‘This shit is for us.’
When I was asked to write a piece about how black women have (pretty much) saved music in 2016, Solange’s standout lyric, from F.U.B.U from her recently released A Seat At The Table immediately sprung to mind. We’re going through a renaissance of sorts; black narratives are becoming mainstream and — with thanks to a few amazing singers, poets, rappers and producers — music has been one of the vessels to carry this message to the masses. Blackness has become celebrated, proudly proclaimed and the struggles associated, put to song — we’re all ready to have a seat at the table – shit – we’re gonna take a seat, whether you like it or not.
Thing is, that’s not to say black women have never sung of struggles or black issues before 2016. From Billie Holiday first recordings of Strange Fruit in the late 30s, to Nina Simone’s To Be Young Gifted And Black, Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and India Ire singing I Am Not My Hair —are all cases of black women musicians forcing listeners to celebrate blackness and putting issues into the public ears.
Queen Bey’s aim with Lemonade was clear: to create a rallying cry to black women to feel liberated.
But 2016 has been a little different. The conflicting cocktail of police brutality in America, Black Lives Matter movements across the globe, as well as social waves empowering black women (yes, I’m talking about #BlackGirlMagic) are thrown together in this melting pot of a universal black narrative that holds global resonance. And at a time where it looks like music has lost all meaning – bar lyrics of infidelity, sex (and drugs) in abundance, wild nights and break-ups (don’t get it twisted, we still love that) – black women musicians rise from the ashes, with renewed youth, axiomatic in their mission.
Let’s start with one of the world biggest superstars, Beyoncé. Released in April, Queen Bey’s aim with Lemonade was clear: to create a rallying cry to black women to feel liberated. The title alone was more than just a clichéd symbol of life and lemons; it was about changing the narrative about what you should do when life gives you lemons.
Including Malcom X’s 1962 speech where he proclaimed ‘the most disrespected person in America is the Black woman’, these words, spoken in the 60s, still find significance in today’s cultural climate. It’s too damn present. What made one of the lead singles from Lemonade even more provocative was that it didn’t speak to everyone; it spoke to black women and directly.
Beyoncé was unabashed in her praise of her ‘negro nose and Jackson Five nostrils’ and her ‘baby heir with baby hair and afros’. The audio and visual experience of Lemonade made it clear who this album was dedicated to: she’s thinking of her mother and her sister, but also black mothers, sisters, cousins and friends worldwide.
Critics like Piers Morgan were quick to announce that they miss the old Beyoncé and that her new fire means she ‘wants to be seen as a black woman political activist first and foremost, entertainer and musician second’ but they are unable to see that women performers are able to blend creative work and political and social interests. With Lemonade, Beyoncé did exactly what she intended; she caused all this conversation, and whether the critics liked it or not – the black female narrative was made public. Yas, Queen Bey.
Alright, let’s be fair, it’s not just Beyoncé who’s saving music from the morass of superficial content. In the UK, there are singers like Nao, who is the definition of carefree. With her elusive visual persona, her music gets you into your feels. Featuring ethereal, wispy vocals on top of eccentric, borderline dance production, Nao is doing what she likes, and we like it too.
Flipping the traditional all-male crew video format, Ray and her all black girl squad, reside in hair shops throwing all types of attitude equal to their male counterparts.
Then there’s the South London songstress Ray BLK, the London girl speaking to other London girls. Her velvet vocals sing of tales deeply personal to the late teen, twenty-something UK lady. Her debut video 50/50, dropped at the very end of 2015, and stands as one of the most powerful visual displays from a UK singer.
Evoking all that goodness echoing the 90s R’n’B greats, Ray created an anthem – and video – by a South London woman, for South London women. Flipping the traditional all-male crew video format, Ray and her all black girl squad, reside in hair shops throwing all types of attitude equal to their male counterparts. Back in January when I interviewed Ray BLK she explained some of the influence behind the video.
‘Growing up as a black girl, and wanting to be a singer you rarely saw anyone like yourself. I would put on the TV and watched MTV Base, and if I did see a black girl, she always was light skinned… I never saw dark skinned girls on TV or women with natural hair – I didn’t see that anywhere’.
It’s not just the singers who are owning music and pushing out our narratives. Chicago’s Noname, a spoken-word poet has an insanely smooth shea-butter-like flow, drenched in personal, social and political references. Her sweet dulcet tone is almost juxtaposed by some of the context she speaks of. Sonically, Noname takes it to church, evoking elements of gospel, delicate piano riffs, xylophones, and gentle wind instruments that channel a sense of hope, birthed from a place of despair.
In Freedom Interlude where she samples a Nina Simone interview with Peter Rodis, about what freedom means to her, she oozes all types of nostalgia and longing to be carefree. With an insight into her mind and consciousness, Noname says: ‘What a pretty lady in the valley of the shadows, I’m thinking she lost a battle, I’m thinking she found the bottle’ then adds a glimmer of hope with, ‘I know this is a song for overcoming’ – conjuring images of buoyant black freedom in abundance.
These women are not just singing for themselves and their peers; they’re placing the stories of their mothers, grandmothers on centre stage.
Similarly, fellow Chicagoan Jamila Woods’ album HEAVN discusses black pain and more importantly black female pain. Cast down from generation to generation, these women are not just singing for themselves and their peers; they’re placing the stories of their mothers, grandmothers on centre stage – with the hope that it changes for their daughters.
Still not convinced yet that black women are saving music this year? Well, the latest saviour Solange should put to end your doubts. Arriving like a thief in the night, A Seat At The Table was an unexpected and welcome addition to the narrative. Yes, essentially it is a pro-black, self-love and angry album, but it’s done in a way where you forget that.
Themes of empowerment, freedom, joy , prejudice and sisterhood are universal stories.
We all crash into glass ceilings and now we’re demanding a seat at the table. And, sometimes what’s needed is hearing your feelings articulated by someone else – that’s something the coconut oil won’t be able to heal. Cranes in the Sky, vocalised so many battles – romantic, self-love and depression to a point where I began to question whether Solange had entered my head and stole my thoughts for the song.
But it’s not just the personal; the message spans historically, the stains of colonialism and segregation, not exclusively within America, but echoed across the world, are vocalised. To the matter of fact, shade throwing, unwritten rule, Don’t Touch My Hair (just don’t yo), we all thought, experienced and felt it and Solange, well, she sung it.
While the women shaping music are predominately based in North America and Europe, their message is probably more skewed to women of the African and Caribbean diaspora, but that’s not to say the musical messages don’t have global relevance. The messages and experience of black Americans – although not the same – is not dissimilar to that of women in and around Africa.
Themes of empowerment, freedom, joy , prejudice and sisterhood are universal stories, feelings and experiences that have been felt worldwide. From the bare-chested female protests in South Africa, to the Nigerian women marching for the release of school girls against Boko Haram – while the lived experiences may be different, the messages still translate. For years, a brewing, delicate anger was felt, and now it’s being channelled into music. Those perfectly formed harmonies, melodies are historically and socially expressed in music and that’s the moisture we, as women of colour, need – and long may it continue.
This is part of a guest editorship series by Vanessa Babirye and Michelle Tiwo from Ackee and Saltfish. They’ve produced a series of pieces for TRUE Africa which show how they see the world and the African part of them. More here.