You might've already seen the video for Lupe Fiasco's single "Bitch Bad," since it's been out for about a week now (if you haven't yet, take a look below). That's enough time for the video to get over half a million views and counting on Youtube, and for plenty of viewers to chime in on a complex conversation about the kind of message Lupe's sending. It seems that the question comes down to this: should the artist be hailed as some kind of hero for speaking up against hip-hop culture's tradition of disrespecting women? Or is he out of line in his approach, actually demeaning women
as he claims to honor them? Full disclosure: I enter this conversation as a longtime fan of Lupe Fiasco's
work, particularly because of the way he challenges the status quo, breaking away from the misogynistic attitudes found in so many mainstream hip-hop songs.
But I'm also not one to give somebody a pass simply because they have good intentions. Addressing misogyny is a complicated matter, and it's possible for Lupe to make mistakes. It can be hard to discuss the issue in hip-hop without falling to one extreme or the other – how can we criticize the objectification of women's bodies without contributing to ideas based in shame around black women's sexuality? Is it possible to have this conversation while thinking outside of the virgin/whore dichotomy?Some argue that with "Bitch Bad," a song that sets up a hierarchy of women (
“bitch bad/woman good/lady better"), Lupe speaks against misogyny from the wrong angle, by slut-shaming, and by honoring only a certain type of woman – the chaste, mother-figure type. I'm following my usual habit of seeing this conversation as more complex than just one conclusion or the other. Sure, Lupe's video misses a few parts of the complicated issue. But he also does a few things right
, starting with the fact that he's willing to create this concept and contribute to a conversation about the issue in the first place. I agree with Akiba Solomon
and Rahiel Tesfamariam
on this one (and I link to their articles because I believe they've said it all already, and better than I can say it myself). It's not enough to have good intentions alone, but it's a good start, better than starting from a place of maintaining the problematic status quo. Here's the video, so you can take a look and decide for yourself where the message lands. What do you think?
Sometimes, you just need to pause and take in some art that's good for your soul. That's what I needed this morning, so I'm passing it on. Here's award-winning poet Iyoeka Okoawo using music, song, storytelling and spoken word to bring a message of hope.
We joke about it sometimes – writing as a mental affliction. Experiencing life from a different viewpoint than non-writers would. Three writers witness something horrific – The poet sees only a new metaphor. The fiction writer gets an idea for a story. The non-fiction writer thinks, Hey, this’ll be great for my memoir.
From an early age I took on the role of the observer, which became the role of the writer. Sometimes, I think it’s helped me survive, building my creative capacity to hold traumatic events as poems and stories, rather than crumbling beneath the frightening truth that those moments are part of my reality. It can also be a way to learn from life, always seeking to express how even the most dreadful or mundane or bizarre experiences can teach us something that we can share with others.
And sometimes, I think being a writer just means I’m crazy. Take now, for instance. At the moment, both of my grandmothers are in hospital beds, fighting for their lives. I can’t do anything about it, except sit around and wait for updates. Maybe I should be crying or talking about it or something, but all I can do is write.
It sort of feels like I’m writing to avoid facing my fear of losing these two woman warriors in my life. But I have a feeling the reality will catch up to me eventually. For now, I write. It’s my own crazy way of telling myself I can get through this and remain whole.
This is a strange edition of Friday Friends. Usually, I use these posts to highlight a blog I like, or a literary hero of mine, or an organization doing important work. Today's Friday Friend is Nina Simone - not a particular interpretation or recreation of Nina Simone's work, but Nina Simone herself. Because some stories just need to speak for themselves. As a singer, songwriter, pianist, and civil rights activist,
Nina Simone made an unforgettable impact on the world. Personally, I have her to thank for helping me feel permission to love me for me. Her incredible sense of self-respect was nothing less than a fiercely radical act of courage, when she faced racism that said she wasn't good enough, and colorism that would call her anything but beautiful. Like me, Nina Simone looked in the mirror to see dark skin and big features, so like me, she had to see past the messages that attach the word "ugly"
to such features. Hers is a story that can teach us about true beauty, the kind that emanates from a spirit of self-love.
Now, Nina Simone's life is being adapted into a story as told by Hollywood, the source of so many of our messages about beauty. In Hollywood, beauty means lighter skin and smaller features, so in order for our Nina to be a Hollywood hero, she will be played by Zoe Saldana. She will be a romantic lead, because no leading lady is complete without the company of a leading man - never mind that the man in this story, her assistant Clifford Henderson, was, in fact, gay. And she will give us hope, with an altered happy ending - isn't it inspiring to know that every dark-skinned woman could someday be immortalized onscreen as a light-skinned woman? Perhaps there's hope for beauty after all.
Don't get me wrong - I do think Zoe Saldana is a beautiful woman, and for all I know, she could pull off the role very well, as far as the acting goes. And I'm not one to try to challenge someone's Black Card - her more mainstream features don't make her any less black than Nina Simone. So why does it matter if her skin is the right shade for the role? Because, unfortunately, choosing someone whose experience of blackness is so far from the challenges Nina faced follows a predictable Hollywood pattern
reinforcing hurtful messages about what it means to be beautiful. It's very rare to see this happen in reverse - a dark-skinned actress picked to portray someone who was much lighter. Instead, those who don't fit Hollywood standards of beauty must be replaced. And why? Will audiences relate more to someone who is thinner and more conventionally gorgeous
than the average woman? Will we learn not to let history repeat itself, to avoid underestimating the power of a dark-skinned woman, when we see her depicted as a light-skinned woman? Nina Simone's daughter has spoken up about the movie plans, sharing that the project is unauthorized, and giving clarification about her mother's platonic relationship with the film's "romantic" lead.
She also speaks about her mother's unseen beauty, her intelligence, and her revolutionary spirit. All of which could have an indelible impact if it were captured on the big screen. So I prefer to leave Nina's story as told by Nina, through her music, her soul, and her vision for justice. We don't need to rewrite lives, alter people's appearance and sexualities
, and ignore their truths in order to tell their stories. Nina Simone had no shame in who she was. We can respect her enough to know that she doesn't need to live up to Hollywood standards to be beautiful. I've posted this video a couple of times before, but it's always worth re-posting. Here's Nina Simone singing the words of William Waring Cuney's poem "No Images."
Friends, I've made it - made it to a Youtube video
that comes with an "explicit language" warning. It's a dream I never knew I had. I couldn't have done it without you. You can watch the video below. It's one of the poems I read for last month's Lit Slam. And I'm mostly kidding about the "explicit language" thing -
I'm proud of that night's reading for many more reasons than that. If you haven't already, check out what I wrote about it: "What I learned from my first lit slam."My next reading is coming up tomorrow night in Berkeley. I'll be helping Lyrics & Dirges celebrate their second anniversary by sharing some poems, along with
Justin Chin, Javier O. Huerta, Tim Kahl, and one of my favorite local literary heroes, Nic Alea. Lyrics & Dirges is a reading series that aims to "spotlight the diverse literary community" of the Bay Area, so as always, this is a dynamic line-up of readers, and I'm really looking forward to being part of it. The show is hosted by Sharon Coleman, and it takes place at Pegasus Books in downtown Berkeley, at 7:30 pm. Wheelchair accessible, refreshments served. Visit the website for more details. Advertisement over. Now, I sell myself in video form:
Today at CUAV's Wellness Wednesday, we're reading Lucille Clifton's poem "won't you celebrate with me" and writing our own poems of resistance. I think of this poem as one of survival and self-love. Actually, I think of it as a sort of prayer. It lifts up the sacred, precious quality of shaping your own life through struggle.
What kind of life have you shaped for yourself? How will you celebrate?
Here's the poem, with video of Lucille Clifton reading it below.
won't you celebrate with me
won't you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
I've just spent a few days in Richmond, Virginia for the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs
(NCAVP) Roundtable. It was quite a trip, and I'm just beginning to get my bearings back.
I've been on staff with Community United Against Violence (CUAV) for a little over six months now, and this job has taken me on many adventures so far. In my work, I'm an advocate for LGBTQ survivors of violence, a support group leader, an organizer for under-resourced communities - in other words, as I like to put it, I'm pretending to be a grown-up. And the rest of the time, I'm a real-life mess of a human being, just trying to keep my shit together. In other words, I'm a poet.
I really appreciate that in my work I can show up as my whole self. The NCAVP Roundtable is a meeting of folks from anti-violence programs working to prevent, respond to and end all forms of violence against and within lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and HIV-affected (LGBTQH) communities around the country.
So we're all kinds of people - lawyers, therapists, educators and more. And on one hand, we showed up at the roundtable to get down to the business of our work. On the other hand, our work is made up of stuff that's hard, and messy, and not always easy to fit into business-model workplans and agendas. Many of us are involved in this work as survivors ourselves, or as folks whose friends and family have experienced violence, so there's a part of this work that's deeply troubling and emotional.
We also understand that this work is absolutely vital. The NCAVP compiles data about violence against LGBTQH people. Alone, each individual story matters - these are stories of real people suffering pain and loss, of hate and violence robbing our people of parts of their hope, their humanity, and in some cases, of their lives. Together, these stories show strength in numbers. Through the NCAVP reports, we can see trends, like the recent rise in reported anti-LGBT murders
, and the disproportionate rates at which transgender people and people of color
fall victim to these crimes. So we can understand that each individual incident is part of a bigger picture, one that shows a need to care for one another and create better conditions in which to survive.
You can visit the NCAVP website
for the data and other resources, on everything from supporting LGBT survivors to S&M vs abuse.
At the Roundtable, we talked business - numbers, data, workplans. But we also talked about the stories behind these numbers, and about how we feel about those stories, and about how we plan to make change for those who deserve better.
With hate crimes on my mind, I can't help but see a connection to the recent shooting at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Seven people were killed, and more were injured. Rep. Joseph Crowley has been calling for the FBI to count hate crimes against Sikhs
, and I have to believe that he might be right. As much as we can pretend that this was the act of a lone, crazed gunman, the truth is that there is a horrible history of hate crimes against Sikhs
in the U.S. And letting this shooting stand alone, treating it as an anomaly, really doesn't do anything to help prevent the next hate crime.
Sometimes, data is more than just numbers. Sometimes, the numbers help us gather our stories, and speak up to resist hate.
In London, the 2012 Olympic Games are under way. The world's top athletes are pushing their bodies to prove they are the best in the world at what they do.
And elsewhere, another kind of Olympics take place - the Oppression Olympics
. You may already be a player in these games, but did you know you can be a judge, too? It's easy. You just have to look at oppressed people and decide who's got it worse - Latinos or Blacks? Queer folks or people with disabilities? The winner gets the special prize of declaring that they suffer more than anyone else in the world. It's kind of like a gold medal, I guess, only there are more tears involved.
I'm just kidding, of course. I don't actually want to play this game. I hate this game. First, I'd want to know how we'd even
begin to count our suffering for the sake of comparison. Quick - measure the amount of blood spilled, multiply that by the volume of tears shed, add the tension in your body, then divide the whole thing by zero - Bam! You got yourself a suffering quotient...?
Also, competing over oppression misses the point
of our justice movements, to say the least. It's one of the easiest ways to drive wedges between groups
that have the potential to build collective power against the systems that hurt us all. And it also disregards intersectionality
, the fact that not everyone can easily identify with just one group or another. Clearly, intersectionality means that some will bear more wounds than others from the various forms of oppression, but we can acknowledge that without diminishing any of our experiences.
I admit that at times I'm tempted to compete in the Oppression Olympics myself, when someone tries to dismiss my struggles or claim that they hold a higher position on the great podium of pain. But the truth is, I may not ever truly understand what it's like to walk in another person's shoes, just like nobody else will ever really know what it's like to be me.
So maybe the goal isn't to compete with one another, but to recognize that many people are wounded, and we all deserve to be liberated from our pain. I can hold the truth of my own suffering, while building a bridge to yours. And the arts can be a way of lifting up the shared human experience of suffering in all of our stories.
Here's how I see it: if you're not yet ready to move forward, and you prefer to remain stagnant in your suffering, then sure, try believing that you've got it worse than anyone else and that nobody would understand. But if you're looking to create change, try stepping onto the common ground in the lands of grief, struggle and pain. I'll meet you there. Then maybe we can build something together.