permission to be “terrifying/ and strange/ and beautiful”

*An updated note (May 2, 2016) is offset with an asterisk below.

Late Saturday night (April 23, 2016) I noticed that Twitter was buzzing. So what did I do?  I tuned in, sipped the tea, and read Lemonade.  My moderate awareness of the gossip-columns provided me with insight into Beyoncé’s world of extraordinary professional and economic success that juxtaposes her very ordinary domestic and personal struggles that are fueled by the men closest to her heart: her father and her husband.  But, by the end of the hour long experience the in-between spaces of Lemonade, those border spaces between songs, were the most captivating for me. Warsan-Shire

It was not surprising to realize later that those in-between spaces were filled by the poetry of a border woman herself, Warsan Shire (a Kenyan by birth, Somali by parentage, and Londoner by address).  Her words became the thread that laced the project together.  Shire’s intensely introspective and powerfully vulnerable poems function as interludes during Lemonade, giving the film a necessary and critical framework.  What I appreciate is how Shire also gives Lemonade viewers/listeners new levels of familiarity.  You know, new – as in not old – and familiarity – as in a return to a known experience. Shire, does this. Not Beyoncé. Don’t you agree? We are all familiar with the Beyoncé formula: secret work, surprise release, slay, slay, slay.  She did it for Beyoncé in 2013 when that visual and auditory project was exclusively released through iTunes.  And she did it again with this tall glass of Lemonade, giving exclusivity to HBO on Saturday night, then Tidal, and the roll out will continue. Without Shire’s new poetry and without the new visual aids, the amalgamation of lyrics on Lemonade for me fall a bit flat or, at best, are just too familiar.  Consider this: if we listen to the lyrics exclusively, Saturday’s Lemonade experience rang with much of the old familiarity of, say “Ring the Alarm” from 2006.   

Alas, as we all continue to sip and read, let us also ring the alarm. Beyoncé has brought Warsan Shire’s poetry to the masses. For that, I am grateful.  And let us ring the alarm again because Beyoncé has brought a long list of black artists back into popular discussion.  The familiar melody of Isaac Hayes’ “Walk on by” is present on “6 Inch;”  and the familiar female power of Afro-Caribbean santería is channeled in the gold Cavalli dress, the down-beat rhythm, and Jamaican-inflected chat of “Hold Up.” The familiar cycle of self-loathing that little black girls who are wounded by their fathers grow up to relive in their adult relationships is named, owned, and seemingly forgiven. The familiar oppression of patriarchy in a masculine society is interrogated.  And the familiar need for sorority and the comfort of black girl sisterhood is suggested. These are just some of the recognizable moments that listeners/ viewers find familiar when experiencing Lemonade.  But there are still more experiences of the familiar.  beyonce-lemonadeSo I thank Warsan Shire for re-familiarizing audiences with poets like Audre Lorde, Grace Nichols, Ntozake Shange, and Nikki Giovanni;  writers like Gwendolyn Brooks and Jamaica Kincaid; and various genres of song bird story-tellers like like Mary J. Blige, Jill Scott, and Tina Turner.

*Stylistically, the Lemonade visual album also, tangentially, calls forth for me Stephanie Black’s seminal documentary on the neo-colonial system that has limited Jamaica’s economic growth since the 1970s,  Life and Debt (2001).  While Black’s project would have been generously informative and engaging without it, it was enhanced by the familiar words of Antiguan author Jamaica Kincaid and her essay A Small Place.  Kincaid’s own voice and own words from her 1988 book narrate the opening scenes of the documentary and immediately set the tone of the film.  The movie’s visuals are confounded by the words, and confounded even more so because the words are familiar.

It is an indisputable fact that black women in the postcolonial world had and continue to have an intimate relationship with pain.  More than 150 years ago, black woman abolitionist Sojourner Truth asked “ain’t I a woman?”  The answer Lemonade seems to give is: if pain is proof, then yes, we are women, through and through.  Much of the writings, tweeting, and FB posts using the hashtag Lemonade speaks to the ways in which Beyoncé’s latest work has granted fellow black women permission to own their pain. Will Lemonade be for Beyoncé what Purple Rain was for the dearly departed Prince?  Time will tell, I suppose, as it is only now that we are hearing the stories of how Prince permitted self-proclaimed “black weirdos” to exist freely. For now, it seems that Lemonade is being credited with liberating black women to know that they have the God-given and not husband-/ father-/ brother-/ man-given right to be and feel “terrifying/ and strange/ and beautiful,” to use Shire’s ventriloquized words (see the video for “For Women Who Are Difficult to Love“).

Celebrities continue to drift into the role of patron saints of identity; but, won’t it be a beautiful day when all black women realize organically/ innately/ intuitively that being themselves and loving themselves and being loved in return is their birthright? I think it would.

we say no, but do our bodies say yes? lighterAs lovers of conscious reggae music we respond to the rhythm with our bodies.”
These are the words I wrote in my sx salon article to describe the way listeners show bodily agreement when experiencing the “layered messages” of a roots reggae band like Burning Spear.  With classic big chunes (tunes) like “Columbus,” Burning Spear’s lyrics speak to ancestral Africa, colonial abuse, and cultural upliftment.  From the horns to the bold lyrical content, yes, yes, and YES, Spear, “Christopher Columbus was a damn blasted liard”!

But, by this token, what ideas and beliefs might we be agreeing with when we nod along, two-step, flash a lighter, wave a rag, lick a shot, buss a wine, or wuk up to a classic big chune like this one heard here: Now before you think it, NO, I am not calling for a moratorium on another Jamaican dancehall anthem (read this Independent article or this Guardian article on how LGBTQ human rights have continued to be threatened by songs like “Boom Bye Bye” and “Chi Chi Man”). Carolyn Cooper, professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, has published widely on the why-it-is and why-it-is-not of Jamaican homophobia in music.  Similarly, Sonjah Stanley Niaah, cultural studies professor at the UWI, Mona Campus, also regularly critiques how we understand misogyny and body politics in Jamaican dancehall and reggae music. Taking a cue from them both at the always dangerous time that surrounds public discussions of women’s reproductive rights I urge all of us to be more active listeners. We must question the sounds that we hear.

“Murder She Wrote” hit Jamaica’s sound system speakers in 1992, about 25 years ago, but Chaka Demus and Pliers continue to peel club going wallflowers from their posts with what is arguably a staunchly conservative, anti-abortion, pro-life rhetoric that playfully rides over the pulsing bass line of Sly and Robbie’s production. Place and time, also known as the contemporary context, has greatly altered my hearing of the song.

[Chaka Demus DJs/chats] Yuh face is pretty, but your character dirty.
Gyal you just a act too flirty-flirty.
You run to Tom, Dick,
An’ also Harry.
An’ when you find yuh mistake
You talk ’bout yuh sorry,
Sorry, sorry…

[Pliers sings] Now every middle of di year dis girl have abortion,
Fi di coolie, di white man, and di Indian.
An jus’ di other day me see her 6 months pregnant

And now she pop a street wit’ not a baby inna pram…”

Calling into question a woman’s character as “dirty” and commenting on a woman’s sexual choices as “flirty-flirty” behavior is not veiled language, it’s damning. Suggesting that “Maxine”, the main character in this lyrical tale of shame, has annual abortions to correct her “mistakes” is wholly dismissive. It dismisses all circumstances — from socioeconomic to possible sexual violence — surrounding her pregnancies.  And to suggest that Maxine is not a fit partner or, as Chaka Demus says, “gyal yuh no ready if you cyaa cook fi me,” [girl you’re not ready if you cannot cook for me] further emphasizes patriarchal, masculine discourse that both damns and domesticates women.

Still, “‘Murder She Wrote’ is a must. Dem still a play it hard a club all over the world. When yu go inna de Yankee club, the white people club, dem still play it,” Pliers told poet-writer-journalist Mel Cooke in this 2007 Jamaica Gleaner article. And Pliers is right. The song is still a hit.  But, importantly, Cooke’s article notably reminds local and international consumers of dancehall that in Jamaica abortion is tantamount to murder.  Murder is what a woman commits every time she has an abortion. Dance to that damnation.

As this nation attempts to strip women of their reproductive rights on a state by state basis, it is no longer possible for me to hear this song as I once did.  The political climate of my diaspora-home in the United States has tuned my ears anew. Now I hear “Murder She Wrote” and simultaneously I hear Donald Trump’s recent statements that women need to be “punished” for having abortions, but men do not (see here.)   I now hear Chaka Demus in stereo with Governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker.  I hear Pliers and I hear Mike Pence, the governor of Indiana and Ted Cruz, a presidential candidate representing the GOP party and, presumably, millions of Americans who share his views on women.

As liberated women we say no to legislation that seeks to govern our reproductive rights; but, as we dance intently to lyrics that deny and sometimes demoralize us, it would be seemingly easy for a passerby to think that our bodies are saying yes.

This post is not to conflate Jamaica with the States. And it is not meant to conflate the DJ with the politician.  I happen to be a Jamaican in the States so this post is meant to raise awareness of the details that have always surrounded us and can influence or attack us.  In the end, I say dance on my fellow feminists and I will dance too.  But always remember — once you are woke, you stay woke.

weddings (and divorce)

I decided to write this blog as a way of owning my selfishness.

With the dawning of spring comes the season of commitment.  And with my sister’s wedding less than 48 hours from now, wedding season has provoked in me both fear and great joy.  Great joy that my sister has found a partner with whom to create memories and share a future.  Fear that I…. Fear that she…. Fear of what this means for us.

Over the years some of my dearest friends have gotten married.  Childhood friends, college friends, grad school friends, friends of mine, friends of my husband’s.  And, come to think of it, two of our dear friends have married each other!  But now, with the proverbial shoe on the other foot, I am beside myself with a multitude of feelings.  I have been trying to steady myself and remain composed. I tell myself that I am not the first person to feel this way.  I tell myself that I will gain a brother and I quietly repeat gentle phrases like that to calm myself as needed.  But still I am conflicted.

It wasn’t until I was in the process of reading and re-reading familiar books and searching for the right words to say to give away my sister and toast the new couple, that I found an anchor in an Edwidge Danticat short story titled “Caroline’s Wedding.” In Danticat – whose writing gives voice to Haitian women, Caribbean women, and composed women like me – I found this and I exhaled:

Caroline’s face, as I had known it, slowly began to fade, piece by piece, before my eyes.  Another woman was setting in, a married woman, someone who was no longer my little sister. […] I couldn’t help but feel as though she was divorcing us, trading in her old allegiance for a new one. (Krik? Krak! 1995: 205)

This, I have come to realize, is the un-talked about side of weddings and marriages. This is the selfishness.  Today I own this selfishness.  Marriage is sacrifice. Marriage is compromise.  I realize that this is not just a warning for the bride and groom.  I realize it is sage advice that fortifies family members like me with the strength to smile even when we feel as though the sweetness of the new union is simultaneously an amicable divorce, a trading of old allegiances for a new one.

It probably goes without saying, but I will say it anyway.  My sisters were my first friends and are my dearest friends.

This was a blog post for posterity.