Category Archives: hip-hop feminism

Racialized performances in pop music or Why are Beyonce and JLo so scandalous?

This image is approved for consumption by polite society.

This image is approved for public consumption.

Last week, Jennifer Lopez scandalized Britain with a “raunchy” performance on “Britain’s Got Talent.” Not only did viewers flock to social media (as you do) to complain about JLo dropping it like it’s hot in a French-cut one piece and thigh-high boots, but British  TV regulator OfCom confirmed that it has received complaints about the broadcast and is assessing the matter, but not investigating it.

For helpful context, here is the performance–labeled “disgusting” and “shameful” by some critics–that provoked an “assessment” of whether a competitive reality show violated the bounds of decency.

In my humble opinion, the only thing indecent about that performance was the tepidness of the dancing and the awfulness of the song. (But, hey, maybe it’s not for me. I’m an old–actually the same age as JLo–and I don’t spend much time at the club lately.)

I suspect the assessment of Jennifer Lopez’s performance is influenced by both race, size and age bias. But you know I’m conspiratorial that way, so I asked Andrea, my homegirl and fellow editor at the R to weigh in.

Tami: When I heard all the crowing about this performance, I recalled Beyonce’s Super Bowl performance earlier this year., which also prompted cries of outrage.

Both of these performances seem astonishingly tame in the face of criticism. “Disgusting” is a pretty strong word to describe booty shaking in a body suit. Folk are generally cool with sexy (and sexist) Go Daddy commercials during the Super Bowl, but Queen Bey causes parents to “shield their kids’ eyes.”

I think the response to these performances is very much influenced by racial bias. Brown and black bodies are routinely sexualized. Latinas bear the weight of the “spicy” and “exotic” stereotypes. And those stereotypes have dogged Lopez throughout her career. The nickname “J. Ho”–a reference to the singer/actress’ alleged promiscuity and mercenary character–even has a spot in the Urban Dictionary. And I should point out, these accused character traits seem to be based on little but the skewed way this culture views Latinas.

Lopez herself told US magazine of the controversy: “I think people are so much raunchier than I am. I feel like I’m so tame. [I] wore it at Billboard and Britain’s Got Talent said they wanted exactly the same. So I thought I’d wear the outfit in black. No one complained at Billboard. I think people just like to talk. It was a bodysuit. A lot of performers wear that these days. It is standard stage clothes. I’m not going to walk down the street like that!”

JLo’s act does not seem markedly different from any other pop spectacle–no different Britney Spears’ iconic performance at the 2000 VMA’s or what this Britney impersonator did during an audition for…wait for it…“Britain’s Got Talent” in 2011.

Andrea: I agree, especially about the relative tepidness of Lopez’s performance and the non-scandalousness of her outfit.

What I think  is at play here is Beyonce and Lopez are doing dance moves that are, whether done with Beyonce’s exuberance or with Lopez’s tepidness, sexy moves that they thought of and/or approved of. In other words, they’re expressing their sexual agency. However, that’s a major no-no in a society steeped in the sexist ethos of “I can touch you, but you can’t touch yourself,” which has a long structural history in the lives of women of color due to slavery and colonization.

And this “what about the children” reasoning as to folks’ disgust with the two women’s performance brings up not only women of color doing that stereotypical thing of ruining people’s sexual “innocence” but also something of–how shall I phrase this?–an unspoken notion of the influence of images not only affecting how a person will be “brought up” to express their own sexuality but also the kind of person their brain will be hard-wired to be attracted to. If the child–and let’s be really real, kids are indeed sexual beings–is connecting their erotic feelings to seeing a woman of color dancing like Lopez and moreso like Beyonce, the parents may be thinking that their child just may act upon that attraction and–gasp!–fall in love and–clutch the pearls!–bring “such a woman” home as a spouse.

Tami: And here’s the other thing: Jennifer Lopez (and Beyonce) are not only women of color, they are also women known for having curvy body types, which are often associated with Latinas and black women and are larger than the current ideal for celebrities. Unrestrained fleshiness and jiggle reads differently than hard and trim; Physical abundance is often mistaken for wantonness.

Media wrote about Lopez’s “bum-baring” performance, but the singer’s booty is covered; her outfit was less revealing than typical beachwear. Could the rub be that JLo’s rear is big and round vs. tiny and tight?

Andrea: I think Lopez herself has pointed out how her body shape get framed in this society: “People equate sexy with promiscuous. They think that because I’m shaped this way, I must be scandalous–like running around and bringing men into my hotel room. But it’s just the opposite.” To me, Lopez shouldn’t have had to say such a thing–her body, however it’s shaped, is hers to do with what she wants with nary a comment to the press. However, the burden of the stereotypes about Latinas and Black women keeps us defending our reputations in the public space in order to, as Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry says in her book Sister Citizen, keep our bearings in the face of the socially constructed crooked images of ourselves.

But we’re not only defending our reputations that folks assume comes with our bodies; we also need to defend our bodies, literally, as seen by the clip of Beyonce whipping around and firmly telling a white-appearing concertgoer in Denmark that she’d have him removed because he smacked her butt–and this happened last week!

This brings me back to what you said about our bodies being routinely sexualized. It’s not just that bodies of color are routinely sexualized; it’s that our bodies are furthermore seen–still–as public sexual property to be discussed and publicly contested to be the figures that people shouldn’t aspire to desire sexually, though I’ve heard quite a few non-Black and non-Latin@s say that Beyonce and Lopez inspired them to “love their curves” and/or “embrace their booties” in light of the contested reality that Beyonce’s and Lopez’s curves are seen as a physical and sexual ideal.

Tami: Lastly, I think age is a factor in this discussion as well. Western culture worships youth. Women past a certain age aren’t supposed to sexy; we are supposed to cover up. Madonna is routinely told to put it away. And, to hear some folks tell it, Janet Jackson’s biggest sin wasn’t showing booby on primetime television, but showing over-40 booby. Sexy dressing may be fine for the 20-somethings, but for women north of 40, it is unseemly.

Andrea: *Sigh* I think part of this is the association of age and motherhood. Lopez and Beyonce are both mothers. Forty-something women especially (Bey is in her 30s) are cast as matronly–whether or not we have children–and being sexually attracted to a woman of that age is seen as MILFing, which, as the phrase states, is all about desiring a woman old enough to be (some)one’s mom, who are always constructed as non-sexual beings in this society. (Thus, the porned-out “shock” of the attraction.)

But, as we talked about in an earlier conversation, pop is relentlessly marketed as the “music of youth”–and “youth” is relentless hyped as the desired, if not ideal, stage of life, partly because of its able-bodied physicality–that very few people have a career in pop music in their late 30s and especially in their 40s and beyond, especially women of color. The brilliant singer Cassandra Wilson can enjoy a long career in jazz. Jill Scott can stay a neo-soul singer for a good long time, especially since she can always cross over into jazz (which she has). Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops will have longevity in the alt-country/bluegrass scene. Tina Turner, who had a string of pop hits in the 80s, is idolized as a rock icon who here lately rocked out as as torch singer. Grace Jones is lionized as a black proto-AfroPunk goddess who can shame all pop performers with a hula hoop. And I highly doubt any of them would get whapped on their asses at their concerts.

No, it’s pop goddesses who are so deeply degraded when they aren’t meeting the physical ideals of youth, like, well, getting older. And it’s Black and Latina pop goddesses–like Beyonce, Jackson, and Lopez, who’s still fondly remembered as one of the Fly Girls for In Living Color–who are degraded so roundly and so publicly.

Monáe And Badu, Legendary Rebels

By Guest Contributor Andreana Clay; originally published at Queer Black Feminist

I’ve watched the video for Janelle Monáe’s new song, “Q.U.E.E.N “(featuring Erykah Badu), just under a  hundred times in the last 24 hours. Um, really. It’s on a loop. When I’m not watching it, I’ve been streaming it online, posting it online, and downloading the single. Then I spent a good 10 minutes telling my musical soulmate friend Holly about it this afternoon on the phone. This is all par for the course when I like a song and here’s why:

Like other feminists, songs like these by Black women stop me in my tracks and make me take notice (maybe you could tell that already). See, right now I’m standing in the BART station twerking as I type and wait for the train. Can’t help it. Serious. Believe, I’m twerking because the drums are so tight but, more so, because almost every single lyric makes my bones shake.

Even if it makes others uncomfortable.
(I will love who I am)

What I like most about the song are the questions that Monáe, who says she knows what it’s like to feel like the other, asks throughout the song; often starting with “Am I a freak?” As in,

Am I a freak for dancing round?
Am I a freak for getting down?
Am I a freak cause I love watching Mary?
I’m cutting up
So don’t cut me down 

Every once in a while she’ll give answers to her questions: “is it true that we’re all insane? (I just tell them no we ain’t and get down).” But mostly, she leaves it for us to decide. No matter the answer, I will always love freaks–like a real deep love–so just the question pulls me into the song. And not a freak as in, “Let your freak flag fly because nobody understands me,” Gaga-style; but more a freak in the sense of blending past and present, funk and protest, which many of us have long embodied.

Some have begun to speculate that this song may be about her (queer) sexuality, which may be true, and that’s ok. But, I’m more interested in the ways her freak status is about weaving in a politic that is specific to this generation, her generation, our (hip-hop) generation(s). This is most exemplified in the rap lyrics at the end of the song. Some surprise as in, ”I’m tired of Marvin asking me ‘What’s Going On;” while others challenge ”Categorize me, I defy every label;” and my favorite–as a Missouri girl with roots deep–stays grounded, ”Gimme me back my pyramid, I’m tryna free Kansas City.” Those lyrics, that (brown girl) insurgency explored through a simultaneous connection and refusal to be pinned down are indicative of the margins many of us have have been relegated to. Have celebrated in. Created alliances through. Where we’ve landed and where our true possibilities lie. As Lorde states, Monáe gives a nod to ”those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference.” Whether it’s because of our sexuality, our political stances, our backgrounds, or our hairstyle, what we have forged on our bodies and in our collaborations are the tools, the communities we depend on. Not throwing out one piece in favor of or deference to another.

And this is also evident in the sonic flow from Monáe to Badu without missing a beat. The change in pace and music refer back to Baduizm with lyrics that build on the themes of qwerk, solidarity, and what Shana Redmond refers to as “a sound/sight corpus of black feminist knowledges that take advantage of social movement methods” (Redmond 2011: 406) As Badu sings,

Shake til the break of dawn
Don’t mean a thing, so duh
I can’t take it no more
Baby, we in tuxedo groove
Monáe and E. Badu
Crazy in the black and white
We got the drums so tight
Baby, here comes the freedom song
Too strong we moving on
Dance ’til the break of dawn
Don’t mean a thing, so duh
I can’t take it no more
Baby, we in tuxedo groove
Monae and E. Badu
Crazy in the black and white
We got the drums so tight
Baby, here comes the freedom song
Too strong we moving on

Complete lyrics:http://www.directlyrics.com/janelle-monae-queen-lyrics.html

Um. Love.

Love. In particular, I love the displays of solidarity: the love of music, the tight drums. As much as I also love the difference in style, presentation, age, and cadence. And I especially love love love how it’s all brought back together by the unifying “the booty don’t lie.”Reminding us that this blend is the (Afro)future for Black girls in the margins.

So I ask and end with another Monáe question:

“Electric Ladies, will you sleep? Or will you preach?”

In the meantime, for your pleasure:

A Brown-Skinned Lady and Her Sunblock

By Guest Contributor A. Sandosharaj; originally published in the April issue of River Teeth

In 1984, I–l ike every other girl in America–wanted a Cabbage Patch Kid. To impress everyone with my logic—I was one of those brats—I asked for the brown-skinned version, a request my Sri Lankan-born parents could only understand as preposterous: dark-skinned dolls were for black children. That this was pitiable for them—the dolls’
homeliness was a given—was no reason for me, however, to get a doll that matched my skin. At Zayre’s, my father held the boxed toy at arm’s length, wondering was I sure I didn’t want a regular doll?

A month later, I bored of her, but before abandoning her altogether, I made her over. Applying the ivory-shade foundation I (incompatibly, absurdly) wore when performing classical Indian dance, I deracinated my Cabbage Patch baby, covering her face in stage-strength makeup until she had a glistening beige face atop a cloth brown body.

Twenty-five years later, I noticed that my face was lighter than the rest of me—more “fair” in the lexicon of my mother—my hands and shoulders most conspicuously. This could potentially be explained as the ordinary outcome of idling on beaches while obsessively outfitted in hat and sunscreen, or the fact that I stroll, bike, and jog in the same
sort of protective accouterments. I am, after all, thirty-four and terror stricken by the inescapability of wrinkles.

Once, for example, I purchased a $125 vial of vitamin-C serum despite the fact that I was making nineteen grand as a grad student at the time, never mind that I was on the pill—the low-dose kind that eradicates blemishes—and that I ate compulsively well—grapes for their collagen, fish for their oils—and never mind that: I had no skin problems whatsoever.

Like many women, I feel a keen pressure to look as good as possible for as long as possible, “as possible” in this case meaning “as you can afford.” But as an American of South Asian descent, and thus a deeply-raced person, I have to question whether gender-based panic about aging is the sole reason I avoid the sun. With skin the color of a wet graham cracker (I would have failed the old paper-bag test), a graduate degree in critical race theory, and a lifetime preoccupied with color, I have to consider that for me, skin—youthful, poreless, undamaged skin—is never fully divorced from colorism.

A product of the ethnically mottled tenements of Langley Park, Maryland, I grew up drinking milk because I was told it would make me more fair and thus more appealing. When I wanted to punish my mother for some injustice, I would willfully play in the sun, then weep later over how dark I had become. How transformed.

Sucking her teeth, my mother would apply Fair & Lovely cream, purchased at what was only called the “Indian” store. On the pink tube of what was mostly sunscreen back then, silhouettes advanced in lightness and presumable attractiveness from left to right. I tried to pinpoint my location on the Fair & Lovely gradation.

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Quoted: For Harriet on Talib Kweli’s Response To The Crunk Feminist Collective

Rapper Talib Kweli. Image via soundexchange.com

Brittney Cooper deserved better. All women deserve better. Women should not be afraid to voice their opinions for fear they’ll be called a “ratchet hoe” or “bitch” as I was by Kweli defenders during our exchange.

Kweli ducked and dodged challenges all week abruptly ending discussions with women he deemed too angry or vulgar.

A woman I follow on Twitter acknowledged she tweeted him abrasively because the ongoing discussion of rape triggered her. Kweli struck back just as I’d witnessed during his exchange with dream hampton a few days earlier. The woman admitted fault, but her apologies, though appreciated, made me uncomfortable. As the overwhelming victims of sexual assault and primary targets of rape culture, women shouldn’t constantly be asked to stretch ourselves across gaps in knowledge. Women need freedom to express our feelings without admonishment. Those who call themselves allies are responsible for understanding the contexts in which they speak; they are responsible for recognizing the structures of power from which they derive their privileges. And if this all sounds like too much to ask, then, perhaps, they should reconsider their claims to social justice work.
- From “The Problem With Our So-Called Allies,” by Kimberly Foster

Open Thread: So, About Those New Beyonce Songs…

By Arturo R. García

(Note: Language NSFW)

Image via GlobalGrind.com

Technically, “Bow Down/I Been On” is a mini-medley of two different upcoming tracks from Beyonce. But the discussion surrounding them picked up steam Sunday afternoon and evening. The latter track has her vocals chopped and screwed, Houston-style. (MTV did provide a link to a “regular B” version)

It’s been interesting to see the early talk regarding the tracks. There’s been some focus on her code-switching (remarks about Beyonce “going hood” and/or defying/betraying her pop-friendly self, depending who you ask) and lashing out at her critics (the lines, “I took some time to live my life/but don’t think I am just his little wife” seem especially pointed, on top of the actual chorus). No release date has been posted (yet) for the full versions of either track, but let’s get your thoughts on what we’ve heard so far.

Meanwhile, On TumblR: In Case You Missed It

By Andrea Plaid

Usually, I highlight some of the most popular posts on Tumblr, some of which appear here on the main R. However, there are some really great posts that may not have gotten the biggest numbers but still got some love, like this Parlour Magazine interview with hip-hop feminist Joan Morgan:

Parlour: You talk a lot about the Politics of Pleasure, what does that mean?

Joan Morgan. Via madamnoire.com

Joan Morgan. Via madamnoire.co

Joan Morgan: Much of my work as a feminist revolved around how do we improve black women’s lives. I had been investigating how we talk about black women, particularly in terms of sexuality, without talking about pleasure. Instead, we identify the racial and sexual history, particularly in the United States, and why that history prevents or complicates black women’s sexuality from enjoying a sex positive space.

Feminism is very good at dissecting the politics of respectability and the culture of dissemblance thanks to Darlene Clark Hine. Still, we’re not so good at articulating a language for pleasure, which is crucial for any human being but it plays a critical role in other black women’s issues with which we don’t necessarily make the connection. For example, if we’re talking about black women and the rate of new HIV cases – the percentage of black women among new infections is disproportionately high – but when you look at the prevention, the language is ‘If he doesn’t want to use a condom, tell him to back off’ or, ‘If he really cares about you he’ll use protection.’ The discourse is centered around men’s pleasure.

Parlour: Perhaps women don’t like the way condoms feel either, so how about developing protection that feels better without centering the conversation around men …

Joan: For black women, I think about our health and the diseases that compromise our lives due to stress, and we will send out the call to arms around obesity or heart disease. But we’re not talking about making a real commitment to joy in our lives, particularly around the erotic or sex and the body. I’m very interested in that little taboo area. With the Politics of Pleasure I begin to argue that what’s missing is language, and I really wanted to begin to articulate language and introduce pleasure as a feminist priority for Black women.

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*TRIGGER WARNING* How To Love? Thoughts On Lil Wayne’s Emmett Till Lyrics And More

By Guest Contributors Moya and Whitney; originally published at Crunk Feminist Collective

*TRIGGER WARNING: Expletives, misogyny, and violent lyrics*

Side by side image of Emmett Till and Lil Wayne with the words

Courtesy of FAAN Mail.

In the remix to Future’s Karate Chop, Lil Wayne sings the “very unfortunate” (really, Fader?) lyric that compares sex to the beating of Emmett Till.

Pop a lot of pain pill’

‘bout to put rims on my skateboard wheel’

beat that pussy up like Emmett Till

“I just couldn’t understand how he could compare the gateway to life to the brutality and punishment of death,” said Aricka Gordon Taylor, spokesperson from the Till Family. We can, though. It’s happened before, from Wayne and friends.

People are mad. Real mad. They’re even talking about it on the radio here in Atlanta, while simultaneously continuing to play the song with Emmett Till bleeped out. Folks are calling for a boycott of Clear Channel and the removal of the song from the airwaves. There’s Twitter activism in motion as well from Dream Hampton to shame LA Reid (who should be shamed, for this and more) because he should know better. Epic, Future’s label not Wayne’s, has apologized saying that this lyric won’t appear on the final version of the song and the family has written an open letter to Wayne.

We understand why folks are mad and in no way want to diminish this important call to action. One of the things Moya hated about other media activism she’s been involved in is the question, “why you mad about this and why now?” We want to think about these lyrics in the context of calls by feminists of color to interrogate the problems of violent sex metaphors before the name of a slain civil rights icon was invoked. With this in mind, we want to add some thoughts to the growing conversation.

1. We need intergenerational conversations–“beating the pussy up” is a hip-hop metaphor for sex that’s not new. We need and have been trying to have a conversation about the violence this metaphor (and others) conjures, but folks using it don’t understand themselves to be talking about intimate-partner violence when they use it. It is used by men and women to describe sexual prowess, not violence, despite its employment of the violence of “beating.” In reading the framing of the outrage we see elders taking issue with Till being compared to the “anatomy of a woman” and “domestic violence.” That’s not quite what’s happening, and we wonder if intergenerational strategies can help alleviate some of these misreadings. Rather than domestic violence, perhaps we can shift our frame to think about sexualized violence and violent sexualities more broadly, which, to be clear, are not always practiced in the context of traditional understandings of intimate partner violence or under duress or coercion.  Patricia Hill-Collins already hipped us to the violence that undergirds many discussions of black sexual prowess in her incisive reading of black colloquial usage of the term “booty” and its dual meaning/invocation as both the spoils of war and conquest (i.e. violence) and as the long-standing icon of black women’s sexual desirability.  Too much connection to be coincidental, no?  This framework might allow us to see how violent sexual prowess acted out on the bodies of women of color is a staple of hip-hop and popular culture more generally.  The issue is not just the ill-informed invocation of Till’s brutal murder but the normalization of brutality acted on women’s bodies.

Additionally, what does bleeping out words on the radio do? Particularly when it’s part of a rhyme scheme? The absurdity of radio editing is just more than we can fathom sometimes. You want to protect children from hearing the words “Emmett Till” and “pussy” but not the “beating up” they are used in conjunction with?  Not to mention any other songs that have other violent metaphors that don’t have curse words in them that are perfectly fine for radio play. Can we talk to children as opposed to shielding them from certain words? Why are words bleepable but problematic concepts aren’t under review?

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Class Notes: The Black Feminist Politics Of Pleasure

Screen Shot 2013-01-23 at 3.03.42 PMHey Racializens!

I am still at Stanford (and will be until June.) But I am bringing back an old tradition of doing class notes on some of these ideas.

Background

Joan Morgan, hip-hop feminism pioneer, has been moving her work into conversations around pleasure and sexual politics. Jeff Chang, hip-hopper-about-town and the head of Stanford’s Institue for Diversity in the Arts, asked Joan if she’d like the be the artist in residence for WinterQuarter. Joan agreed and then developed a class called “The Pleasure Principle: A Post-Hip Hop Search for a Black Feminist Politics of Pleasure.”

The Course

“The Pleasure Principle: A Post-Hip Hop Search for a Black Feminist Politics of Power” (CSRE127B) will explore the various articulations of a politics of pleasure in black feminist thought. We will examine classic black feminist texts on respectability politics, the erotic, hip-hop feminism, and dancehall culture, geared toward helping students develop a critical lens for interrogating depictions of black female sexuality and articulations of pleasure in popular culture. Examples include “The Cosby Show,” “Sex in the City,” “Girlfriends,” “Basketball Wives,” “Real Housewives of Atlanta,” “Pariah,” as well as the works of Beyonce, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Tanya Stephens, and Lady Saw. Continue reading