began in Kingston in the 1950s. DJs and MCs would organize street parties with massive speakers, sampling and mixing on turntables and adding spoken word. In Season 2, the plot shifts to Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a neighborhood with a large Caribbean population. Glady's, a real-life landmark—home of curried goat, jerk chicken and peppered shrimp—serves as Bushmaster's home base, called Gwen's on the show. From there, he plots to add Harlem to his kingdom.

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DJ Kool Herc, a hip-hop pioneer and one of Coker's many musical influences. Angel Zayas/Pacific Press/Alamy

Coker is hoping viewers fall in love with reggae, as he did in the '90s. "I would be at a party," he remembers, "and all of a sudden they are playing Mad Cobra or Tenor Saw, and a whole part of the audience would just erupt. If you weren't from the culture, at first you didn't really understand, but the more you go, you start to understand."

He likens the trend of binge-watching TV to the way he inhaled music as a teenager. "The second Prince dropped an album— Sign 'O' the Times or Lovesexy —you would go get the CD or cassette, listen to the entire record twice at home, probably with the lights off to absorb the vibe of the record, and then you would call your friends and talk for hours."

The reason Coker became a music journalist was because he wanted to be an "A&R man," the record company executives charged with developing talent. "I finally achieved my dream by being a TV showrunner," says Coker, whose process for drafting seasons is reminiscent of producing a record, with each episode named for a song featured on the soundtrack. (This season includes Stephen Marley, Gary Clark, Jr., Rakim, Faith Evans, Esperanza Spalding and Ghostface Killah.)

You could call Luke Cage his version of a concept album by Beyoncé. "With Lemonade, she dropped the videos and the album at the same time, creating one mind-blowing experience—you're absorbing the music, the storylines, the acting, the vibe all at once," says Coker. "That's what I wanted Luke Cage to feel like: a bulletproof Lemonade."

'Luke Cage' Stirs Hip-hop and Comic Books Into Bulletproof 'Lemonade'