Words by: Abdul-Jabbar Obiagwu
There might never be a more pivotal time to write an article celebrating black women and their contributions to popular culture. The current socio-political climate is a searing indictment of the racial prejudices that are carried around by people we share the same spaces with. People who we do not necessarily expect to be allies but also not aggressors. Black women are the most endangered member of the human race. As much as they have protected and contributed to the state of culture today.
It may not be widely acknowledged, but even rock and roll originated from the mind and fingers of a black woman, Sister Rosetta Tharpe in 1930s racist, segregated America. Marian Anderson ended the segregation of the New York Metropolitan Opera by becoming the first African American to perform with them in 1955. These are only a few instances where a black woman has been responsible for shifting the focus from what already existed to what it could be. Without Rosetta Tharpe there would never have been a Little Richard. The snowball effect of that presents us with a completely different sonic landscape than what we know today.
In more recent history the story isn’t significantly better. Black women still do not receive their dues across all boards, or all genres. In fact, the general conception is unless you fit into one of the industry propagated archetypes you probably will not get the same recognition or respect as your peers who toe the line will.
Depending on the path an artist chooses to tread, the industry has predetermined ways of going about it. From the media training young artists receive to the images they are allowed to depict which are rarely ever a true reflection of the person they are on the inside. These microwaved personas are usually not very relatable to fans as they probably were 15 years ago. These days that hyper-transparency that artists are willing to express plays a role that no media budget can replicate.
The internet has played a huge role in making this the new normal as fans have access to their idols on an unprecedented scale. We went through a pandemic and artists were worried about their earning power and popularity waning. Doubts were quelled quickly about the latter, records were being broken for social media engagement and influencer earnings became the new regular with artists reportedly making up to 7,000 to 15,000 dollars per post. The artist has figured out new ways to connect to their audience and remain profitable.
The internet also plays a huge part in fans witnessing real time rises of new acts in a way that has never been seen before. Take Megan thee Stallion. From her first mixtape to her first number one single alongside fellow Texas native and pop superstar demi-goddess, Beyonce, her fans were along for every bit of the ride. They were more involved in her formative process than is normally expected, but that was a large part of her appeal. The internet was an equalizer that allowed her level up much quicker than traditional female hip-hip acts do in the industry.
Vulnerability is centre stage for many of these women, but that need not create a dichotomy that prevents them from being guarded about their emotions and how they choose to share those emotions. Artists like Summer Walker and SZA are very clear examples of how that concise and intimate songwriting can appeal to a large audience while appearing as authentic as you truly are. The 24-year-old R&B phenome from Atlanta whose debut album ended up earning the biggest ever streaming debut for a female R&B artist (and a Soul Train Award) has shown that you don’t need to be representative of the usual clichés to be pop. SZA whose 2018 album Ctrl (widely considered her opus) catches her baring her feelings and raising a mirror to reflect as clearly as possible on the state of her soul.
This brutal honesty and ultra-clear expressionism has allowed black women transcend the barriers created by the gatekeepers and close-minded consumers that have dictated the troughs and peaks of one too many careers in the past. Women like Nivea were forced to acclimatize due to label apprehensions, which eventually led to her leaving her first deal to focus on raising her kids. She was constantly critiqued during her ascent for her bold image, even though her white peers could pull off the same looks and be praised.
Colorism/racism are rampant too, even in supposedly safe spaces for black artists. With the added layer of gender, the stakes are raised even higher. This creates a system that sets untenable standards for these black pop stars, standards that their counterparts from other races and creeds will never be forced to meet before being considered great enough.
The perceived vulgarity and raunchiness of a good number of black female new age artists has been attributed to the realization of their own autonomy. This holds some truth to it but it also obscures some other issues. The lack of intersectionality in pop music is also another reason why certain types of artists do not receive as much prominence as their peers. This boils down to the same autonomy that has allowed some female artists to secure strong fan-bases not being respected the same way because these women may not be considered conventionally attractive as opposed to their more scantily clad counterparts. Noname and Jamila Woods are examples of black women who make soulful (sometimes considered conscious) music that don’t attempt to be pop acts because they are explicitly anti-establishment. Establishment meaning the music business as far as it allows women to be true to themselves.
One of the perks of being an artist in the digital age has to be the ability to operate untethered. Without the need for official representation, distribution or big budget marketing, an artist can still make a potentially number one record from the confines of their bedroom. For women who want to achieve the same feats that pop stars with all of these advantages have achieved without giving up their creative control, they now live in a world where they can.
Black women have and always will be pioneers in popular culture. We just wish they would be respected and appreciated more, regardless of what they do, look like, wear or say.