“I am so perfect so divine so ethereal so surreal/I cannot be comprehended accept by my permission” ~”Ego Trippin’,” Nikki Giovanni
I know I am breaking the code of Beyoncé by speaking on B out of the context of perfection.
Music has always proven a viable outlet for any representation of blackness whether gendered male or female. The blues, for example, provided a voice for women of color to talk about those things too worldly for the church walls. Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Ella Fitzgerald were dangerous. They spoke to their passions, their pain, and their experiences of black womanhood. These women carved out a niche for the blues women depicted in literature– Shug Avery in The Color Purple, Ma Rainey in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Ursa in Corregidora are only a small sampling.
What the blues women started to fight, female rap and R&B artists continue to battle today. This constant struggle could be considered part of that call by Ursa’s mother in Corregidora to “make generations.” Generations of black women have tussled between the demand of communal, if not ritualistic obedience to social expectation and the desire to express themselves. Beyoncé Knowles is not immune to that toil. Her 2008 release I am…Sasha Fierce proves that.
The dual CD, which caters a disc a piece to Knowles’ performance personalities of Beyoncé and Sasha Fierce, represent the extremities of black women’s sexuality. There’s the ballad driven Beyoncé and the booty and body poppin’ Sasha Fierce. Here’s my question, folks: what, exactly, besides performance, is fierce about Sasha Fierce? A friend jokingly told me that Sasha Fierce is a drag queen’s dream because of her intricate dance routines and flamboyant attire. He made me think specifically about the music video for “Video Phone.” Lady Gaga didn’t stand a chance.
Like black men, women of color also battle the case of the extremities – the asexual mammy-esque figure and the voluptuous and exotic black Venus that craves only sex. Beyoncé presents both. Her ballads suggest love and sex are two different monsters. Beyoncé croons “I-don’t-have-to-have-sex-with-you-to-love-you” lyrics and Sasha Fierce spits “I-don’t-have-to-love-you-to-sex-you” tracks. Knowles’ music suggests the need to retain a critical distance from her performance character and her actual person.
Only Female in My Crew – The Woman Groupie/Emcee Debate
Stepping away from Beyoncé – and maybe not a minute too soon – the topic of sex and women in rap is nothing new. It’s misogynistic, it’s hypersexualized, it’s bad, it’s bad, it’s bad. Okay. We understand. Tricia Rose, however, argues in The Hip Hop Wars (2008) that although the majority of critiques about women and rap music are negative, game does recognize game. Rose suggests that women rappers who are highly successful through a mainstream, capitalistic lens use their sexuality to their advantage. In other words, “explicit isn’t always exploitative:” “even when such performers seem to be expressing women’s sexual power, they use sexually exploitative images and stories and sexually dominating personas similar to those expressed by many male rappers. They are hustlers instead of victims…they also rely on and promote male sexual fantasy based images of women as sexually voracious and talented in their ability to please men.” While Rose does go on to say that the same niche that female rappers like Lil’ Kim, Trina, and Foxy Brown carve for themselves is still entrapment in a patriarchal system, there is an acknowledgement of using sex to their advantage. This by no means suggests anything against the genuine lyrical talent these ladies possess. Rather, it is refreshing to hear observations that go against the victim complex often tagged to discussions of black women and rap music. What is striking about Rose’s observation here is the open-ended definition of a gendered difference between male and female hustling. Is it a question of “my hustle is bigger than yours,” or standards that are not universal for rap performers?
While Rose and other scholars focus primarily on the prototype of sex rap legend Lil’ Kim, I’d like to focus on Miss Nicki Minaj. I’m still trying to figure out my position on her. From her interviews it’s obvious Minaj is extremely conscious, on her game, and knows how to finesse any discussion. Her raps, however, fall into the “respect my sexy” category. She looks and sounds like a hoodtastic Barbie doll. And, while she may possess lyrical ability, it often sounds choppy and dumbed down. In rap groupYoung Money’s video “Bedrock,” the only way to distinguish Minaj from the video girls was her verse.
With that being said, Rose and T. Sharpley-Whiting’s analysis of the groupie fall into conversation here. In Pimps Up, Hoes Down (2007) Sharpley-Whiting suggests the increasingly vocal Hip Hop groupie (Ms. Steffans, I see you) and video vixens are staples in the continued existence of contemporary black masculinity. Sharpley-Whiting refers to the groupie as a dominant trope in Hip Hop: “whether we can verify her existence or she is merely an invention of a wanna-be hip hop player’s rhapsodic rap, the idea of the groupie is a powerful trope in hip hop culture. She is a metaphor for male sexual prowess, indeed, puffed-up black masculinity.” There seems to be a thin line between the hypersexual female emcee and the groupie.
Here are some similarities:
1.) They often affiliate themselves with or get their start through prominent male rappers or DJs. Lil’ Kim started with Notorious B.I.G. and headlined Junior M.A.F.I.A.; Foxy Brown held it down with Jay-Z and later with Nas' The Firm; Trina slipped and slid with Trick Daddy; Eve was the “pitbull in a skirt” with the Ruff Ryders; and now Nicki Minaj is the first lady of Young Money.
2.) In a music video, what distinguishes the woman rapper from the other women? This is especially prevalent in music videos done with male rappers. Some may argue camera time, but veteran video models like Melyssa Ford or Buffy the Body can have just as much if not more camera time than her after she delivers her stanza.
3.) Once they attempt to stray or break themselves from those established barriers of sexuality they are often stuck or snubbed into obscurity.
The commodification of the black body is prevalent in American culture. We want it – yes, it – male, female, queer, or straight. The voluntary consumption of black women in music and other cultural avenues hearkens back to the auction block. The auction block morphed into the manufactured space of mainstream production. Where do we go from here?