Anti-Silencing in Black Women’s Speech
This Music Spat Matters
I do my best theological thinking and writing while listening to hip-hop, rap, and R&B music. As a student of theology and ethics, I am interested in the future well-being of the church and society. I often think about how Jesus would move about in this world, who he would advocate for, what systems he would out rightly name evil and not of him. My role as a student of both faith and pedagogy is to teach through explaining, observing, and making connections. I hear the Spirit of God most clearly when in the midst of certain musical forms. There is something about the blend of beat and barrier-breaking, motion and emotion, pulse and politics of aesthetics, of love, fear, power, and respectability that frees up my written tongue to spill forth what has lived in my mind for some time or has newly arrived carrying the weight of truth I may not even fully understand at the moment. Music emancipates my morality; it frees my tongue because it is embodiment expressed on beat and in between notes.
Part of music’s power lies in its potential for political commentary. That has been the beauty of the emergence of rap and hip-hop as genres. They materialized from an urge to comment on social realities through a medium that could still make its listeners dance. This direct social and political sentiment is alive today in the work of artists like Lupe Fiasco, Janelle Monáe, and “newcomer” French-speaking Belgian-Rwandan artist Stromae who sees the relevance in music attending to reality. Music can make one dance and think simultaneously. It can illumine the political and the powerful.
The Nicki Minaj-Taylor Swift Twitter “feud” is not explicitly about music as social commentary. It is about drawing attention to the circumstances around which the music industry itself does commentating work. Though they have buried the hatchet, Nicki and Taylor have opened a world of possibilities for much needed conversation. Now some are curious to know what their disagreement means in a larger context, while others remain oblivious and avoid the race discussion the feud has evidently brought up.
Black Women Speaking Matters
Black women speaking their truth is at the heart of the spat’s origins. And through it we can now explore how the value of of social commentary through music and its figures can come to light in ways that offer a lesson to millennials and those of us curious about or involved in the social and political force of our time, the #BlackLivesMatter movement. We can all learn some lessons in what seems to be a little argument between these women in the spotlight and perhaps place the spotlight where it belongs: on white fear of black female outspokenness.
Nicki and Taylor are perfect for this moment! Essentially, it does not matter whose videos received more nominations, whose video was good or bad, or whose video deserved which accolades. The Nicki Minaj-Taylor Swift feud serves as a teaching moment not only about white feminism versus black feminism and Womanism, but also about the meaning of certain responses to calling out racial dynamics.
Though speaking out is not new for her, in her tweets towards MTV and the VMA’s rapper and pop star Nicki Minaj came under fire for critiquing an evaluative system that rewarded white bodies and music more than it did black women’s work.* Her pop peer and fellow superstar Taylor Swift read the systematic critique in a personal way. I won’t rehash everything — you can see the timeline of the interactions here.
Both Nicki and Taylor are icons in the pop world in their own right. But Twitter, Facebook, and other outlets missed an opportunity to discuss how the refutation of a black woman speaking up for herself is the stuff out of which white supremacy continues. Twitter served as teacher. Nicki did the brave work of calling out a system; Taylor did the defensive work of upholding it — both through the dynamics of what Nicki’s voice sounded like. This troubled relationship with a black woman’s words, in many ways, parallels the different responses of black and white persons to the frequent and senseless deaths of black persons at the hands of law enforcement. Particularly, the nuance of Nicki’s speaking aligns with the backlash leveled against Sandra Bland also speaking (before her death).
Taylor’s response to Nicki was misplaced because she took a critique against the industry as a personal attack of her workings within the industry (that she ultimately gets the upper hand in anyway because of who she is). She then tried to smooth it over with a strange invitation for Nicki to co-celebrate her by welcoming Nicki on stage with her if she wins.
When we think of responses to the Sandra Bland killing, or any other like it, a white person’s response outside of “Yes, you’re right. I need to check my privilege and see what I can do in my community and elsewhere” is inappropriate. A systematic critique of police brutality and a justice system that rarely indicts these officers is not a personal attack on white individuals. What critique does is to illumine the source of the defensiveness: a system that benefits white people so much so that they do not have to think about it, and thus any criticism leveled against it unsettles their sense of security of who they are as a person, citizen, or however else they might identify.
At the root of it, Nicki hit a nerve in Taylor (and Ed Sheeran serving as a white male salvific figure to his distressed white friend), a nerve that Taylor may or may not have known existed. Even if not obvious to her, Taylor’s success has been built on the depreciation and ignoring of others, a success no doubt also boosted by her aesthetics, musical and otherwise.
Sandra’s Voice Matters
In both Sandra Bland’s arrest and Nicki Minaj’s protest, we see a black woman asserting herself in a culture where it is only acceptable if she is given permission. If a white woman does not agree with her, or if a white cop does not like the opposition, it is not permissible.
Sandra Bland spoke her mind completely within her rights. The officer escalated the situation and blatantly lied about their encounter. He could not handle Sandra’s words and honesty that she was irritated for being pulled over for not signaling a lane change. This black woman refused to obey blindly the orders of a white man who assumed his badge granted him unlimited authority. Her refusal to be polite, quiet, and docile sacrificed stereotypical expectation and assumption of respectable male-female interaction for something beyond the scope of officer Encinia’s grasp. She was going to put herself and her rights (protected by law) first.
Whiteness of this sort, that knows how to put itself first, assumes black obedience. When blackness, a resistant force for equality, contradicts this model, it must be subdued or shut up. When a black woman speaks up for herself, her assertion of her humanity is seen as a threat to white maleness. If we consider the social ladder where white men are on top and black women at the bottom, something goes awry in the white male ego when those at the bottom have the nerve to treat him as if he is not essentially superior.
In Sandra’s encounter she placed herself on top, as a black woman, as an American citizen — she chose to show honor to herself in the moment of decision. Her honoring herself served as a threat so severe that it generated rage and illegal action from the officer. His entire being, internal and external came into question for it. Her choosing herself sparked something fearful in him where if he was not the center of her world, the top of her social ladder of respectability, then she was perceived as acting illegally, being illegal. Her self-advocacy was alien, foreign to him. And in this somehow legality became enmeshed with white male authority and black female silence, conjuring up a clash with the past and the present. Images of a master-slave dynamic came to life haunting this traffic stop and all it stood for for black female visibility and audibility. It became clear that Sandra would make her voice and authority matter just as much as his. Citizen and enforcer would have equal say in a situation where both had some measure of authority. She did not have to obey the officer’s requests; her will did not belong to him.
Bland refused acquiescence. She chose her humanity. The history of African American women in this country has been founded on submission, on violence done to her body — to assert one’s rights is a courageous act of resistance against this narrative. But Sandra was not even allowed to refute being silenced. She was literally not allowed to say “no” without a violent encounter.
Speaking Up Matters
If all women are cared for and implicated in feminism, the sexual overtones of not being able to say “no” should alert white feminists to the depth and breadth of white cops’ violent dealings with black women and girls. Charlena Cooks and Dajerria Becton had mouths too, and in speaking up for themselves were violently handled by police. Luckily, they lived.
I imagine that the next series of conversations we need to have in society as a whole, but also in the church, is not around black female outspokenness, but about white female and male silence and false perceptions of to whom permission belongs. Shouldn’t the Sandra Bland tragedy garner more outrage than Taylor Swift’s misread of systematic critique? Where are Sandra’s Ed Sheeran and Piers Morgan?
If black women cannot speak their minds without being chastised and silenced, then white women, as well as white men, are complicit in violent and deadly moments like Sandra Bland’s. White misunderstanding, white fragility, and white silence are culprits just as culpable as the physical threats to black lives. Will these issues make it into our classrooms, workplaces, pulpits, and dinner conversations, not only the day after they happen, but every day afterwards? Will the realities and fears of some become all of ours? Can the black woman’s fight to have and use her voice become everyone’s fight?
All of these questions must be answered in our bodies, in how and who we see. Thus, people and action, and not solely time, will tell. With all the uncertainties of whether we are for each other or not, one thing is certain: a black woman will not wait for permission to speak. She will fight with every ounce of her being not to be silenced. She cannot be silenced. If she is killed, her voice will live on. Her mother, her aunt, her grandmother, her daughter, her niece, and her community will carry it and pass it on to the next generation. Her voice will transcend threats, badges, tasers, guns, and prison cells. It will ring out in spaces where it was not allowed to be before, spaces designed to shut it out and to shut her up, spaces where she and it have the right to occupy — like courtrooms, classrooms, boardrooms, pulpits, and yes, even pop music.
*It is a strange argument that Beyoncé serves as evidence of diversity of black women representation when she, more likely than not, is serving as the black women quota thus rounding out a category with diverse representation (a black woman, a black man, a Filipino and white man, and a white man). As a hip-hop artist with enough dexterity to branch into the pop world, Nicki’s desire to be recognized and taken just as seriously as any other pop artist is not unreasonable. If she as a black artist transcending music categories expects to be treated equally is wrongly perceived as whining, then black women’s claim over themselves and their success is a bigger social threat than I first thought.