Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Kendrick Lamar's 'Humble' and the Erasure of Black Women's Bodies and Voices

I wasn't initially planning to write anything about this as the video i'm going to comment on was released 5 whole days ago (which is almost a year in internet time), but as someone who likes to stay up on these blogs, after all the drivel i've read over the last few days, I feel like I need to stick my twopence in, so ludicrously one sided has the debate become. Warning- I don't have anything particularly deep or insightful to say, i'm tryna take it back to basics here as that is something that seems to have been lost, so you can slide on by to the next if you're looking for a juicy think piece lol.

I was made aware of the video for Kendrick Lamar's latest release 'Humble' through a Facebook post I saw that caught my interest, it sparked a lot of interesting conversations in the comments, the kind you could sit and read with a box of popcorn. Watching the video you can't help but get caught up in the simple catchy beat and the super sleek visuals, but the hoo-ha has been caused by one of the very questionable choices made in the visual translation of these lyrics.

The offending line is 'I'm so fucking sick and tired of the photoshop / Show me something natural like afro on Richard Pryor / Show me something natural like ass with some stretch marks'.To accompany the first lyrics we see a model on a split screen. She transforms from filtered and fully made up with slick hair in a bun, wearing a glamorous top and jewellery to >> make-up free with minor blemishes, her lovely long, natural hair out and wearing men's enduring favourite- a plain white tank top. As you can see, she looks beautiful in both.

In the next scene the visual is of the 'ass with some stretch marks' in black underwear. The praise for the latter came in thick and fast, with many celebrating both the lyrics and rare media representation of a woman's stretch marks.

But it's mainly the Richard Pryor line that has divided opinion.
For those of you unfamiliar with him, here is a photo of Richard Pryor with his trademark afro (pretty much the exact same length that my hair is right now weirdly).

It didn't take long for observers to point out that the model was not representative of the lyrics and for some reason Kendrick's cohort, media outlets included, felt the need to go really hard in response to this basic truth in defence of the bizarre choice, deriding those who found it problematic as angry black feminist detractors... Like forreal, we're really doing this again?! It seems like this label gets thrown at Black women any time we disagree with anything, tis getting reallllll old!

On the one hand the word 'feminism' is being banded about in this context as a smear to try and delegitimise a very plain observation that actually has little to do with feminism, simply having eyes is enough to see why the model is the wrong choice for this scene, no feminist lens necessary. On the other hand, feminist praise is being thrown by the sackful by Vogue and other other outlets hailing the embracement of natural beauty and stretch marks as some massive feminist triumph. Woah there, y'all need to calm down, you're doing too much! 

One of the main arguments i've read in the shabby defence of the model's casting is that the lyrics are being taken 'too literally', as if we angry black feminists were all expecting Richard Pryor's lookalike to appear. Bloop. The other angle has been the predictable cries of 'she's just not Black enough for you', a narrative that even the model herself has unfortunately engaged in. 

While I disagree with the original tweeters incorrect assumption about the models hair (that it's a wig, a rather anti-black assumption in itself), her summary of the Richard Pryor lyrics as 'show me that kinky TWA girl' are pretty spot on...

To imply that Black women are being bigoted and bitter because the model 'isn't Black enough' is just another poor attempt to shut down reasonable debate and frame rightly disgruntled people as divisive 'haters' (Bossip has been especially awful for this), which also serves to shift this back to the old faithful light skin vs. Dark skin debate. After a quick look through the model's Instagram I found out that the beauty is Black and Korean. Cool, whatever. But the problem remains- SHE DOESN'T HAVE AN AFRO FOR GOODNESS SAKE... For a line that directly references short afro hair, why on earth would you use a biracial, light skinned model with long loose curls? And why are people being insulted and branded 'mad' for pointing out this glaringly obvious discrepancy? Nah, i'm not mad, i'm just bored to tears of this kind of fuckery. This scene would still have been a mess if they had used a dark skinned woman with long curly hair because the woman featured should have had an afro. That is the crux of the argument. Were there no afro sporting women available to shoot that day? Were they all on vacation? Do we need to put missing signs up yet?- 'Black women with afros, last seen on 29/03/17, the day before Humble was released, please urgently contact Kendrick Lamar if you have any information'... Like am I living in the twilight zone? Unfortunately not, this is just business as usual.

This isn't about holding Kendrick to some higher standard than other rappers, as has been suggested in many of the articles and tweets I've read, (if we did that then, as pointed out by people on social media, the conversation goes much deeper, centring on the use of women's bodies as props and the unnecessary commentary on them by men, as demonstrated in the lyrics of this song). As an artist who uses black women of different shades in his videos, he doesn't just get some woke pass that entitles him to release anything he likes, free from critical engagement. Showcasing some stretch marks is a nice little gesture I suppose, but it's not revolutionary feminism. He shouldn't have praise heaped on him simply for not being as bad as others in his genre.  He wrote lyrics challenging the prevailing beauty standards and then used a moment where he could and should have visually represented that in a powerful way, using a Black model with thick, kinky afro hair like the person he described and instead hypocritically chose to uphold the existing light skin, long looser hair, ambiguous features image that has been championed in hip hop for years and become synonymous with what it means to be a natural hair beauty as a Black woman. 

Put simply, if you're gonna speak about it, be about it! Black people are incredibly diverse, with a huge pool of features, textures and tones and all of these deserve to be spotlighted and celebrated, but it's insincere to act like the erasure of Black women with afro hair and/or dark skin isn't a huge recurring issue that damages our community just because we don't want to criticise our favourite artists. Representation matters. This has been proven time and time again. The playing field isn't equal. Black women shouldn't be shouted down for expressing this or expected to be grateful for the crumbs occasionally thrown at us. For once it would be nice if instead of chucking us under the bus and dismissing our critiques as petty and bitter, people actually really listened and engaged. Perhaps then a mainstream challenge to the anti-Black status quo that set these beauty standards might finally arise! xx

You can watch the video for Humble here

(P.S. Lyrics of the day = 'I get way too petty once you let me do the extras, pull up on your block then break it down- we playing Tetris' Humble, Kendrick Lamar)