On Beyonce

I left a lengthy comment on this essay I came across on Tumblr. That essay basically argues that the feminist praise of Beyonce is unwarranted because Beyonce is plugged into a huge male-driven machine that uses her appeal to generate huge loads of money that only makes those males richer and does nothing to propel a productive feminist agenda. The author’s solution is that we actually direct our praise toward Miley Cyrus because she is “clearly” what no woman would ever want to be, meaning that Miley is an anti-model that will disgust women into choosing the right path.

I think that that argument is nihilistic, deterministic and severely uninformed about how people actually experience pop music. My response is below. It’s written in a weird tone because internet comments are weird.  Sorry about that.

“This is an incredibly nihilistic essay, man. Yes, Beyonce is sustained by an unfathomable infrastructure of ignored labor and male-centered capital, but infrastructure, intention and design aren’t destiny. I think it’s the right move to look beyond Beyonce’s surface and notice the myriad circuits of capital flowing through her and into record exec’s bank accounts, but seeing that morbid reality shouldn’t mean accepting it (ie saying that Miley is the proper herald to the cursed throne). People don’t just blindly reproduce Beyonceisms. Her messages and her songs get reconstructed, deconstructed, ravaged, polished, buffed, defaced, bastardized, tinkered with and more all the time. I don’t think that happens with Miley. The way Miley presents herself/is presented already has that element of “resistance/rebellion” built in. That’s more dangerous to me. Miley Cyrus is the equivalent of a mobile phone that you can’t open because its copyrighted. With Beyonce, you’re encouraged to open things up, see how it works. Sure, that phone was still produced by a super-sexist mega-corporation that ultimately just wants your money, but at least this phone is potentially not just a phone. The radical possibilities aren’t foreclosed from the start. I think that’s why Beyonce is so praised by circles that you would expect to condemn her (feminists) given her institutional reality. We know that B isn’t a panacea, but we also know that there’s worst products on the market and – here’s the kicker – that this market is a huge force in determining how people conceive of themselves. Given that reality, Beyonce has to be the role model. Lastly, surfaces, packaging, matter. Think about grocery shopping. It’s all about the spectacle. Even when you’re surrounded by price tags, nutrition pyramids, sales and other things, shopping is essentially just a sequence of aesthetic encounters. In the same way that it matters that Obama is black, it matters that Beyonce is a woman of color who can’t be reduced to the typical images that plague women of color.

So basically, I think that your argument – “This is what Beyonce really is!” – is deterministic, misrepresents how Beyonce is actually received and undervalues the political significance of a surface (even when troubling things lie beneath).

Is Rap Really Black People’s CNN?

According to hearsay*, Chuck D of Public Enemy  once said, “Rap is CNN for black people,” basically claiming that rap broadcasts what goes on in black people’s lives. It’s an interesting quote, especially since it implies that the real CNN isn’t a reliable source of happenings in black life (or maybe any non-white life), but I’ve recently grown skeptical of the quote’s accuracy and of its sociopolitical usefulness. It all started when I heard this interview of writer, critic and filmmaker dream hampton last summer. Discussing her longtime relationship with hip-hop, hampton details why she’s recently moved away from hip-hop, saying, “I’m done with hip-hop being a central organizing tool for my ideas,” and concluding that hip-hop “doesn’t have the right to be the cultural arm of black America.”

She arrived at this conclusion after years of battling rappers and rap fans on the symbolic front as far as misogynist language and on the domestic front in terms of how women in hip-hop were personally treated by men. This quote says it all:

“I don’t hear Chuck D talking about how Flavor Flav abuses black people, because it turns out black women are black people [too]. Again, I’ve been doing this police brutality work forever. Often the victims are boys and men. And women show up. Sisters, mothers, daughters, women who have no relationships to these men show up and and show up for these men. We rally, raise our voices, organize and when it comes to domestic violence, when it comes to all the ways we’re abused…far more women are gonna be assaulted in their homes than men are gonna be assaulted in the street and yet that same outcry doesn’t exist.”

To put it bluntly, hampton is saying that hip-hop largely doesn’t care about black women and from her twenty years of experience, it most likely never will. This isn’t a shocking statement if you listen to hip-hop either closely or marginally, but in addition to giving insight into hip-hop’s deeply entrenched gender exclusions, I think hampton’s statements also point toward some other entrenched exclusions.

For instance, as far as I know, the first and possibly only hip-hop album that my mom ever purchased was The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. My aunts and uncles have probably never purchased a hip-hop album. The same is imaginable for their friends and so forth. My first personal introduction to rap came from a random Coolio cameo on some early ’90s Muppets show. Aside from occasionally listening to the radio, my girlfriend’s knowledge of rap stops after high school. I doubt that my family, my girlfriend and I are statistical outliers or that we were all musically deprived. I’ve been in barbershops and hair salons where members of the so-called hip-hop generation (people born and raised between ’72-87) expressed no interest in hip-hop whatsoever, musically or stylistically. In fact, at a barbershop I used to frequent at Greenbriar Mall when I lived in East Point, Georgia during the ’90s, the barbers mostly discussed (and watched) basketball, football, and sitcoms like Martin and Living Single.

I would never absolutely say that these people lived totally outside of hip-hop’s sphere of influence or that hip-hop could say nothing about their lives, but I doubt that it would be a particularly reliable lens for understanding how they lived. At the same time that hip-hop was on the rise, R&B, soul, jazz and gospel were prosperous as well. Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Anita Baker and Prince were having some especially successful careers. And elsewhere, reggae and dub were thriving in their own way. And not that institutional recognition really matters, but there wasn’t even a Grammy award for best rap album until 1996. I think this is all important because when we discuss who hip-hop speaks for and speaks to, it’s easy to conflate hip-hop’s political potential with its [present and past] social reality. Stated bluntly, it’s easy to think that hip-hop represents all black people when it doesn’t, never has and probably never should.

People who are symbolically excluded from hip-hop have always flocked to it, but I think it’s apparent that those relationships are often tenuous. In hampton’s interview, she contrasts the fervor she had for hip-hop in her twenties with the indifference she has for it now, in her forties. What I take from that is that from the beginning, fandom, passion for the genre, is the only thing that kept her around. Once that passion was finally snuffed out by the harsh winds of misogyny and insistent indifference to black women’s lives, she had no reason to remain interested, besides an occasional song that didn’t treat her like trash.

In the end, I think that Chuck D’s statement was more a fantasy of rap than an actual description of what rap socially does. For Chuck D, if rap could act as black people’s CNN, it could be relied upon to express the problems facing black America in a way that wasn’t mediated by political and corporate disinterest in black life. In this fantasy black people are the news anchors, reporting straight from the source: ourselves. But as I’ve tried to point out, I think blackness is being stretched in this metaphor. Women, black people who don’t like particularly like rap, black people with Caribbean roots and black people rooted in other musical and aesthetic traditions**, etc., just weren’t included in rap. And though inclusion is certainly not destiny, I think it’s responsible to admit that the most reliable thing rap can tell you is about the imagined and actual lives of mostly black males. Everything else is relatively marginal.

Other narratives abound and occasionally bubble up – Queen Latifah, Azealia Banks, Eminem, B. Dolan, Jasiri X, Invincible and more all have great stories to tell – and songs like Tupac’s “Brenda’s Got a Baby and Aesop Rock’s “Ruby 81” are great examples of these narratives being told by men, which shows that gender isn’t artistic destiny. Heck, “Ruby 81” shows that even species isn’t artistic destiny; it’s about a dog saving a girl from drowning! Nevertheless, in the end, this fantasy of rap as the premier window into black people’s lives just doesn’t hold up, historically or in practice. If you really want a media lens into black American’s lives, cross-generationally and relatively unmediated by gender***, you probably should just watch and discuss Scandal. Your view will still be partial, of course, but at least you’ll be able to talk to my mother. 

*I couldn’t track down its first utterance, but Chuck D has never claimed misattribution, so I assume it’s something he actually said. Plus, even if he hadn’t, it’s taken on a life of it’s own by now.

**Of course, race isn’t artistic/vocational/occupational destiny either. Beyond hip-hop, jazz, blues, R&B and soul, there’s an unacknowledged history of black opera singers, ballet dancers, hockey players, heavy metal drummers and more. In addition to working on accurately demonstrating what kinds of popular things actually do represent black people, I think we should also think about the unpopular things too. Popularity is always contingent, after all.

***That isn’t to say that a gendered lens isn’t sometimes (or often) important. I think there’s a reason why every black woman under forty that I know is enthralled by this new Beyonce album. If you don’t think about gender when interrogating that reason you’re gonna look and feel fairly silly.

On You Can Touch My Hair

You Can Touch My Hair

A week ago today, I ventured down to Union Square to experience You Can Touch My Hair, an interactive art exhibit intended to address the past and present fixations with the bodies of black women, which range from benign curiosity to violative exoticism. The exhibit interested me because I liked its intent, but I was uncertain about how well it could be executed given what I perceived to be the limited knowledge of the problem. In other words, I was afraid that the exhibit would be unclear to people who didn’t know about this history of Black women being openly violated. .

After directly interacting with the exhibit and tarrying to observe others (mainly non-Black people) interacting with it, I think it was generally well-executed. The structure of the exhibit was simple: Black women held signs permitting people to touch their hair and people (of all races) approached them and engaged with these women either physically or verbally or both.

Some people likened it to a “petting zoo” or to the story of Sarah Baartman, but I think that those comparisons are lame and lazy if you consider how the exhibit actually played out. For instance, while I was speaking with one of the participants, two White teenagers literally ran up to her and curiously stroked her hair then dashed back, grinning. This is exactly the kind of interaction that many critics feared:instead of lingering  to have a discussion or have the exhibit contextualized, they saw the opportunity to touch Black hair, took it and ran off. Pure exoticism.

I think that’s a misreading of what happened. What stood out to me about these White teenagers’ interaction with the participants is that they only interacted with the participants. This is important to note because Black people, particularly Black women, were flanking the exhibit throughout my stay. In fact, there were so many Black people surrounding this exhibit that I found it  because I saw a congregation of Black women! If the exhibit had been purely exotic, I think that these women (and maybe myself, since I have an afro), would have been subject to this same exoticism. When you go to a petting zoo, you pet all the goats, not just the goats behind the fence.

To be clear, I’m not saying these teenagers’ actions were completely benign. Their curiosity and their subsequent enjoyment of having it fulfilled, were kind of unsettling and bizarre, personally. Nevertheless, as explained to me by a participant, the exhibit was not anti-curiosity; they actively wanted people to engage with the uniqueness of Black hair. What the exhibit was really critical of was how that curiosity manifests in people’s interactions with black women: the unsolicited touching, the staring, the disapproval, the disgust. Those kinds of interactions make Black women feel as if they are grotesque objects without their own agency or a sense of dignity. In other words, the crux of the exhibit was the subtext of the sign, “You can touch my hair,” which was, “You can touch my hair, because I myself told you that I’m okay with it.Even those weird White teens seemed to understand that.

Admittedly, the desire to touch Black women’s hair is a left a little untouched, pun intended, but that really didn’t really seem to be the point. The point was that Black women have the right to dictate how their hair (and implicitly their bodies) are treated and that that right should be actively acknowledged by everybody. In the end, as long as Black women feel like their bodies belong to them and not anybody else – because they do, in case you thought otherwise – I’m pretty content and I imagine that many Black women are content as well.

***

I didn’t link to a lot of articles within this post, but I did read a few before I wrote this. Most of them disagreed with me, but they’re worth reading anyway.

Reni Eddo-Lodge at the Guardian

Article at Jezebel.

Interview with Antonia Opiah (creator of the exhibit)

Brokey McPoverty at Racialicious