Monday, February 25, 2013

Beat the P*ssy Up: On Misogyny and Black Bodies (Again)

I've been singing Frank Ocean's praises lately. There was a time when I didn't know who he was and didn't care much for the hoopla around his "coming out." I still maintain that he told a story of falling in love with a man, which is lovely but different. Still, I have since purchased and been converted to being an Ocean fan through  Channel Orange. As many a critic has pointed out, it's fantastic--one of the best albums of 2012 (I think, I haven't listened to a lot of new releases this year, but it's good). Here's what I like about it: the flow, it feels like an album, which I don't think many have in recent years. Each song progresses into the next and provides a story--a story of individuals, communities, souls and spaces....

But this is not an album review and I am not a music critic.

I start this post out with Ocean because I've been thinking a lot about his song "Pyramids," a ten minute story of the transition from one "Black queen Cleopatra," to another. There is something about this song, which tells the story of Cleopatra, the "jewel of Africa" of the past, and Cleopatra, the dancer of today who works at the Pyramid to keep her N*gga's bills paid, that rocks me a little. Look, he doesn't really give either Cleopatra a voice and he plays around with the Black queen (which is always connected to the Black ho) trope a bit too much, but there is a vulnerability there, a complexity, it seems, to the relationship between the narrator and the woman he loves (?).  And there's not just a vulnerability with her, but a vulnerability with his performance as a pimp/lover. And, even though we don't get her perspective, modern Cleopatra comes off as having some agency. Other reviews suggest that she is clueless about her objectification, the "cycle" she is caught up in. You know, because sex work always and only demonstrates a woman's lack of sound decision making skills. But, I don't see it that way.  There is something humanizing about both of the contemporary characters in the song. The way she says his name, which makes him feel like "I'm that N*gga, tho I'm still unemployed." And, she's working at the Pyramid tonight...It reminds me of stories Me'shell Ndeogello has told about Black lives, ones that aren't often celebrated. Maybe it's a stretch and I'm still working it out in my mind and it may just be because I've known women who have worked in the sex industry my entire life--friends and relatives who have worked as dancers and escorts--and that's why it rocks me. Women many of us collectively discard cause they choose it. So, therefore, they like it.

In my mind, "Pyramids" is in conversation with the recent outrage over Lil' Wayne because there is a similar discarding of women. If, for some reason, you haven't heard, about two weeks ago, a lyric to Lil' Wayne's unreleased song, "Karate Chop" was leaked on the web. One of the lyrics of the song claims that Wayne "beat[s] that pussy up like Emmet Till." A reference to Emmett Till, the 14 year old African American Chicago native who was murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman on a Mississippi street on August 28th, 1955. He was beaten beyond recognition. Tortured by Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, shot in the head and then submerged in Tallahatchie River with barbed wire, holding a cotton gin fan in place, around his neck.

Yeah, that's what he referenced. That's how he beat the pussy up. I can't speak to Lil Wayne's motivations because there are no words.  Till's family has issued an an open letter, here. And Davey D. has posted a response, here.
But, what I can speak to is how this outrage should also call attention to the lack of humanity and violence associated with the phrase, "beat the pussy up." And, I situate this conversation between two men because I need men to take this on, and to be outraged. Not because your "queens" are being disrespected, but because women are being discarded and treated as objects (not a new story) in our collective imagination.

The phrase beat the pussy up seems to be increasingly popular: This is not the first time I've heard it, nor the first time that Wayne has used it, and it isn't even the first time I've talked about it on this blog. I casually mentioned it once in reference to a Rainbow Noise lyric (Jay Squared, from IMMA HOMO), "I beat the pussy up, call me Dyke Turner." You heard that right: Dyke. Turner. Dyke Turner, you know referencing the man who beat his wife, Tina Turner, regularly. Raped her, regularly.

I don't understand the level of disassociation from one's self: disassociation as a Black person, as a woman (and queer person) to be able to pen lyrics that reference violence enacted on folks that share identities with you. The violence embedded in the lyric, the violence of capitalism, of the recording industry, of a culture that is invested in "controversy," record sales and profit, at any expense, is beyond what I want to imagine in this moment. To use the name of a child, or a Black woman, both of whom were treated so inhumanely to garner attention--Wayne, his record label, the media who have reported on it--is soul crushing. And I understand this latest challenge to actually be outraged about the entire  lyric: what stands out to many is the cowardly reference to the murder of Emmett Till. But, it's also a reference to violence against women--not a woman's body part, as some have suggested, but violence. Correct me if I'm wrong, but beating up (as in I beat the pussy up) is synonymous with phrases like "kick the shit out of," "beat down," "hit over and over, really hard" or just, "hurt, intentionally," no? So, you "kicked the shit out of that pussy," you "beat that pussy down," you "hit that  pussy over and over, really hard," or, you "hurt that pussy, intentionally." And I'm not talking about rough sex or intense sex between consenting adults. I'm not a prude. I know what fisting is :).

But, this is different, there's an emphasis on that in all those sentences because it's that pussy, nothing else. No woman attached. Unless, she's alternately being referred to as a Black queen. You know, like how Chris Brown beats Rihanna one day, tattoos an image on his neck that looks like a woman beaten the next day and then, later, tweets a "Happy Valentine's Day to all the beautiful women, our queens, mothers, daughters" to his 12 million followers?  It's dehumanizing. Can we think, for a minute about the whole woman, your queen, who is attached to that pussy? Like a whole person? I fear, that this is how we are comfortable thinking about women, particularly young women and young women of color these days. Days when we're mad at Rihanna for getting back together with her abuser  Chris Brown. Or days in which a leading "comedic" newspaper feels justified in calling a nine year old Black girl a "cunt." As in:

And I need you to be as outraged about these seemingly different, but really the same kind of objectification as beat the pussy up. Beat hard, over and over again. Kick the shit out of. Rihanna makes her own decisions, Lil Wayne writes his own lyrics (and LA Reid approves), and The Onion writers tweet their own "jokes." But, we download and follow and bop our heads along and then are outraged when someone muddies and disrespects Civil Rights history. Disrespects the memory and life of a young, murdered Black boy. And, yes to that, rightly so. But, I need you to also be as outraged about the violence that comprises the first part of that lyric. A lyric that someone thought up (more than once), ran by their record executive (more than once), and got a pass and paid for (more. than. once). The violence that allows us, as a culture, to dehumanize women and girls--particularly the ones who we think deserve it.  The ones we dismiss because "some girls like it like that." The modern day Cleopatras. That violence, that dismissal is not separate and is directed at all Black bodies. Yours. Mine. Hers.

Yeah, I need you to be outraged about that. Now.


Matthew F said...

I totally get your outrage and completely share it. This is simply awful -- no addendum to that necessary.

I get where you were going with this statement: "I don't understand the level of disassociation from one's self: disassociation as a Black person, as a woman (and queer person) to be able to pen lyrics that reference violence enacted on folks that share identities with you." And I'm a proponent of and have studied identity politics for years. On the other hand, I think there's some ability with identity politics for those who are in more power to use them to identify the "other" and not our shared humanity. So, to me, in this instance, our common identity is as humans. And I'm not blaming identity politics here. But it's interesting to me to see this through the lens of common blackness and not the lens of common humanity.

Btw, you might want to correct this: "and it isn't even the fist time I've talked about it." I think you meant "first," though your later statement about your lack of prudishness might mean it was intentional. :-)

janetty said...

Is he not right though (albeit inadvertently) to liken sexual violence to racist violence? ie that both are equally appalling.

The lyric could be interpreted in one of two ways: a) the attack on Emmett Till was heinous, therefore the beating up is heinous also, or b) the beating up is ok and kind of cool, so therefore the attack on Emmett Till was also cool.

For whatever reason, too many people seem to find it a lot easier to condemn racist violence against males than to condemn gendered violence against women. To reference the two together in a simile therefore makes a rather interesting, if ambiguous, point.

Either way, "beat that pussy up" amounts to hate speech, and should be called as such. If a white person was saying "I beat that n-word up like the Black Dahlia", for eg, there's no way that person would be considered cool.