Before hip-hop tapped into the mainstream it lived in the dingy, naughty underground of western culture, where EDM, funk, jazz, and other predecessors had gone before it – a curious rite of passage which has little to do with musicality, explicit lyrics, or the perils of nightlife, and a lot to do with the negative stereotypes of the minorities who were instrumental in creating those genres. Black female artists can be found at the epicentre of this taboo, not only casualty to the fateful trifecta of fame, blackness, and womanhood which subjects them to the vitriol of misogynoir in the media, but also to the precarious ambivalence of blackness in popular culture – sometimes a refuge, sometimes a stigma. Bafflingly, oftentimes both.
One such instance was when the singer Lana del Rey opened a can of worms with a paragraph that took a brief lease on her Instagram grid before it was hastily deleted at the behest of instant backlash. ‘Question to the Culture’, it was titled: “Now that Doja Cat, Ariana, Camila, Cardi B, Kehlani, Nicki Minaj, and Beyonce have had number ones with songs about being sexy, wearing no clothes, f***ing, cheating etc. – can I please go back to singing about being embodied, feeling beautiful by being in love even if the relationship is not perfect, or dancing for money – or whatever I want – without being crucified or saying that I’m glamorising abuse?????? I’m fed up with female writers and alt singers saying that I glamorize abuse, when in reality I’m just a glamorous person singing about the realities of what we are all now seeing are very prevalent emotionally abusive relationships all over the world.”
It wasn’t just the unsolicited naming and underhand shaming of seven leading women in music – conspicuously Black and Latina that didn’t sit right with me, although arguably the entire declaration was fated to censure based on this point alone. The whole thing was a contradiction. It called itself a question, but it was aggressively defensive. In the name of claiming common ground with the plight of real flawed women, it skimmed over seven profound artistic perspectives to make space for the indulgent romanticism of one. Even this illusion of a level playing field is overwritten by a self-aggrandizing martyr narrative which assumes a moral high ground in “feeling beautiful”. It is a perfect illustration of the catch-22 that Black women in music are faced with. Their position at the bottom of the social class pyramid makes them the pedestal for a privileged few to represent the female condition.
If there is one good thing that came from the statement, it is that Del Rey pinpointed a double standard that falls between women of colour and white women. The six-time Grammy nominee and winner of NME’s Best Album in the World Award 2020, rose to fame in 2011 with her ethereal tragic prima donna persona, a visible amalgam of Priscilla Presley, Jackie Onassis, and Marilyn Monroe. It’s a trope that suggests a rosy view of 20th century social mores, from the opulence of post-war American high society, to the questionable heteronormative gender roles. Although Del Rey’s lyrics satirise the couth mid-century conventions of womanhood in a way that speaks to any 21st century woman, her performance persona isn’t exactly the epitome of Black and Latina women’s history, which puts a dent in the parallel she draws between herself and those seven artists.
Weeks after the paragraph disappeared, Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B broke the charts with their single ‘WAP’, an ode to powerful, wealthy women and their sexual freedom. The lyrics and the music video went further than subverting the male gaze which customarily oversimplifies the female psyche. ‘WAP’, which debuted at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, doubled down on the explicit language which third parties (typically male) have relentlessly used to degrade Black women’s sexuality.
But then there was the media’s reproach. Admittedly, even the clean edit was almost too explicit for radio, but the track still garnered the kind of criticism rarely reserved for male artists who use the same language. Cee Lo Green chimed in to condemn the track as attention-seeking. Right-wing commentator, Ben Shapiro, took to Twitter to pass on his wife’s diagnosis of the women described in the lyrics: “bacterial vaginosis, yeast infection, or trichomoniasis”. Is it any surprise that the public found time to satisfy its penchant for tearing Black women to shreds? Lest we forget, Blu Ivy Carter, Beyonce’s oldest daughter, born in 2012, was viciously trolled about her appearance in 2011. The way that Megan Markle held her pregnant belly was *checks notes* incorrect. Just about every female artist of African descent, from Eartha Kitt to Mariah Carey, has been crowned a “diva”. It’s a salient point that Del Rey’s tirade happened to side-step.
In some ways, this perverse pre-occupation with Black women is just a derivative of original flavour misogyny. In others, it is aligned with the age-old, garden-variety racism that makes a blanket presumption about the moral ambiguity of minorities to pre-emptively justify the mistreatment they might suffer. And for these reasons it is a point worth stressing that common ground doesn’t constitute a level playing field; Women of other races have long been complicit in erasing or oppressing Black women. Jennifer Lopez referred to herself as a “negrita” (a literal translation of “black girl”) in her latest song ‘Lonely’ and was accused of using her fractional Afro-Latina heritage to piggyback on #blackgirlmagic clout. Kim Kardashian and Rachel Dolezal are examples of non-black women who have capitalised on embodying black culture all the way down to physical appearance. It’s enough evidence to suggest that the mere imitation of blackness might be more profitable than actually being black.
Within the black community, misogynoir has even been an inside job. Kanye West’s ‘The New Workout Plan’, is a cringe-inducing track that springs to mind. As if the universe had set out to make a point of the matter, Last July the ‘WAP’ co-creator Megan Thee Stallion was shot by fellow rapper Tory Lanez at house party in the Hollywood Hills, an assault that was allegedly provoked by a quarrel moments earlier. The rapper 50 Cent was among the thousands who were quick to ridicule Megan, who chose not to report Lanez to the Los Angeles Police Department because of their reputation for racial profiling and excessive brutality. Others praised her for being a strong Black woman.
“Strong black woman” is one of those quasi-compliments that women are expected to swallow like a spoonful of sugar. Like a tax on womanhood, we shrug and accept it. Granted, women of all races are burdened by frustrating stereotypes, but there is a deleterious stalemate between the strong Black woman and the damsel-in-distress stereotype which is traditionally ascribed to white women. A quote from a Buzzfeed article by Aisha Mirza hits the nail on the head: “White women are so dangerous because they are allowed to be soft – innocent until proven innocent…Sometimes when we defend ourselves, white women look at us with the utmost fragility. They claim to access emotions such as fear and pain without missing a beat, like they were born to do it, before we can even dare to consider that we may have been frightened or hurt too. Their eyes rattle in their sockets saying “Why do you punish me for having such a big heart”. Mirza identifies the kind of cultural appropriation that goes further than misappropriated slang, fake tan, and slicked edges. Sometimes, white women like Del Rey are willing to cite the Black experience in order to accessorise their own state of oppression, without any regard for the trauma it might uproot in Black women. It usurps the ideal that all women should be equal – when the woeful truth is that that Black women and white women experience vastly different struggles.