Black Women’s Sexuality in Music: An Alternative View to Black History Month

5 years ago

Black women have long had a complicated relationship with the music industry, and Super Bowl XLVII unwittingly became a chapter in Black History Month, with African-American women dominating the entertainment. From Alicia Keys singing the national anthem, to Jennifer Hudson leading a choir of Sandy Hook Elementary students, to the much-anticipated halftime show featuring Beyoncé Knowles and more importantly (to me) her all woman, all POC band, The Sugar Mamas served as a fine representation of the progress that African-Americans have made in popular culture. This was the first time in the history that all of the performers were Black women.

Image Credit:Bruno Guerreiro

In my book, What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal, I trace the history of the representation of Black women in music, from the blues era to the underground metal scene. Even women like R&B songtress Chaka Khan, a former member of Rufus, was criticized for her wild hair and dress, as middle-class Black communities were afraid that she might give their young daughters the wrong message.

However, the criticism about Knowles’s performance makes me think that perhaps we should be using this month to not only acknowledge the ancestors who made it possible for these women to perform on such a grand stage, but to strive for more.

Admittedly, many successful women performers regardless of race have been prone to attacks based on their no-nonsense business acumen. For Bob Lefsetz, music industry veteran, Beyoncé’s performance was more of a sexual turn-on than a remarkable event:

I wasn’t sure what to do after Beyoncé’s appearance, join a gym or masturbate. It was spectacle befitting the game, one could argue strongly it was more dynamic and exciting than the game. You had no desire to check your Twitter feed, all you could do was pay attention.

But how much did this have to do with music?

And of course, many others not only decried Lefstez’s opinion, but also agreed that, while they wouldn’t consider masturbating to Beyoncé’s performance, they wondered why she was not fully dressed... and what does this mean to impressionable young black women? From Clutch Magazine:

Perusing Facebook, I saw two posts from two different friends. One was a picture of Beyoncé captioned “Amerika loves a whore.” Why couldn’t she wear pants? I raised my eyebrow and made a mental note to come back to the question.

However before the Super Bowl, Beyonce was criticized in The Guardian
for posing for the February (still Black History Month!) cover of GQ magazine, as they felt that her lack of clothing was in opposition of her feminist stance, which she discusses in the accompanying interview.

The National Review felt not only dismayed at what Beyoncé was wearing, but also took umbrage with Michelle Obama when she tweeted that she was proud of the singer:

It seems quite disappointing that Michelle Obama would feel the need to tweet about how “proud” she is of Beyoncé. The woman is talented, has a beautiful voice, and could be a role model. And she is on some levels — on others she is an example of cultural surrender, rather than leadership.

I would argue that it is the opposite. In the writing of my book I interviewed several Black women fans, musicians and industry workers in the metal, hardcore and punk scenes to argue that the aggressive music scenes and their accompanying cultures actually serve as a space in which women can express their individuality, whether sexually provocative or not, more than in black-centric music cultures, such as hip-hop or R&B.

There are two reasons: The philosophy in which aggressive music cultures gain legions of fans is because there is more emphasis on the music, versus the image, as unlike the 80’s glam-metal phase or even the 90’s grunge era, metal videos do not make it onto mainstream video stations and people are less likely to purchase music based on what the performer looks like, especially in extreme music, which I focus on in the book....BUT don’t get me wrong, there are still issues of rampant misogyny within the scene, but women musicians do not have to portray a certain image in order to be respected as legitimate players in the scene. Secondly, there is more freedom in the lyrical content (re: check out singer Skin’s lyrics for her band Skunk Anansie) where politically and socially-tinged lyrical content matches the fiery nature of the music. If you want to generalize and talk about rock'n'roll, there is a long history in cutting-edge Black women performers who made inroads partially based on not only flaunting their sexuality, but owing it, from the legends like  Betty Davis, Tina Turner and Nona Hendryx, to contemporary Black women rockers, like Judas Priestess’s MilitiA and The Objex’s Felony Melony.

On Facebook, more than one of my rock/metal-loving friends described Knowles Super Bowl performance as akin to a balls-out metal performance. Beyoncé, through her rock/funk band, was using the aggressive music to feel the harder, edgier vibe of the music and act according to how she feels. I would agree that she is sexual, but the difference is, is that she is owning it and is in full control of it, which for women, especially black women, is extremely important to publicly present to young black women who are still burdened with the hyper-sexualized racial stereotypes that are not only transmitted through hip-hop and R&B videos and lyrics, but within our communities as well. Something that our elders, some who are recognized during Black History Month, fought hard to reject.

My good friend Birgitta Johnson, an associate professor of Ethnomusicology at the University of South Carolina School of Music said this about Beyoncé’s performance on Facebook:

They(critics)  ignore that she is her own boss who regularly employs them and hundreds of others on purpose. They ignore that she is one of a handful of artists who literally pays the bills for Columbia Records. The dismissal of Beyoncé as a businesswoman, an entertainer, a constantly high rating brand, a role model, and an R&B-to-Pop icon could possibly be THE BIGGEST case of misrecognition of African American women in this country. Destiny's Child said it long ago, "I don't think your ready for this jelly." She wasn't just talking about her behind....

In her excellent piece for Bitch Magazine on Black women and respectability politics, Tami Winfrey Harris discusses the existing stereotypes in which Black women are constantly battling within mainstream pop culture, and the part that respectability politics play in the policing of performers:

(Black women) are required to be noble examples of black excellence. To be better. To be respectable. And the bounds of respectability are narrowly defined by professional and personal choices reflecting the social mores of the majority culture—patriarchal, Judeo-Christian, heteronormative, and middle class.

The primary example in this post about contemporary respectability politics is Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance. Winfrey discusses the response to the film, The Help. In both instances, the criticism to the imagery presented comes from both Black and non-Black communities. So I propose that this month not only should we remember the past, we should think about the future, how we police each other, and more importantly, get back to asserting our rights as people - as individuals who have the right not only to be seen as such, but to also show our individuality, whether we choose to wear a black leotard or leather and chains, and whether we choose to listen and perform R&B or heavy metal, in the public eye.

Contributing Editor - Race, Ethnicity & Culture

Blog: Writing is Fighting:

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