Posts Tagged ‘bell hooks’

Sometimes it’s like I can see the future stretched out in front of me—just plain as day. The future, Mama. Hanging over there at the edge of my days. Just waiting for me—a big, looming blank space—full of nothing. Just waiting for me. But it don’t have to be. – Walter, A Raisin in the Sun, I.ii

Yes—just look at what the New World hath wrought!…Just look! There he is! Monsieur le petit bourgeois noir—himself! There he is—Symbol of a Rising Class! Entrepreneur! Titan of the system! Did you dream of yachts on Lake Michigan, Brother? Did you see yourself on that Great Day sitting down at the Conference Table, surrounded by all the might bald-headed men in America? All halted, waiting, breathless, waiting for your pronouncements on industry? Waiting for you—Chairman of the Board! I look at you and I see the final triumph of the stupidity of the world! – Beneatha, A Raisin in the Sun, III

Erykah_Badu_-_New_Amerykah

On the album New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), neo-soul singer Erykah Badu offers a black female counter-narrative to what black radical feminist bell hooks calls the “imperialism of patriarchy,” re-imagining America as a site of universal humanity where, “as sure as All and All is one, we All shall grow before it’s done.”[1]  In this, Badu works to unveil the dystopian dimensions of the American Dream, breaking the chains of her own imprisonment to its seductive allure of bourgeois comfort through a hip-hop inflected feminist critique of the legacy and structure of male dominance on which the promise of the American project is premised.

At the outset of the album Badu satirizes American capitalist utopianism, implicating it an economics of slavery by which one’s entire being is exchanged for the falsely perceived security of money and sex. In “American Amerykahn Promise,” a male voice—presumably that of the corpse-like, gun-toting Uncle Sam pictured in the album sleeve—speaks for this illusion of economic and social stability. Backed up by female singers as if a game-show host, this troubling icon of American hegemony offers a deceptively warm welcome to his audience, advertising America as a beautiful place of true love and fulfilled desire.  In the background a choir repeats the refrain, “promise promise amerykahn promise,” and, is if brainwashed, sing:

Promise I’ll love you ‘til the day I die / Promise I’ll love you good and give you the sky / Promise I’ll never love another guy / Promise I’ll give you things that you can’t buy / I’ll give you my nose / I’ll give you my toes / I’ll give you my eyes / I’ll give you my ears / I’ll give you my hands / I’ll give you my lips / I’ll give you my tongue / I’ll give you my thighs / Damn near anything you want

In a manner of irony, the song signifies on modern conceptions of the New World, believed by the architects of modernity to be a land of figurative “milk and honey”—a land fashioned on the black backs of slaves who were forced to give “nose, toes, eyes, ears, hands, lips, tongue, thighs” for the purposes of realizing the American Dream.

Badu meanwhile critiques the process of socialization whereby subjects are conditioned to hand over their history in exchange for what the figure of Uncle Sam in the song calls “a modern mystery”—a dream of Utopia as it exists “across space and before time,” where there is “more action, more excitement, more everything” as long one “stays on the grind.” This is particularly the case for the female subject in America as intimated in the song when Uncle Sam admonishes a “young lady”—curious about the status of her “42 Laws” (read: human rights)—for “causing quite a disturbance over here.” He proclaims in the fashion of an Orwellian Big Brother, “I want everyone to see this. I think we’re gonna have to make an example of her. Rid me of her sight. But before you get rid of her, give me a brain tissue sample of her. We’re gonna have to use it. We might need that later.”

Through satire, “American Amerykahn Promise” references the way “American women have been socialized, even hooks_aint i a womanbrainwashed, to accept a version of American history that was created to uphold and maintain racial imperialism in the form of white supremacy and sexual imperialism in the form of patriarchy.”[2] As hooks writes, the success of such indoctrination depends upon the conscious and unconscious perpetuation of the very evils that oppress black women.[3] Badu implies this much toward the song’s end when we hear a woman’s voice giving the directive, “Ok, when he say a key word, everybody, everybody just shout.” Critiquing the way power is organized and consolidated through a process of double- or groupthink, Badu laments the loss of individual rights to a warped vision of democracy that has implanted in our psyches “a seed of the racial imperialism,” to quote hooks, which keeps the black female subject in bondage.[4]

This critique runs through the rest of the album, which functions as a collective “wake-up call” to those seduced like the characters of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun by an American Dream, the real dimensions of which are “white supremacy, black ‘inferiority,’ […] fascism and war.”[5] Understood this way, the American Dream is really a guise for an oppressive system of white male patriarchy that judges an individual’s worth—whether male or female—according to his or her productive capacity, and establishes a hierarchy of being according to normative codes of gender, class, race, and sexuality that place black women at the very bottom.

Badu’s rallying cry against patriarchal and racial imperialism is made explicitly clear in tracks such as “Soldier.” An anti-war, anti-fascist and Black Power protest song in its own right, “Soldier” finds Badu calling for an increase in critical consciousness through education, non-violence, and a deeper rootedness in individual and collective Black history:

BACK BLACK!!! / What am I talkin’ about / Everybody know what the songs about / They be trying to hide the history / But they know who we are / Do you want to see? / Everybody rise to the next degree / Raise your hands high if you agree / Just say YES SIR-REE….

Channeling the spirit of Harriet Tubman—with a “shot gun on ya’ back”—Badu stakes her claim in the cause of black radicalism as a female leader, thereby assuming a revolutionary role typically reserved to black men in the struggle for liberation.[6]

In so doing, Badu puts herself on equal footing with the likes of black male leaders such as Nation of Islam head Louis Farrakhan, invoked in the beautifully contemplative self-tribute, “Me,” when she sings, “I salute you Farrakhan…cause you are me…” Signifying on the Nation of Islam’s newspaper The Final Call, Badu reminds us that we “got the wake up call / when [we] saw the buildings fall.” Referring to the 9-11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centers, Badu implicates the Black Nationalist call for economic justice in the struggle against American racial imperialism that the razed buildings, monuments of American neo-colonialism, represent. She further protests American racial imperialism by alluding to the dispossession of a large percentage of New Orleans’ black community—“baptized,” as Badu sings, “when the levy broke”—in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Badu therefore sings to prevent black history’s erasure by the “powers that be.” Calling on black activists—“my folks”—not to stop “‘till you change they mind,” Badu takes her place in a lineage of black matriarchs such as Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Mary Church Terrell, Sojourner Truth, and Angela Davis who exercised a dogged strength in the causes of women’s suffrage, anti-lynching, abolition, and black power respectively. Most important to Badu, however, is the role of her own blood mother Kolleen Gibson Wright, “a girl from South Dallas, Texas,” who married William, gave birth to “Erkyah, then Chorea (sp?) under Erykah, and then […] finally delivered Evan Wood.” According to Badu, “[Kolleen] look like a model with those eyes. She was witty and beautiful.”

People were drawn to her smile. “Lovely, young and fresh,” sings Badu, “I could not think of a better soul that I’d rather be like or admire. Kolleen is tighter, smarter, quicker than the average bear. Even though, even though it was hard. You would never ever know it.” A testimony to the power of black womanhood, this sung homage to her mother, a coda to “Me,” portrays a message similar to that of Hansberry’s Raisin…, signifying the “strength and self-sacrificing nature of the single black mother working to ensure the survival of her family.”[7]

Through Badu’s description of Kolleen, we glimpse a portrait of an assertive, self-possessed and independent black woman whose role as mother functioned to embody a kind of black liberation specific to the female experience.

Indeed, in the liner notes she dedicates the project to her grandmothers, Thelma Louis Gipson and Mattie Viola Wilson, and “to their struggle as young women and their knowing as old women.” Badu adds, “Because of you I sing!!!” Punning on the words “matriarch” and “artist,” she writes, “We love you! Matriarts! Soldiers! Women! Creators! Life givers! Friends! Teachers! I owe you. I am you. I love you.”

This is coupled with shout-outs to fellow music-makers—male and female—in whom she finds peers, as well as a note of thanksgiving to God whose gender she queers, “I give thanks to the Most High Freaq. [a fusion of  “Freak” and “Frequency”]. The Original G [read: “Gangsta”]. The Author of The Story. The Time Keeper. The Mother/Father-rhythm duo. The All Knowing One of ONENESS of ONE.”

It is under this banner of divine unity in multiplicity that Badu implicates herself in a collective struggle that is the work of a uniquely black female subject in particular and a universal human subject in general. As such, Badu can tell her brothers and sisters in “My People” to “hold on / thru the thunder and lightning” for a love that conquers all division is “on the way.”

And who are these people? They are the Brendas of Badu’s testament to the reality of post-industrial urban blight in “The Cell,” who “done died with no name” as result of drug addiction—symptomatic of the greater social ill of racial imperialism. Diagnosing the problem as a social sickness, Badu sings, “we’re not well / we’re not well / we can tell,” before asking:

Will they ever find the vaccine? / Shitty-damn-damn-baby-bang / Rich man got the double barrel, / Po man got his back to the door…/ Code white, stand for trouble…/ Shots from the po-po

Echoing the likes of Tupac, Nas, Black Star, and Cornel West, Badu addresses the issue of black nihilism in America, which functions as a fatalistic response to white supremacist oppression along the lines of class, gender, race and sexuality. In this case, society is a figurative slave chamber, a holding cell to keep black bodies in check through a system of heightened surveillance, police brutality, and the prison industry itself. Moreover, it is market-driven, promising happiness through the attainment of material wealth—“shiny new things / (diamond gold chains diamond gold rings)” as the song goes— that is ultimately inaccessible to those, namely racial minorities, on the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.

Furthermore, Badu indicts American society in the exploitation of black female bodies.  In this vein, Brenda’s “light-skinned body” signifies a history of miscegenation that often happened through rape to which black women were subjected at the hands of white slave masters. Such exploitation manifests today as prostitution, pornography, and sex trafficking.

Possibly a child of rape, the fictional Brenda finds herself reduced to the status of commodity, a dehumanized object splayed nude across a “center-fold spread.” A synecdoche for the exploited black female laborer, she is Badu’s frame of reference for protesting a broken social system that capitalizes on the black body as a source of national revenue. As the album art for the song suggests, the black body, symbolized by a blood-red thumbprint, is worth nothing more than the price assigned to it by a bar code.

Badu also problematizes the dual issue of materialism and black nihilism in “Twinkle.” Against the threat of fatalism, she sings:

They don’t know their language / They don’t know their god / They take what their (sic) given / Even when it feels Odd / They say their grandfathers and grandmothers work hard for nothing / And we still in this ghetto / So / They end up in prisons / They end up in blood

Echoing hooks’ contention that “wherever there exists a master/slave relationship, an oppressed/oppressor relationship, violence, mutiny, and hatred will permeate all elements of life,”[8] Badu adds:

They keep us uneducated sick & depressed / They end up in blood / Doctor I’m addicted now I’m under arrest / They end up in blood / We makin’ mo money than a mutha fugga / They end up in blood / With NO choices theres (sic) NO hope for us / They end up in blood

Situating the problem of black criminality in the context of urban decay, Badu hints at the white supremacist practice of class- and race-based exclusion that limits black access to education and other means of social mobility such as meaningful work. In this way, she further posits the intersection of classicism and racism while reminding her audience that people without options will make a virtue of violence, mutiny, and hatred if necessity demands it.

In so doing, Badu performs the part of critical realist. As Amiri Baraka says of Hansberry in his critical reevaluation of Raisin, Badu “analyzes and assesses reality and shapes her statement[s] as an aesthetically powerful and politically advanced work of art. Her statement[s] cannot be separated from the characters [such as Brenda] she creates to embody, in their totality, the life she observes.”[9] This is made more explicit in “That Hump” wherein Badu takes on the persona of a dope fiend who feeds a drug addiction as a means of escape from the struggles of the everyday and to numb the pain of its brutalities on her black body.

In light of this harsh underside of the American Dream as it manifests in the life of the archetypal Brenda, Badu professes to keep vigilant in “Master Teacher.” Lamenting the dearth of black leadership in society, she asks:

What if there was no niggas only master teachers? / I stay woke / Even if your baby don’t have no money to support you / I stay woke / Even when the preacher tell you some Lies and cheating on ya mama / I stay woke / Even though you go through struggle and stride (sic) to keep ahead in your life / I stay woke

Badu affirms her own search for “something new,” embodying the demeanor of an assertive and independent woman looking to find a “beautiful world,” as she sings, “searching inside me searching inside you.”

It is in this search that Badu comes to find within herself the “master teacher” for whom she is seeking. As such she appropriates the traditional American Dream and fashions a “New Amerykah” into being by reclaiming her own autonomy as black female subject who insists on staying “woke.” In this, she refuses to deny the reality of racial imperialism, holding herself accountable to revealing the underside of American history as one of genocide, slavery, apartheid, and colonial conquest. Reminding her listeners not to believe everything we think (see “The Healer”), Badu invokes the spirit of her African heritage as it lives through hip-hop, a movement “bigger than the government.”[10]

In the liner notes to Part Two of her New Amerykah album series, Return of the Ankh, Badu welcomes her listeners into the “mind of Amerykah.” Shorthand for “I am Erykah” as well as a pun on the word, “America,” the term signifies her struggle to reconcile with the American Dream-cum-Nightmare, as Malcom X would have it, and be wary of its many false promises of security and success.

A self-described “bundle of light energy,” according to her notes, Badu considers herself “a spiritual being first, man or woman second, Black or White 3rd, Jew or Gentile 4th, and pretty or ugly 5th.” It is from this queer positionality, simultaneously located between and on both sides of various binaries (of gender, phenotype, race, religion and appearance), that Badu the artist sings herself into a new existence as a figure of enlightenment, master teacher and soldier alike—engaged in the long, hard struggle to “stay woke” through the healing power of “fire, dance, sex, music, hip hop.”[11]

[1] See the lyrics for “Me,” Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), Universal Motown, 2008.

[2] bell hooks, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (Boston: South End Press, 1981), 120.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Riffing on hooks, ibid., 121.

[5] Amiri Baraka, “A Critical Reevaluation: A Raisin in the Sun’s Enduring Passion,” in Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 17

[6] See op. cit. 95.

[7] See hooks, ibid., 179.

[8] hooks, ibid., 117.

[9] Baraka, op. cit., 10.

[10] See lyrics to “The Healer,” New Amerykah (4th World War)

[11] Ibid.

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Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh, cover art by Emek, 2010.

Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh, cover art by Emek, 2010.

Against a luminescent violet backdrop resplendent with flowery, multi-colored foliage the mechanized bust of a misty-eyed Badu stares serenely at the viewer. A rich mixture of orange, blood red, deep purple, royal blue, and fuschia wildflowers , some of which resemble peacock feathers in shape and pattern, reach in full flourish toward a twilight sky arched by three crescent moons—two on the left-hand side of the portrait in wax; and one on the right-hand side in wane.  A closer look at the thick vegetation reveals a human fetus just beyond the android’s right shoulder.

Nestled inside of a yellow-orange wildflower in full bloom, the little human body gestates as if a bud awaiting its first blossom or a caterpillar on the verge of hatching its chrysalis. Beyond the robotic figure’s left shoulder lies a babe firmly planted in a purple flower blossom just after the word Return (of the album’s title). Above that is another baby wrapped in the pink leaves of a daffodil as if in swaddling clothes.

Beneath this other-worldly garden is a mound of random objects in miniature detail—an amalgam of fighter planes; a smashed TV with a cracked glass screen; a porcelain toilet bowl; space satellites; cell phones; a one-story house with the word “foreclosed” written across its side; chain links; a dollar sign; the Washington D.C. Capital building with the mythical “Eye of Horus” covering its dome; an open packet of cigarettes; sports utility vehicles; a Caduceus staff stuck inside (or rising from) a toilet bowl; a tea bag; a cheeseburger; power plants; bullets; and bombs—that together form what looks to be a massive trash heap of technological waste away from which the feminine android seems to be moving. Across the top of this dystopian landfill read the words of the album title in capitalized bubble lettering: A New Amerykah Part Two on the right-hand side of the forward-facing body; Return of the Ankh on its left.

Flanked by Japanese bonsai trees that rise up in the far background on each side of this metallic visage, the robot stands in juxtaposition to the mostly untainted natural environ that surrounds the quasi-human being’s silver form. The figure appears to be the singer herself, transformed into a machine as evidenced by the metallic blue and silver bolts, wires, and plates that constitute her humanesque head and shoulders. A neck ring, also called a “dzilla,” coils around her throat, ornamenting the figure with an air of wealth and status that is attributed to such accouterments by cultures indigenous to Africa including the South Ndebele peoples.[1]

A circular medallion with a triangle inside—a dual symbol of creation and eternity—is situated where the figure’s collar bone would be, and on either side of that are two silver medallions with heart-shaped ankhs engraved into them. Also known as the “key of life,” “the key of the Nile,” or crux ansanta (Latin for “cross with a handle”), the ankh is an ancient Egyptian hieroglyph that symbolizes eternal life.[2] The two ankhs depicted on each of the plates form the base of a trinity completed by a third ankh, tattooed on the curved back of the bronze-skinned, female body emerging  from the android’s open crown as though from a plant bed.

Taken together, the three ankhs form the points of an invisible triangle—a multivalent symbol of ascension, harmony, creativity, subjectivity, culmination and integration.[3] As figurative tattoos, the ankhs signify on what literary theorist Hortense Spillers calls the “hieroglyphics of the flesh”—a reference to the wounds such as lash marks, whipping scars, and brands inscribed on slave bodies that designated their subhuman status as objects of their white masters’ possession.[4] In terms of how Badu is performing them, they mark a reclamation of and ownership over her own black body—whether depicted as a goddess-birthing robot, or the goddess herself.

A classic depiction of the Egyptian symbol of the Ankh.

A classic depiction of the Egyptian symbol of the Ankh.

The arabesque branches of the sprouting figuration on the mythical Tree of Life to which this miniature, goddess-like figure clings spiral upwards, forming letters that spell out the singer’s full name. The small human figure meanwhile gives a sidelong glance over the smooth contours of her left shoulder, naked like her backside and the partially revealed front of her upper torso. A lush, light green bed of shrubs blanket her lower torso. The figure holds a tuning fork in her left hand, its glitter as golden as the royal wig she dons to compliment the sharp features of her face. It is an evocative stance, indicative of one who holds the power to instill harmony and balance in the universe as intimated by the two-pronged instrument she wields which, when struck, sends out a vibratory frequency that ripples like the circular vortex hovering just above the tree as if waves caused by a pebble thrown into a still pond.

As a whole, the portrait is an evocation of a new beginning, made plain not only by dint of the album title, but by the symbolism the cover art portrays. It pictures an “outer space” landscape fashioned as a kind of utopia.  At once futuristic and seemingly “pre-civilized,” the world pictured here is mythic—a kind of virgin forest untouched by the rapaciousness of modern “progress,” signified by the landfill behind these two figures.

A symbol of a failed American Dream, the trash heap equates the project of modernity—built on the black backs of slaves—to nothing more than a pile of compost that functions as fertilizer for the evolution of a new epoch. Indeed, the portraiture announces a new era of earth-consciousness, ushered in with the dawn of the divine feminine as symbolized by the brown-skinned goddess that emerges from the robot’s head like Athena from the crown of Zeus. In this way, Badu signifies on Ancient Greek mythology, appropriating a tradition associated with the dawn of Western civilization through a black feminist lens that culls from Ancient Egyptian symbolism to reroute (read:  “re-root”) modern history in a far more ancient and black past.

Athena emerging from the head of Zeus. Image from Username or e-mail:  Password:  CREATE NEW ACCOUNTFORGOT YOUR PASSWORD? D'Aulaires Book of Greek Myths. See: http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780385015837?aff=annieandaunt

Athena emerging from the head of Zeus.  Image from D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths.

In so doing, Badu not only rewrites a dominant western narrative of origins in Greek civilization, but refigures a mythological tradition so as to position herself as a goddess in her own right, embodying the virtues of “wisdom, courage, inspiration, civilization, law and justice, just warfare, mathematics, strength, strategy, the arts, crafts, and skill” that the classical Pallas Athena represents.[5] Moreover, she inverts the paradigm of Father God by playing the role of Zeus. That is, if we take this manifestation of herself as android to represent an albeit dehumanized, though strikingly human, embodiment of the female sex—of Badu herself. Taking this to be the case, Badu further queers an already queer mythological figure and professes a kind of faith in the cult of divine motherhood in which the creator is “Mother of all (wo)men” rather than simply “Father of all men.”

Granted it is difficult to escape the fact that this version of herself is a post-human machine. Yet, what is significant in the way of its giving birth to a fully formed woman, who herself is a kind of super-human figure, is the fact that it humanizes what could easily be mistaken for a mere android. In this way Badu signifies on the dehumanizing forces of technological advancement and a global political economy that has reduced the human subject to an object of labor, a mere cog in the capitalist machinery of modern civilization, and no more or less than the commodities produced for mass consumption within capitalism’s austere system of wage slavery.

Against this, Badu works to humanize the technologies that have reduced her to the status of object, personifying the machine that even she, as socially peripheral artist who in many ways exists outside of the labor force, is subject to becoming. In the vein of an Afrofuturist she appropriates images of technology and a “prosthetically enhanced future” and reclaims her own humanity in the process. She therefore posits a “uni-versal humanity” on the cyborg landscape of “spaceship earth” in the midst of the devastation wrought by the forces of a global “austerity economy” that runs the capitalist machine.

Moreover, in this portrayal of herself as android, Badu critiques the idea of prosthetics bettering humanity insofar as it exists “alongside a dystopic notion of prosthetics as dehumanizing [in the way it] replaces people and/or reduces them to a single mechanized labor function.”[6] To echo cultural critic Bershini Bhana Young’s assessment of graphic arts/writer John Jenning’s 2009 series Matterz of Fact, Badu, by way of Emek, “insist[s] on tempering our celebration of the cyborg and the prosthetic,” issuing a “quiet warning lest we embrace the cyborg too easily without careful attention to its historical context” as a flesh-consuming machine that turns persons into commodities, life into death. [7]

From John Jennings' Matterz of Fact series

From John Jennings’ Matterz of Fact series, 2009. For an engaging write-up on Jennings’ work, visit: http://www.buffalo.edu/home/feature_story/black-comix.html.

As Young says of Jennings’ images, the picture of Badu as machine shows that

disembodiment and/or hyperembodiment, in fact, is not an escape from the traumatic consequences of race. Rather the monstrosity of the cyborg draws our attention to the monstrosity of the master as he forcibly removed blacks form categories of the human and converted them into prosthetic devices.[8]

By taking ownership of the figurative machine and giving fleshy, human features to the cyborg, Badu vivifies it and the technological landscape it inhabits with new life that emerges like the black Athenian goddess from the forehead of this “new human.” Badu thus attempts to “conjure up a different kind of world that re-focuses our attention on the intimate encounters between capitalism’s violence, artistic world-making, technology and the (black) body.”[9]

The vision she creates of the future, then, is no longer a machinery of civilization, but a humanity of civilization. What we have, echoing cultural critic Griffith Rollefson, is the “tactical recovery of the black soul” that foregrounds—literally, in terms of Badu’s album art—black subjectivity in reimagining history with the mythic dimensions of an African past.  Badu thereby puts a black face not on the technological catastrophes of modern progress but on the actual redemption of the human race through and in spite of technoculture itself.

Indeed, insofar as the android represents a variation on her own black, female body, Badu’s human figure breathes life into the machine in a way that infuses technology with black power and black female “being-hood.”

As evidenced by the tuning fork that the mini-goddess clasps, the force with which Badu aims to accomplish this task of regeneration is that of music, a labor of love and an expression of the very lifeforce responsible for the overwhelming fertility of this “New Amerykah” pictured on the cover.

Shorthand for “I am Erykah” as well as a pun on the word, “America,” the term signifies her struggle to reconcile with the American Dream-cum-nightmare, as Black Power figurehead Malcom X would have it, and be wary of its many false promises of security and success. A self-described “bundle of light energy,” according to her liner notes for Part Two, Badu considers herself “a spiritual being first, man or woman second, Black or White 3rd, Jew or Gentile 4th, and pretty or ugly 5th.”[10]

Erykah_Badu_-_New_Amerykah part 1

Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), cover art by Emek, 2008.

It is from this queer positionality, simultaneously located between and on both sides of various binaries (of gender, phenotype, race, religion and appearance), that Badu the artist sings herself into a new existence as a figure of enlightenment, master teacher, goddess and soldier alike—engaged in the long, hard struggle to “stay woke” through the healing power of “fire, dance, sex, music, hip hop.”[11]

It is also from this intersubjective stance that Badu offers her “oppositional gaze,” to recall the words of black feminist bell hooks, by which she finds power in looking and thereby reclaims the right to gaze that has been historically denied black people in the “politics of slavery.”[12] The black Athena’s “sidelong glance” [13] meanwhile embellishes this defiant “looking back,” making of the album art and the “other-world” it portrays a site of resistance, a space of agency wherein the singer can construct her presence through bodily performance. By making visible a so often invisible presence in the “scopic regime” of white patriarchal society, Badu inverts a paradigm of “phallocentric spectatorship where the woman to be looked at and desired is ‘white.’”[14]

She therefore upends the threat of erasure by acknowledging her own black womanhood through a defiant gaze, and “sidelong glance,” that functions to interrogate the viewer’s return gaze, calling him or her to question their assumptions with regard to what the black female body signifies in the context of a “New Amerykah.” As hooks writes, “Looking and look back, black women involve ourselves in a process whereby we see our history as counter-memory using it as a way to know the present and invent the future.”[15]

There is little question that Badu is engaged in this very practice of “counter-memory” by looking back at the objectifying stare that has reduced her, as black woman, to the status of the “abject”—the invisible presence, the horrifying corporeality of blackness[16]–on account of her doubly-layered alterity (read: “otherness”) as both black and woman. Hers is the depiction of a black female body free of the discipline and punishment wrought on black female bodies according to dominant ideals of beauty as white and feminine. In this way, she breaks free from the dehumanizing glare of whiteness by returning the gaze as both android and sidelong glancing goddess.

In using her own flesh—whether as humanized cyborg or super-human black goddess—as a site of protest to authenticate an embodied expression of black female subjectivity, Badu accomplishes a task that black feminist and conceptual artist Lorraine O’Grady commissions the cultural worker to take up in her work: (re)inscribing the black, female body with new meaning and purpose in order to liberate it from the colonizing  claims of patriarchy and racism on its freedom as a “place” of agency, autonomy, and movement.[17] Badu in this way engages in an act of deconstruction. By making her body a matter of public display, Badu casts a critical eye on a society that has historically exploited the black body as a means to define racial difference and, ultimately, racial (read: black) inferiority.

Cultural critic Lisa Gail Collins does well to unpack this historical reality in her investigation of the “Hottentot Venus”[18]—a derogatory term that references the exploitative use of South African-born American slave Saartjie Baartman’s body by 19th century French zoologist George Cuvier as evidence of difference between the white and black races. Like the African-American women Collins uplifts in her assessment of artistic confrontation with the denigration of Baartman’s rotund body—at once contained, observed, dissected and labeled in a manner of both “scientific” exploration and pornographic entertainment—Badu resituates and recontexualizes the “Hottentot Venus” as a signifier of radical insubordination of, versus subjection to, the white supremacist logic of racial superiority.

Illustration of Baartman from Illustrations de Histoire naturelle des mammifères

Illustration of Baartman from Illustrations de Histoire naturelle des mammifères

Badu does so by placing herself in the position of Baartman, personifying not only a black variation on the Greek goddess Athena, but a 21st century black Venus through the visual medium of Emek’s poster art—a kind of portraiture in its own right by which she asserts black, female individuality despite threats of its erasure by “representational colonialism.”[19] A term coined by cultural critic Brian Wallis, “representational colonialism” references the white supremacist gaze to which the black, female body has been held captive in a history of sexual exploitation that is typified by the 19th century phenomenon of slave photography.

Exercised as a way to type and order bodies according to a hierarchy of being in which the Caucasian body—representing the classical Greek ideal of beauty set forth by Enlightenment era art historian Johann Joachim Winkelmann[20]–slave photography made use of pictures, originally called “daguerreotypes,” to demarcate the races and generalize the racialized “other” according to features that became associated with inferiority. In this, the myth of white superiority was established as an essentially historical fact through the semblance of realism that photographs portray.[21]

In protest to this, Badu positions her own body as part of a visual “counter memory” that functions to create a new future predicated on black self-love, which the album’s various songs, as testimonies to the trials of human relationship, vivify. Indeed, love is Badu’s ultimate “language of redress.” As heart-shaped-ankh-bearing harbinger of a “New Amerykah,” the singer embodies a Utopian longing for justice that seeks to repair present social ills—signified by the trash heap with its various emblems of a defunct social system such as those of warfare (fighter planes, bombs and bullets) and government corruption, symbolized by the Capital building with the mythical “Eye of Horus” inscribed into its dome.

Recognized as the “Great Seal of the United States” used to authenticate government documents, and also found on the reverse of the one-dollar bill, the ancient Egyptian symbol of protection, royal power and good health was appropriated by the founding fathers as a stamp of approval for, and blessing of prosperity on, the formation of the United States as though divinely mandated.[22] It has since become known as the “Eye of Providence” and is linked by way of conspiracy theory to the “Illuminati”—a sectarian group with supposed historical ties to the Bavarian Illumaniti, an Enlightenment-Era secret society aimed at opposing superstition, prejudice against women, and abuses of state power.[23] In the contemporary context, it has, however, come to refer to something more insidious in intent: a secret organization aimed at masterminding a New World Order by planting covert agents in government and big business.[24]

The mythical Eye of Providence as inscribed in the U.S. dollar bill.

The mythical Eye of Providence as inscribed into the U.S. dollar bill.

It is as a symbol of such corruption that the “Eye of Horus” is being deployed in Badu’s album art, inverted here as an indication of government failure, which is further illustrated by the mound of images that surround the “evil eye.” Taken together, these pieces of figurative garbage evoke a sense of social decay attendant to a global “austerity economy,” signified by the dollar sign, that has resulted in the disease (read: dis-ease) of society’s general welfare—emblematized by the image of a caduceus stuck inside of a toilet bowl, that porcelain receptacle for human waste.

A staff entwined with two serpents and bearing a pair of wings at the top, the caduceus was carried by Hermes (Mercury) as messenger of the gods according to Greek mythology.[25] It has come to symbolize the medical profession and signals both healing and transformation.[26] As pictured in the techno-trash heap on the album’s cover, however, the ancient symbol has lost its power to an historical present of racialized oppression as it manifests in failed welfare reform, unjust war, post-industrial urban decay, unemployment, drug violence, the cooptation of government by corporate interests (the “almighty dollar” inscribed as it is with the “Eye of Horus”), the militarization of urban space, and the prison industrial complex.

What Badu offers in this despairing portrait is the possibility of redemption through love, signifying on the “now-time” of a contemporary America in shambles and making of this decay fertile soil ripe for the nourishment of fresh fruit. In this way, she arrests the “fierce urgency” of the present moment in a hopeful nod toward the future rich with erotic lifeforce, signified by the babes—and the flowers that cradle them—in full bloom. As the heart-shaped ankhs indicate, love will save the day, restoring the “Eye of Horus” to its original meaning as the eye of Ra, Egyptian God of the Sun, and reinscribing the caduceus as a triumphal and emergent symbol of resurrection from the feces of modernity.

The Eye of Horus

The Eye of Horus

This trope of resurrection is made more explicit in the figure of Badu as black goddess—at once Athena, Venus, Phoenix, and Wadjet. The personification of the “Eye of Horus (Ra),” the goddess Wadjet, whose name translates to “the green one” and, according to some derivations, “the risen one,” is an early Egyptian deity of protection.[27] By way of such associations, Badu the artist, particularly as depicted by Emek, embodies a “mythic consciousness” that signifies on themes of rebirth and regeneration not only tied to Egyptology, but to Christianity as well. In many ways, she is the female Christ who died (and rose), according to Christian myth, for the sake of ushering in an era of “uni-versal humanity.” As Christ, her eschatology—that is, her theology concerning the future state of the world—is a fully realized one of hope for things to come as they take shape in the present moment, even if it is one of seeming decay. Her Afrofuture thus finds its telos (read: its fulfillment) embodied in and through “uni-versal” love.

This is especially the case if we read her emerging body to be an Afrofuturist variation on Isis, the ankh-bearing Egyptian goddess who was worshipped as the ideal personification of motherhood, magic and fertility, and who was seen as the companion of slaves, sinners, artists, the disenfranchised, aristocrats and rulers alike.[28] Isis was also responsible for resuscitating her husband Osiris (whom Badu also represents as symbol of resurrection) after he was torn to pieces in a battle with his brother Set, Egyptian god of disorder and violence that the old America signifies.[29]

In this proliferation of alter egos that Emek’s depictions of Badu on the album cover open up, we have what Alexander G. Weheliye would call a “surplus of signification” that is imbued with critical aesthetic power.[30] Asserting a “crowd of synthetic subjects”[31] within and by this artistic portrayal of her own black being, Badu signifies on W.E.B. Du Bois’s conception of double-consciousness, layering it with multiple meanings in light of the various allusions she makes to mythic figures of the “pre-modern” past.

For Badu, the critical aesthetic power she assumes in this tricksteresque “surplus of signification”—reminiscent of the shapeshifting capacity found in the West African trickster God, Esu-Elegbara—is that of dreaming a “New Amerykah” into existence, one that reinvests the future toward the interests of a radical black subjectivity.[32]

In her evocative exploration of Erykah Badu’s “post-soul sensibility,” cultural critic Marlo David notes that the singer does well to mediate the tensions between R&B’s humanist concern for professing black subjectivity and the strategic rejection of blackness as a “unitary subject position” in “post-soul” or “post-black” aesthetic through her Afrofuturist gestures.[33] Speaking of Afrofuturist thought as a “reconciliation between an imagined disembodied, identity-free future and the embodied identity-specific past and present” useful in expressing a “radical black subjectivity,” David notes that Badu works toward a similar aim.[34]

That is, Badu casts a “backward glance” into the “imagined spaces inhabited by precolonial African spirituality” redolent with Egyptian symbolism and “Nile Valley mysticism,” while looking forward with “allusions to space travel [which] give birth to an unashamedly hybrid, self-created version of black humanity” resonant with “Civil Rights and black nationalist era values that were integral to ‘soul’ music.”[35]

As the foregoing analysis attests, the same can be said of Emek’s album art for Badu’s New Amerykah Part Two. Through it, Badu performs a self-image that articulates an Afrofuturist “language of redress” in the cover’s simultaneous allusions to a pre-modern African past and a post-modern American present—all with an eye, a glance, a gaze toward the future. In this, Badu’s body functions as a site of Afrofuturist signification as she dons the form of an “Afro-centric New Age Goddess.”[36]

As such, she deploys Afrofuturism to check the “destructive capacity of America’s technological rationality” through “mystic, natural forces” contained in the symbolism of the ankh.[37] It is with this ankh inscribed into her body as a “hieroglyphics of the flesh” that she unlocks the key to a future oriented toward justice, offering us a vision of tomorrow that makes of today a hopeful moment in the “now-time” of the Afropresent, evolving toward the future under the soft glow of modernity’s waxing moon.

[1] See “Neck Ring,” in Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, (Wikimedia Foundation Inc., updated March 26, 2014) [encyclopedia online], accessed July 19, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neck_ring.

[2] See “Ankh,” in ibid. (updated and accessed July 19, 2014), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ankh.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Referenced in Huey Copeland, Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 50.

[5] See “Athena,” in Wikipedia: The Free Encylcopedia, op. cit. (updated July 18, 2014) accessed July 19, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Athena.

[6] See Hershini Bhana Young, “21st Century Aliens: The Rise of the See-J,” (unnumbered, unpublished paper).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Part Two Return of the Ankh, CD, Motown, 2010.

[11] See lyrics to “The Healer,” New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), CD, Motown, 2008.

[12] See bell hooks, “The Oppositional Gaze,” in Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: South End Press, 1992), 115.

[13] See Krista Thompson, “A Sidelong Glance: The Practice of African Diasporic Art History in the United States,” CAA Journal (2011).

[14] hooks, op. cit., 118.

[15] Ibid., 131.

[16] See Nicole Fleetwood, “Colorism, Vision, and the Dark Female Body,” in Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011),  90, 94.

[17] See Lorraine O’Grady, “Olympia’s Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity,” Afterimage 2 (1992): 1-23. The full version of “Olympia’s Maid” has since been anthologized several times, most recently in Amelia Jones’s  The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, publ. Routledge. Those wishing to read the article in full may also download it from the WRITING section of O’Grady’s website: http://www.lorraineogrady.com.

[18] See Lisa Gail Collins, “Historical Retrievals: Confronting Visual Evidence and the Imaging of Truth,” In The Art of History: African American Women Artists Engage the Past (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2002): 12-36.

[19] See Brian Wallis, “Black Bodies, White Science: Louis Agassiz’s Slave Daguerreotypes,” American Art 9, no. 2 (Summer, 1995): 54.

[20] See ibid., 52.

[21] See ibid., 48. According to Wallis, author Roland Barthes calls this the “reality effect.”

[22] See “Eye of Horus,” in Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia (updated July 7, 2014), accessed July 19, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eye_of_horus.

[23] See “Illuminati,” in ibid., (updated July 8, 2014), accessed July 19, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illuminati.

[24] Ibid.

[25] See “Caduceus,” in ibid., (updated July 3, 2014), accessed July 19, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caduceus.

[26] Ibid.

[27] See “Wadjet,” in ibid., (updated December 28, 2013), accessed July 19, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wadjet.

[28] R.E Witt, Isis in the Ancient World (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 7.

[29] See “Isis,” in Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, op. cit., (updated July 19, 2014), accessed July 19, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isis.

[30] Quoted in J. Griffith Rollefson, “The ‘Robot Voodoo Power’ Thesis: Afrofuturism and Anti-Anti-Essentialism from Sun Ra to Kool Keith,” in “Becoming: Blackness and the Musical Imagination,” Black Music Research Journal 28, no. 1 (Spring 2008): 89. Cf. Alexander Weheliye, “‘I am I be’: The Subject of Sonic Afro-modernity,” Boundary 2, vol. 30, no. 2 (2003): 111.

[31] Riffing on Afrofuturist scholar Kodwo Eshun, quoted in Rollefson, ibid.,89. Cf. Kodwo Eshun, More Brilliant than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction (London: Quartet, 1998), 27.

[32] Riffing on Marlo David, “Afrofuturism and Post-Soul Possibility in Black Popular Music,” in “Post-Soul Aesthetic,” African American Review 41, no. 4, (Winter, 2007): 697.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid., 697-98.

[36] Ibid., 700.

[37] Riffing on black Atlantic theorist Paul Gilroy in his discussion of P-Funk’s Afrofuturism, quoted in Rollefson, op. cit., 92. Cf. Paul Gilroy, ‘There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack’: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987), 180.

It is perhaps cliché to admit that the academic pursuit is really a complex process of self-study, riddled with angst attendant to the dance of identity formation and politics that accompanies the music of research. As philosophers of hermeneutics (i.e. the “science of interpretation”) make clear, reading a text, as an act of interpretation, is a self-implicating process by which one’s own history is brought to bear on the various lifeworlds informing the text and vice versa.

This figurative fusion of horizons posits the possibility of transformation in the reader as well as that which is read. Such a dance entails a shift in consciousness, an expanded awareness of one’s own place, or groove, in the practice of culture, history, and society. No doubt, my positionality as a white, gay male in the 21st century has been brought under the sometimes soft, sometimes harsh light of scrutiny that engaging in intercultural exchange between self and other occasions. For me this dialectic, or dialogue, rather, has taken—is taking—shape in step with the ever-shifting contours and rich substance of African-American cultural criticism. In this, my own normative assumptions and discursive, or language-based, codes for ordering reality have been challenged, upended, inverted, resisted, and ultimately revised to open up space in my often narrow field of vision for other ordering principles inhabited, performed and sung by the so-called “other” whose return gaze, as oppositional gesture, has had the dizzying effect of fashioning an entirely new dance.

Black feminist and cultural theorists bell hooks and Nicole Fleetwood are particularly insightful in this regard as they “look” at the ways black female subjects are at once subjected and resistant to the reifying gaze of a white supremacy, which governs individual and collective black identity formation according to an imago (read: image) of idealized whiteness. This image is an “ideal type” constructed by an equal parts heteronormative, patriarchal, and racist ideology. As each author makes clear, black women in the arts and pop culture have found various ways to “look back” at the objectifying stare that has reduced them to the status of the “abject,” the invisible presence, the horrifying corporeality of blackness[1] on account of their doubly-layered alterity, or “otherness,” as both black and woman.

In calling to question the practices of “looking” on the part of both spectator and performer, hooks and Fleetwood have opened my eyes to the ways in which I have perpetrated—and perpetuated—the repressive gaze in my own acts of viewing—whether by way of moviegoing, watching TV, attending a performance, or watching a music video featuring black female subjects. It is the last of these optical practices that I’d like to problematize in a gesture of self-implication and self-scrutiny that will entail a close reading of Philadelphia rapper Khia’s (né Khia Shamone Chambers) “My Neck, My Back (Lick It)” to argue—in the vein of Fleetwood’s subtextual analysis of Lil’ Kim’s video for the song, “How Many Licks”[2] —that the pop artist engages in a subversive practice of “excess flesh,” breaching the “discursive and symbolic structuring of black female corporeality” [3] within the dominant visual culture.

Lil_kim_feat_sisqo-how_many_licks_s

khia

I do so as a way to re-engage a visual “text” that had meaning for me in my early days of college when a friend and I would find pleasure in dancing to and singing the lyrics of this song. It was somewhat of an inside joke between us. Looking back, I now acknowledge the absurdity of our positionalities—she, a heterosexual white woman; me, a then-closeted gay white male—and my own failure to see that I was partaking in an unsuspectingly racist and un-self-reflexive spectacularization (or “spectacalization”) of black female subjectivity. In my limited understanding of the video’s gestures of black female hypervisibility (read: extreme visibility),[4] I failed to really “see” what was being offered in the way of “hidden transcript”[5] and simply partook in an act of fetishizing “looking” that I’d like to, with the rhetorical move of this blog reflection, revise (or re-envision) with insights from hooks and Fleetwood in mind.

Beginning with the injunction, “All you ladies pop your pussy like this,” the lead single of off 2002’s Thug Misses LP, “My Neck, My Back (Lick It)” is a celebration of female sexual pleasure that poeticizes the acts of both cunnilingus and anilingus. Directed by Diane Martel (R.E.M.’s “Shiny, Happy People”), the video for “My Neck, My Back” features a bikini-clad Khia in company with other young women at a barbecue party. The video switches between images of the female rapper lounging atop a chaise lounge as a young man, in an act of gender role reversal, paints her toe nails; dancing in front of a picnic table as well as inside a dance hall; and gyrating on her hands in knees atop a plush bed. The scenes of the barbecue party meanwhile feature other young women dancing, lounging poolside, or making love to their male counterparts who, throughout the piece, gawk lustfully at these female bodies. At a few points, the camera pans in on meat—hot dogs and hamburgers—being skewed on the grill for consumption by the party goers, thus functioning as an innuendo to suggest the link between the flesh of the bodies on display and that of the raw, phallic meat to be cooked.

As this is happening, Khia goes about her rhymes in which she instructs her male sexual interlocutor on how best to give her pleasure: “First you got to put your neck into it / Don’t stop, just do it, do it…” She signifies on the act of felatio, inverting it so that her male partner functions primarily, if not solely, for her enjoyment. Khia then follows line with predecessors in the female rap game such as Lil’ Kim, gaining street credibility “by using a familiar braggadocio rap narrative structure, at times substituting references to her sexual organs for the lingo of penis common in rap”[6]:

Suck it off until I shake and cum, n—a
Make sure I keep bustin’ nuts, n—a
All over your face and stuff
Slow head show me so much love
The best head comes from a thug

Queering the boundaries between the male-female gender binary, Khia assumes the role of the stereotypically dominant masculine figure as he exists in heteronormative discourses around sex and sexuality.[7] Moreover, she appropriates the black male phallus as her own pleasure toy, capitalizing on the trope of black male hypermasculinity and sexuality as a way to (re)articulate black female agency in the sexual act, as well as to celebrate her own and her lover’s “excess flesh.”

Fashioning herself as a kind of dominatrix[8], Khia begins her second verse holding the figurative reigns:

You might roll dubs, you might have G’s
But fuck that n—a, get on your knees
A bitch like me moans and screams
Thug misses know what I mean

In a spirit of true female thug bravado she then declares her agency and autonomy in choosing her mate, fully crystallizing the gender role-reversal at play throughout the track:

I got to pick which n—a I need
Cause only thug n—as satisfy me
You try me, I’ll make you see
You bitches ain’t got shit on me

With its excessive exhibition of black female flesh, Khia’s video and the lyrics informing its narrative root her in an oppositional stance that plays into patriarchal gender norms as a way to elide patriarchy’s oppressive gaze and, as noted above, queer the codes by which gender is constructed within dominant cultural discourse. The video meanwhile performs a psychic and bodily freedom that intervenes in a “cinematic context” of the hip-hop music video which, as bell hooks says of Hollywood cinema, “constructs [black female] presence as absence.”[9] Furthermore, it asserts a specifically black female presence that affirms, in the manner of the hypervisual, an image of black womanhood, and the black female body itself, that has so often been denied representation in a “scopic regime”[10] where a “phallocentric spectatorship”[11] disciplines and punishes black female bodies according to an imago of idealized white beauty and femininity. The video for Khia’s “My Neck, My Back (Lick It),” is a liberative enunciation of black sexual enjoyment that takes what Soul accomplished as a genre in the era of Black Power and hyper-realizes it as a means to (re)assert a black female corporeality that rejects its abjection.

That said, it is not without some hesitation that I publish this, knowing that songs and music videos such as Khia’s (and this blog post itself)[12] are fraught with issues concerning racial stereotypes, misrecognitions of blackness, the (mis)use of racial epithet, and misogyny. Moreover, I am  aware that the video and the song lyrics for Khia’s “My Neck…,” while liberatory performances of black female sexuality, are too easily co-opted and consumed by a mass culture machine that “sees” such a performance only at face value, failing to account for what it may be offering by way of subtext (as hidden transcript). Khia, in this hypersexualized and exhibitionist display of her own body, subjects herself to the possibility of further objectification, commodification, exploitation and ultimately (white) phallocentric containment by the very “scopic power of visual technologies”[13] (i.e. the music video) that she is using to enact, if not realize, her sexuality.

Yet, as Fleetwood says of hypervisible enactments, such interventions as I consider Khia’s to be are important not so much in terms of what they (re)present as liberatory acts, but as a doubling of visibility that challenges its spectators “to see the codes of visuality operating on the (hyper)visible body that is its object.”[14] I certainly consider myself to be one of those spectators.

Thus given my own experience of (re)viewing this song and video as a potentially destabilizing act of excess flesh, I think it bears consideration as something more than a tragic “buying into” of a patriarchal script. As with artist Ayanah Moor’s stance in her photographic series Still (2006)—which features a slew of still-framed images taken from popular rap music videos featuring the archetypal “video ho”[15] —it is my contention that Khia’s “My Neck…” opens up space for black female subjects to “sever, splice, and cut black figuration from dominant representation.”[16]

Ayanah Moor, Lean, photograph, 2006.

Ayanah Moor, Lean, photograph, 2006.

Therefore, with Moor and Fleetwood, I question “the possibilities of the ‘video ho’ to engage and perform sexual pleasure that does not simply and solely reinforce her overdetermination as always already hypersexed being.”[17] Returning to this song and video eleven years later in my own life, I see it in “new light” that calls me to question previous ways of “looking” and to re-examine the latent value of such performances as invitations to “new possibilities of seeing pleasure and play in hip-hop music video” while still acknowledging its potential pitfalls as an ethic of excess that, though oppositional, can play into “dominant discourses of racialized sexuality.”[18] Regardless, I believe a queered and feminist reading of it far more compelling than an easy (and even prudish) dismissal of it as abject. In this, I find myself dancing to “My Neck, My Back” with new steps, throwing codes of respectability to the wind in a spirit of queer play and celebration of my own (homo)sexuality while acknowledging that a transgressive politics of black female representation lies hidden in the most unsuspecting of spaces.


[1] See Nicole Fleetwood, “Colorism, Vision, and the Dark Female Body,” in Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011) 90, 94.

[2] See “Excess Flesh: Black Women Performing Hypervisibility,” in ibid., 105-145.

[3] Ibid., 109.

[4] As Fleetwood makes clear in Troubling Vision, “Hypervisibility [sic], used often in black cultural studies, is an interventionist term to describe processes that produce the overrepresentation of certain images of blacks and the visual currency of these images in public culture. It simultaneously announces the continual invisibility of black as ethical and enfleshed subjects in various realms of polity, economies, and discourse, so that blackness remains aligned with negation and decay.” See ibid., 16.

[5] A term coined by social theorist James Scott, the term “hidden transcript” refers to those attempts by individuals and collectivities within subaltern communities to undermine, question, and critique dominant public discourses of power. To create a hidden transcript is to engage in a subtle and often insinuated critique of the powerful, that is, those responsible for policing and sustaining the status-quo, in “stores that revolve around symbolic and legitimated victories over powerholders.” See James Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990). Quoted in Tricia Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1994), 100. While it is unclear whether or not Khia is for sure attempting to insinuate such a critique, I argue that her gesture of hypervisibility functions as a means to render visible that which has been reduced to invisibility—the black female body and subjectivity—by way of what bell hooks calls the “imperialism of [white] patriarchy.”

[6] Fleetwood, op. cit., 138.

[7] Riffing on Fleetwood’s insight on Lil’ Kim, ibid.

[8] See Fleetwood’s commentary on Lil’ Kim, ibid.

[9] bell hooks, “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators,” in Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: South End Press, 1992), 118.

[10] Derived from the work of film theorist Christian Metz, the term refers to “the use of vision and visual technologies in a given historical and cultural context to maintain power relations” through “optical tools” that are used to “assess, surveil, and represent the visual world” (Fleetwood, op. cit., 16-17).

[11] See bell hooks, op. cit.

[12] In my own act of offering a subtextual analysis of the video, I am acutely aware of the ways in which I may be unintentionally perpetuating the white supremacist gaze which I am attempting to deconstruct, particularly insofar as I am taking the liberty, as a white male, to speak for Khia, interpolating my interpretation of “My Neck, My Back” into her performance of the song without her authorization of my reading’s accuracy. Regardless, I write this as an advocate and fan.

[13] Here riffing on a trope out of the cultural theory of Timothy Murray who, according to Fleetwood, “writes that the scopic power of visual technologies [such as film, photography, and stage play] to capture, contain, and project black female corporeality through a normative lens is a common theme in works by black women playwrights.” See Fleetwood, op. cit., 96. Cf. Timothy Murray, “Facing the Camera’s Eye: Black and White Terrain in Women’s Drama,” in Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (New York: Meridian, 1990), 159-60.

[14] hooks, op. cit., 112.

[15] Fleetwood notes: “The series consists of four digital still images titled: Clap, Face, Lean, and Glow.” In a statement accompanying the exhibition artist Ayanah Moor writes: Captured frames imply moments unintended by the large music-video narrative. Compositional choices reduce the depiction of once-dominant male performers to supportive background visuals, if they are represented at all. The images’ focus exclusively on women offers a second look at the so-called music-video vixen. Formerly images based in time, the video characters, now frozen, permit unconventional portraits. … Within the feminist critique of hip-hop, is there room to consider women’s embrace of sexually provocative performance forms? Quoted in Fleetwood, op. cit., 134-35.

[16] Ibid., 135.

[17] Ibid., 135-36.

[18] Ibid., 136.