As has become convention for our accelerated times, I first got word of Young Busco's death on Twitter. "Lmao bruh was legit hella funny RIP," @ChillyANT wrote in a tweet that included a minute-long compilation video showcasing Busco's routine antics: publicizing his deceased grandmother's Safeway card; pretending to be store security only to reveal he'd shoplifted items too. To say the 31-year-old Berkley, California native was a product of his environment is to give only half the narrative, though. A comic primed for the social media age, Busco (born Brandon Moore) lived a quotidian life that took on prodigious proportions online, regularly broadcasting moments of mundanity and side-splitting farce to his 50,000 Instagram followers.
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In 2015 Moore struck viral gold. Outside the Ashby Bay Area Rapid Transit station as one friend was being arrested for public drinking, he proceeded to mock the sartorial choices of a police officer. "I got one question for you," Moore began, steadying the camera on the officer's face before quickly tiling it toward his shoes. He then exclaimed: "What are thooose?!?!" The playful clip, posted to Instagram on June 15, was undercut with an air of razor seriousness; its caption read: "Free Myesha fast."
At the time, Vine remained wildly influential, and the catchphrase was all but tailor-fit for the app's signature brand of micro-entertainment. Four days later, Moore's infamous exchange was uploaded to the platform and amassed 20 million loops, or views, over the course of two weeks. It was a unicorn sensation. Later, in an interview with Noisey , Moore admitted that he never expected the video to proliferate so commandingly, explaining how the phrase was just a standard wisecrack he and his friends "grew up saying to each other."
Of course, social media being the unceasing incubator that it is, the clip took on a life of its own. On Vine, the bit was remixed, autotuned, and appropriated a hundred times over. One of the more famous reworks—with over 50 million loops—features one young Vine user volleying the question to his grandmother, to which she deadpans: "They are my Crocs." In February of this year, the meme reached peak zeitgeist when the line was featured in Black Panther . In one early scene, future-tech genius Shuri (Letitia Wright) jokes with her brother T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) about the time-honored footwear he's wearing to impress Wakanda's tribal leaders, laying into him with, "What are thooose?!?!"
Though Brandon Moore is gone, his meme endures. The afterlife of a meme, like most entities on the web, is infinite.
Even as the phrase snowballed online and off—accruing a rare amount of social permanence—Moore remained steadfast that he was "bigger" than its cultural impact. Still, he could not entirely outpace the promise of the modern age: The currency of digital life scarcely carries over into the real world for POC creators (the story of Peaches Monroee, originator of "on fleek," is one such cautionary tale). It has become an all too familiar narrative, one often sowed with the empty poetry of viral fame. On the other side of the camera, Moore, like a considerable portion of black men, was met with bargained propositions: a father of nine, he faced police harassment and jail time. On Instagram, however, he chose not to offer a romanticized veneer, and instead fed users a hilariously raw accounting: Life had taken from him so he would take from it to frame, sharpen, and share his comedy.
Though Moore is gone, the afterlife of a meme, like most entities on the web, is infinite. In recent years, scholars have questioned such lifespans. "Memes catch on when we need them most and retreat when they are no longer attuned to public sentiment," Lauren Michelle Jackson theorized in The Atlantic . "When a meme does die, it doesn't go quickly or mercifully," Kyle Chaka put forward in 2014. "It rots from within." The belief is that a meme is typically hindered by its inability "to evolve to the next creative iteration of itself," as Jackson suggested.
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It is also possible, perhaps even more so, that memes never fully perish. Maybe they lose hold in popular discourse, but their lifeforce—the cultural resonance we recognize and can grab for when needed—persists elsewhere, threaded into our everyday, awaiting use. It's the reason a catchphrase found renewed currency in 2018, in a Marvel blockbuster of all places, despite its genesis three years earlier.
There was a clear, unmistakable reason for its resurgence, though. As I've noted before , memes are our most forward-facing cultural markers on the internet. They are, as I've come to understand them, one of the more evolved languages born of the social media age—coded by community, shared experience, race, and gender, among a flood of other circumstances. So it's not surprising that a meme which originated in black culture was included in a black film by a black director that featured an all-black cast. That is how language works among community. It speaks. It announces itself. Welcomed into familiar corridors, it becomes its own kind of slang. Memes, too, are a corresponding mode: Though they may go dormant from time to time, they ever linger, just as the tongue does, waiting to be called upon for their moment of utterance.
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