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Lupe Fiasco and the Radical Messiness of Black Male Feeling

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I wonder if people – black people especially – really appreciate how beautiful it is to live at a time when black men are allowing themselves to feel so openly, to be emotional in public.

Lupe Fiasco articulates something that black men have been saying for a long time: that black men are dying, killing themselves and each other, that we live in a society where black male life is disposable. And he’s eloquent on the substance of what you see in this clip.

But what is truly remarkable is that he lets himself feel something more than just frustration and anger at the plight of black men. This is a display of profound, deep sadness. It’s love. Pure. Messy.

It takes Lupe Fiasco a minute to find the words. Those precious, awkward moments before he starts to find the words are wonderous, awe-inspiring, and deeply affecting.

And yet, when I watched this I was uncomfortable because I still don’t really know how to respond. This is not my vernacular.┬áMy reference is the 90s’ cold, hard grip on “keepin it real,” even as I never felt fully a part of that. My language is 2pac’s righteous indignation and anger, even it left me in so many ways illiterate.

I struggle with deep emotion. Still.

Artists like Drake, J. Cole, Frank Ocean, Kanye West and others are playing in space that is quite new. And while I think they often confuse narcissism for reflection and miss the mark in communicating what they are genuinely feeling, I appreciate so very much that the range of emotion that black men can feel publicly – and be successful and lauded – is so much broader now than it has been in the past.

Millennials have so many more colors to play with than previous generations allowed themselves. We should celebrate that.

Posted on July 28th, 2012 - Filed under Culture,Music,Self-reflection
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Beyonce the Annoying; or, Why Blond Hair Does Not a Star Make

Beyonce Knowles is the most annoying presence in pop culture. Everything about her is so glaringly artificial that it continually baffles me how people identify with and adore her so much.

But of course, I understand that the gay men love how extra she is. They love her writhing around in the black dress in the video for Me, Myself and I. They love her diva trip at awards shows, big hair and oversinging galore. They love the champagne glass image in Naughty Girl. They love the romance we all aren’t supposed to know about with Jay-Z, ryde or die and all.

And I understand how little girls really believe Bootylicious is about female empowerment. I understand that they love the “deep” songs like Girl, Sweet Sixteen and Gift From Virgo. I get that they love the catty “realness” of Nasty Girl. I get that they identify with Beyonce because she enacts images of female strength.

What I don’t get is how people, critics mostly, seem unwilling to be honest about how calculated and yet how astonishing Beyonce’s growth as a persona and an artist have grown concurrently. As big as Beyonce has gotten, she manages to strive for complexity and honesty in her work, something that other young women in her position (Christina and Britney) only pay lip service to.

At the end of 2003, Beyonce’s stunning debut album, Dangerously in Love, made the list of best albums of the year by Rolling Stone and they said that (essentially) the album was only good for the singles. This bothered me tremendously. Dangerously in Love worked because it made Beyonce into a three-dimensional woman with fears, hopes and real strength. The meat of the album lies between Hip-Hop Star and Speechless (a song so brilliant, so subtle, and so emotionally potent, I can’t believe no one has discussed it). With each song in this little suite, Beyonce depicts with clarity and believability her own feelings from her drive (Hip-Hop Star) to her willingness to wait (Yes) to her unbridled passion (Speechless). Yet, again and again the diva trips of Crazy in Love, Naughty Girl, etc got all the attention.

Beyonce as the Jezebel in the increasingly smaller and smaller clothes is far more interesting to the power structure. Her growth as a songwriter and a person is not. This is readily apparent in the critical pass the new Destiny’s Child album, Destiny Fulfilled, continues to receive. The album is maudlin, plodding and rushed. The arrangements are boring, featuring Beyonce’s voice prominently, even though this is supposed to be a group. It marginalizes Michelle and, interestingly, sets up a fascinating tension between Kelly Rowland’s more emotive singing style and Beyonce’s bombast.

The deficiencies of the album are ignored because what the public, what the power structure loves is in full effect on the singles, Lose My Breath and Soldier–the diva trip. The stilettos, the struts, the homothugs as window dressing. And right in the center is Beyonce, blond hair a-flying and completely oblivious to her surroundings. This is the Beyonce that the public and critics love. She is completely focused on the camera, her vapid persona in full effect. She muggs for the camera even if the focus is on Kelly or Michelle (as short a time as that is).

Everything about this Beyonce is designed specifically to court the mainstream consumer who is socialized to see black women always and only as sexual objects (esp. if they are light-skinned and have some Caucasian features). She’s the lightest of the girls, she’s blonde, and she rattles off the meaningless sound bytes in interview like the pro she is. She’s a tailor-made star and it all just seems too obvious to me.

White folks love her body, it’s thin but still “black” (read=big booty). They like that she wants to be blonde. She’s exotic! But not “too” much. Right?

It’s offensive.

Her being singled out was ordained by Daddy Matthew because he was shrewd enough to know that although Kelly has the more versatile voice she wouldn’t draw the attention and awe that Beyonce would with her lighter complexion. He understands the color-struck black bourgeous. He understands the white racist patriarchy as well. He understood, even when the girls were adolescents, that the children of rich blacks and whites would be drawn to Beyonce because she was lighter. So he made it easier. He bleached her hair. He put her in front. He let her write songs.

What probably surprised Daddy Matthew was that his baby girl turned out to be a gifted songwriter and arranger. He’ll probably kill anyone who would insinuate that he didn’t know what he had in Beyonce as a full-bodied artist, but it’s probably true.

Her arranging of the vocals on the Survivor album is among some of the best in recent memory. The songs themselves are complete drivel, but to hear how gorgeous she, Kelly and Michelle sound on Sexy Daddy, Apple Pie La Mode and most notably on their gorgeous cover of Emotions is to hear what is great about vocal groups. To hear how effectively she explores love and identity on Dangerously in Love is to see a nascent talent beginning to bloom. And to hear just how much she respects the voices of her groupmates on If and Through With Love (which is clearly the best original song DC3 ever recorded) from Destiny Fulfilled is exquisite, but ultimately is a mixed blessing. The songs are brilliant, but it only makes listening to the rest of the album with its messy arrangements and maudlin lyricism (Cater 2 You anybody?) a disappointment.

People talk and joke about and hate on Beyonce because she is driven and clearly meant to be the star. But does anyone wonder if Beyonce knows any other way of being? It’s hard to not feel entitled when everyone tells you–and has told you all your life–that you are entitled. It’s hard to imagine that Beyonce is truly aware of just how much she dominates Destiny’s Child. To her, giving Michelle all the bridges to sing probably seems really fair. And there is no one around her to tell her that it really isn’t.

I think what is sad about stars like Beyonce is that they are groomed to be a certain way for public consumption and the public knows this and the star is then trapped in a limiting image. Yet the public embarks on this love/hate relationship with that star precisely because of this image. People hate Beyonce for dominating the group, but they love her diva affectation. People hate Beyonce because she’s light skinned, but they don’t seem to love Kelly and Michelle anymore for their gorgeous chocolate complexions; they all run out to get blonde weaves.

I don’t hate Beyonce. But her persona does irk me. Me, Myself and I is a wonderful song about learning to find oneself and not look for completion in a man. But in the video Beyonce is writhing around on the floor in a tight black dress, looking stunning. What the hell does that have to do with the song? Nothing. But the “diva-ness” of the video is what people respond to, thus overshadowing and marginalizing what made that song one of the strongest on her debut.

This is irritating.

Beyonce will compromize, it seems, the integrity of her work to maintain her status as the pop princess. Me Myself and I was the third single and it was released about eight months after the album had been out. She needed to maintain momentum, the complexity of the song was not important. But she could pay lip service to it in interview, even though visually the song’s themes were not evoked in the video.

Again and again, Beyonce is made to, or decides to, oversimplify her music, oversex her image, and oversing her songs to maintain her status. We love the drama. White folks love their lil black Barbie doll.

But it would be nice if once or twice, Beyonce the truly gifted artist would emerge and show us that a black woman of integrity can be on top. That a black woman that is more than her very nice light skinned body can dominate the industry.

That a black woman with a voice actually uses it.

Originally written on March 12, 2005

Posted on September 28th, 2005 - Filed under Music
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