Editor’s Note: Kerra L. Bolton is the founder of Unmuted Consulting, a strategic political communications consultancy. She is also a freelance writer and former political reporter and analyst in North Carolina. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
I was that little girl.
Hairbrush in hand and hand on nonexistent hip, I strutted around my pink bedroom with the white princess canopy bed, lip-synching to “Bad Girls” by Donna Summer.
At 6 years old, I had no idea what the lyrics meant. I was lured in by the song’s relentless whistles, toot-toots, and beep-beeps. Singing in my bedroom amid the stuffed animals and roller skates, I was practicing what I thought it meant to be a woman. Certainly not the prostitute hinted at in the song, but something independent, strong, rebellious and a little bit dangerous.
American popular music today is littered with hucksterism disguised as feminism. However, Janelle Monae and Beyoncé, especially in the wake of “Dirty Computer” and Beychella, are the real deal. They are also the latest in a long line of musical artists who have used their art and unique style to create a vocabulary and cultural conversation about what it means to be a black woman in the United States.
Josephine Baker was arguably the first, reinterpreting blackface comedy and American vaudeville tropes. Baker transformed the pickaninny – a racist stereotype used to justify the rape and abuse of black women by white men – into a glamorous swan.
Decades later, Aretha Franklin married gospel music, the soundtrack of the civil rights movement, with the burgeoning women’s movement in the late ’60s and early ‘70s with her signature performances of songs like “Respect” and “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman,” neither written by black women but forever marked by Franklin as a symbol of our power.
As black Americans made economic and social gains after the civil rights movement, Whitney Houston in the 1980s presented a sleek, polished version of black womanhood that reflected the accomplishments of thousands of black women who were often the first in their families to graduate from college and move into white-collar jobs in greater numbers.
And now in the 21st century, enter Beyoncé and Janelle Monae.
Much like Baker, Beyoncé has reframed the aesthetics of the past as a gesture of empowerment for the present. Beginning with “Lemonade” and more recently during her Coachella performance, Beyoncé has taken cultural ideas and imagery from institutions that were created in response to segregation – such as the black national anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and the marching band and step line of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) – and reinterpreted them to give them an unprecedented platform, power and presence. She has encouraged black people to be proud of the art we created to survive unrelenting racism.
Monae, much like Franklin, has forged the intersectional feminism of our times, most embodied by the #metoo movement – and added her futuristic imagination to offer millennial women distinct possibilities for a future in which gender fluidity and sexual empowerment are accepted.
Together, their musical and artistic languages construct signposts of hope at a time when many either ignore or feel threatened by black women. And unlike the Beyoncé who twirled in a ginormous champagne glass in the video “Naughty Girl,” or Monae, who cloaked her most daring artistic statements about black womanhood behind the disguise of a messianic android she called Cindi Mayweather, these increasingly bold and innovative languages place the experiences of black women at their center. They relegate the white male gaze (a term first used by film scholar Laura Mulvey in 1975 to convey how cinema portrays women as passive subjects) to the sidelines.
Beyoncé and Monae are crafting a “for us, by us” experience – so that even if our stories are erased from public space, they can never be erased from our hearts or memories. The erasure of memories, and essentially black lives, is a narrative thread in Monae’s “Dirty Computer” “emotion picture.” In the 48-minute film, Monae and Tessa Thompson are on the run from a memory-clearing, totalitarian government that refers to its citizens as “computers.”
In inventing and experimenting with a new iconography for black women, both artists are extracting from the cultural DNA of black women in the United States. From quilts to spirituals to a well-placed “mmmmhmmm” in mixed company, black women have always spoken to each other in coded, cultural language. Beyoncé and Monae have made those languages public for all to see and made millions doing it.
Their creative engagements with past, present, and future remind black women of our power and strength and that despite efforts to intimidate us into the shadows, we are an integral part of America’s ongoing, cultural story. When I consider Beyoncé’s and Monae’s artistic contributions and think of the dazzling possibilities they might present to young, black girls today, my inner, 6-year-old diva winks and whistles.