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