Posts Tagged ‘#blacklivesmatter’

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.