Like an old soul record :

Black feminism, queer sexuality
and the hip-hop generation

_ Andreana Clay

 

Examinations of the relationship of queer sexuality and the hip-hop generation have recently emerged in academia. However, little or no work has been done that explores hip-hop's bisexual, independent poster child, Me'Shell Ndegeocello. Since her debut in 1993, Ndegeocello's relationship to hip-hop has been both a reflection of and influence upon understandings of race, gender, and sexuality for a generation of queer feminists of color. In this paper, I examine how her emergence and popularity mark an important political and ideological moment for queer Black women in the post-civil rights era. Grounded in the works of Patricia Hill Collins, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and Jewelle Gomez, I examine how media representations of Ndegeocello coupled with her lyrics and music demonstrate the complexities and contradictions of "hip-hop feminism." In particular, the 1990s represent a movement away from the Reagan/Bush era that characterized not only the teenage years of hip-hop culture, but important cultural and economic advances of the Black community. At the same time, this decade marks the shift to the more "liberal" Clinton administration, where the advances of previous generations began to decline. In this context I ask in what ways does Me'Shell Ndegeocello represent a generation of young queer women who were raised after (and sometimes on) early Black feminist critique? Further, how is her work emblematic of Black feminist understandings of gender and sexuality at the same time that she complicates this same discourse?

 

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When I first heard Me'shell Ndegeocello's "If That's Your Boyfriend," I assumed she was just another R&B wannabe exploiting the capitalist and patriarchal structures, under which she operated, to get her voice heard. Because Black (1) women in popular are allowed to express their sexuality through narrow constructions informed by a heterosexual (often white) male gaze, I assumed that Ndegeocello was no exception. Her R&B contemporaries at the time included Toni Braxton, whose single "Breathe Again," was directed at her male love protagonist, and Janet Jackson, whose singles from her Janet album, "That's the Way Love Goes," and "You Want This," signaled the beginning of her years as a "sex goddess" (Norment 1993). Both of these performers were placed firmly within a heterosexual context, into which Ndegeocello's "Boyfriend" also squarely fit.

As a feminist schooled on the writings of bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldua, Cherrie Moraga, and Patricia Hill Collins, I was opposed to the sexist competition that Ndegeocello's song celebrated. Furthermore, the lyrics from "Boyfriend" rubbed the conquest in the face of her competitor with lyrics like: "you upset cause you one stuck up bitch, maybe he needed a change, needed a switch." Because I had given up such language and competition long before, I found it difficult to embrace another "sista" who openly competed with another woman.

Things became a little more complicated for me when Ndegeocello came out as bisexual, an identity that I shared. I still disliked her approach but was intrigued by her openness as a Black bisexual woman. As a young woman, I sought images of other Black queer women of my generation and tried to embody the words and writings of Black lesbian feminists like Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith, and Cheryl Clarke.

As I listened to Ndegeocello's first album, Plantation Lullabies, I detected a political agenda and consciousness that resembled one that I and other, younger feminists of color shared. Her album articulated a consciousness complicated by the particular historical moment in which we adopted feminism: post-civil rights. The more I listened to her music, the more I felt as though I had someone in my back pocket, so to speak, someone who spoke the same feminist language that I did and was doing it on a larger scale. My, and that of other Black lesbians of the hip-hop generation, interest in and identification with Ndegeocello has continued throughout her career.

One is hard pressed to find a Black queer woman in her thirties or late twenties who is not a fan of Me'shell Ndegeocello. Through formal and informal conversations, I have learned that she has provided the soundtrack to our first loves ("Outside Your Door," "Call Me," "Grace"), our breakups ("Bitter," "Fool of Me," and "Bittersweet"), as well as our political commitments ("Souls on Ice," "Leviticus: Faggot," and "Dead Nigga Blvd"). Ndegeocello's very integration of hip-hop into her music has solidified our commitment to the often sexist, homophobic, and male-dominated hiphop culture--signaling that there may indeed be a place for us in this genre that we were raised on, dance to, question, and cherish.

Ndegeocello's coming out and mainstream acknowledgment (and minimal acceptance) has ruffled the Black community, forcing gays and "straights" alike to ask: Who is this bald, Black, bisexual, boyfriend-stealing bassist? And how on earth did she end up on MTV? This further begs the question of why her contributions to Black popular culture, queer culture, and feminism have been overlooked in popular and academic works.

In this essay, I aim to bridge some of these conversations by linking early works of radical feminists of color with contemporary hip-hop feminism in an effort to frame Ndegeocello's contributions to hip-hop culture, Black queer identity, and feminism. At the same time, I hope to chip away at what Jewelle Gomez (2005) refers to as the continued invisibility of Black lesbians in academic and literary texts, which can be detrimental to Black lesbian identity and community. Overall, I argue that Ndegeocello is emblematic of a generation of young, queer, feminists of color who came out at a time when the politics of sexuality, race, and identity were shifting in significant ways: twelve years of the Reagan/Bush era were coming to an end, Bill Clinton had just been elected president, and post-civil rights realities like AIDS and crack were firmly established as part of the collective Black experience.

This sociohistorical moment complicates the discussion of feminism, sexuality, and racial identity in relationship to Ndegeocello and a generation of third-wave feminists. (2) By examining her use of sexuality and the erotic, social politics, and discussions of Black racial identity in her music and lyrics, I suggest that Me'shell Ndegeocello's music represents a generation of young queer women of color who were raised after (and sometimes on) early Black feminist critique. Further, I examine how her work is a representation of Black feminist understandings of race, gender, and sexuality at the same time that she complicates this very discourse.

Whose Feminism? Politics in the Hip-Hop Generation Presumably we are still in the "third wave" of feminist movement. Those of us in our thirties were in our preteen years when radical queer women of color published This Bridge Called My Back (Anzaldua and Moraga 1981). Our brand of feminism was one of intersection and staunch critique of what came before us, calling on folks to Listen Up! (Findlen 1995), Colonize This! (Hernandez and Rehman 2002), and always To Be Real (Walker 1995), as these third-wave anthologies suggest. Post-civil rights women of color and white women learned that the universalization of women was an inadequate approach to the feminist movement. "Woman," as we learned and often experienced, did not fit the history of oppression that women of color and third-world women have endured in the U.S. As women's studies majors in the late eighties/early nineties, women of color were also taught that there could be a place in feminism for us that was anti-racist, or entirely without white women's involvement.

One of the strengths of late-twentieth-century women-of-color feminism is its ability to be re-interpreted and built upon, which is why numerous interpretations of feminism by women of color and white women have emerged in the last two decades (Findlen 1995; Walker 1995; Morgan 1999; Springer 1999; Hernandez and Rehman 2002; Pough 2004). We are a generation of younger women, some scholars, who received a feminist political education and access to institutions of higher education, job opportunities, etc., that many of our mothers never experienced. We are a generation of women, as Cherrie Moraga suggests, "who have been read and schooled by the feminist writings and works of the women of color who preceded them, and as such are free to ask questions of feminism more deeply than we could have imagined twenty years ago" (Moraga 2002, xi). As Moraga suggests, we have taken the feminist ethic, "the personal is political," to describe ongoing feminist struggles as they relate to hip-hop (jamila 2002; Pough 2004); poverty (Brooks 2002); racism in the feminist movement (Chambers 1995); and mixed-race identity (Weiner-Mahfuz 2002).

We also write about and have experienced freedoms that our Black lesbian and feminist foremothers struggled for and often never realized (and that some of us still haven't experienced). For instance, I grew up in the 1970s when my white mother taught me to be "Black and proud." Twenty years later, when I came out to my Black father, he told me that if I married a woman, he'd still walk me down the aisle. Feminists in the hip-hop generation have grown up with a particular type of advantage and, some argue, an assumed privilege that others never knew (see Morgan 1999; Kitwana 2003). While for many this has been a positive experience, such advances have made articulations of post-civil rights feminism difficult. This may be particularly true for Black women and other women of color who have not always embraced or been embraced by the mainstream feminist movement. (3) Often, the boundaries around the feminism of the 1970s and before complicate the identity, practice, and beliefs of contemporary feminists. For instance, Rebecca Walker, a self-proclaimed third-wave feminist, speaks to these complexities in her discussion of younger women today:

A feminist must never compromise herself, must never make
concessions for money or for love, must always be devoted to the
uplift of her gender, must only make an admirable and selfless
livelihood, preferably working for a women's organization. She
fears that if she wants to be spanked before sex, wants to own a
BMW, is a Zen priest, wants to be treated "like a lady,"
prioritizes racial oppression over gender oppression, loves
misogynist hip-hop music, still speaks to the father that abused
her, gets married, wants to raise three kids on a farm in Montana,
etc., that she can't be a feminist. (Walker 1995, xxxii)

 

Here, Walker illuminates the myriad complexities that third-wave feminists, including my students, continue to grapple with in their commitment to and understanding of feminism. This is further complicated for a generation raised on hip-hop. As hip-hop culture has been embraced and exploited by mainstream producers and consumers in the last two decades, it has moved from serving as an articulation of youth-of-color identity and politics to a mass-marketed culture based on American ideals of capitalism, sexism, and violence. Hip-hop feminists have critiqued this side of hip-hop at the same time that we defend our commitment to a genre that feels, ultimately, like ours and like us (Rose 1994; Morgan 1999; Pough 2004). For instance, in her essay "Love Feminism but Where's My Hip-Hop?" Gwendolyn Pough states that her "development as a Black woman and a Black feminist is deeply tied to [her] love of hip hop" (Pough 2004, 86). While hip-hop feminism has begun to situate itself within popular and academic discussions of Black feminism, many still consider hip-hop to be antithetical to feminism, and to Black women in particular.

In the post-civil rights moment, cultural studies and feminist scholars have firmly (and perhaps rightly so) placed contemporary expressions of feminism in the hands of Kathleen Hanna, Allison Wolfe, and other members of the early 1990s Riot Grrrl Movement (Kearney 1998; Riordan 2001; Duncombe 2002). As Mary Celeste Kearney suggests, "riot grrrl most strongly echoes the pro-woman/consciousness raising radical feminist community of the late 1960s, which insisted upon separatism from male-dominated culture, relationships, and organizations for women's liberation from patriarchy and misogyny" (Kearney 1998, 164). This radical political agenda that Kearney references is illustrated in the "rants" of early riot grrrl statements. For instance, in "Riot Grrrl Manifesto," the authors claim that riot grrrl is about, among other things, "doing/reading/ seeing/hearing cool things that validate and challenge us and can help us gain the strength and sense of community that we need in order to figure out how bullshit like racism, able-bodyism, ageism, speciesism, classism, thinnism, sexism, anti-semitism, and heterosexism figure in our own lives" (Riot Grrrl 1991). It is clear from this statement that riot grrrls have been raised on early radical lesbian feminism, which is as much a critique of white, middle-class, heterosexual women's domination of the feminist movement as it is an articulation of the politics and livelihood of queer women of color.

It's the Beats and the Lyrics: The Need for Queer Visibility

Academic examinations of queerness in hip-hop culture are fairly recent (Neal 2006; Clay 2007; Pritchard and Bibbs 2007; Sharpley-Whiting 2007). However, Me'shell Ndegeocello's impact on women in hip-hop culture and on a generation of Black feminists continues to be overlooked. While important works have been written in recent years on the relationship between hip-hop and feminism (Morgan 1999; Pough 2004), there is little to no mention of Ndegeocello, particularly of her work at bridging these two cultural and political movements. While mainstream media contains images of white lesbians (e.g., Ellen and her girlfriend, Portia de Rossi; Melissa Etheridge; and Rosie O'Donnell), Black lesbians in popular culture are virtually nonexistent, or remain closeted. This absence persists in academia as well. Lesbian feminist Jewelle Gomez describes this invisibility as an "epidemic" in "Black/African studies, women's studies, literature and sociology" (Gomez 2005, 290). Here I aim to contribute to Gomez's discussion by linking early lesbian feminist works with hip-hop feminism by examining the particular historical moment in which Me'shell Ndegeocello emerged.

The early nineties was a significant moment for the hip-hop generation: Bill Clinton had just been elected president, women's studies programs had been firmly established in colleges and universities for more than twenty years, and the gay and lesbian movement was reeling from collective organization against AIDS. (4) At the same time, journalist Susan Faludi was being celebrated in popular culture for her declarations of a backlash against feminism and women (Faludi 1992). The time was ripe for a bisexual, Black, bald bass player. And this is how the media portrayed her: in almost every early article about Ndegeocello, there is a mention of bisexuality, or other references to her ability to transcend categories. For example, in a 1996 interview in Essence magazine, Ndegeocello is described as a "kaleidoscopic genre bender" (Greaves 1996, 3). In the article, titled "Me'shell Ndegeocello: A Sista from Another Planet," the author also observes that "it's clear why this intellectually playful yet decidedly unglamorous African American multi-instrumentalist's path to success was a journey without compromise or hype, weave or perm." She was the new Jimi Hendrix of our time, in female form, unwilling to be boxed in by rigid categories.

Her lack of compromise had some consequences; while the media loved her, Black radio stations did not. Many refused to play Ndegeocello because of her outspoken sexuality, her unorthodox sound, and her outright politics. Ndegeocello's marginal status in the Black community is similar to the historical and collective experience of Black queer and lesbian women (see Clarke 1981; Lorde 1984; Smith and Gomez 1990; Gomez 2005; Holland 2005). Black feminist author, poet, and critical essayist Audre Lorde spoke early about the dual oppressions of sexism and heterosexism in the Black community:

The Black Lesbian has come under increasing attack from both Black
men and heterosexual Black women. In the same way that the
existence of the self-defined Black woman is no threat to the
self-defined Black man, the Black lesbian is an emotional threat
only to those Black women whose feelings of kinship and love for
other Black women are problematic in some way. (Lorde 1984, 49)

 

In the twenty years since Lorde wrote these words, Black lesbian identity continues to be perceived as a threat to Black community and identity. From comedian Sommore's dismissal of Black lesbians in her routines to Black actresses shying away from Black lesbian roles in order not to alienate their community, Black lesbian identity continues to be degraded and invisible in popular culture. Recently, one of the more visible threats to Black masculinity was the case of a group of young Black lesbians (or, as The Daily News described, a "wolf pack" of "angry" lesbians) who were convicted for the assault of Dewayne Buckle (Henry 2007). Although Buckle admittedly instigated the attack, four of the seven women were convicted for felony assault. All of these women were also friends with Sakia Gunn, a young Black woman who was murdered after she identified herself as a lesbian to a group of Black men. For these reasons, among others, an out, queer Black woman's words and music are significant. In what remains, I examine how Ndegeocello's lyrics are a product of early Black feminism, radical lesbian feminism, and hip-hop feminism. Specifically, I explore her lyrics in relationship to two categories: social protest and sexuality.

Introducing: A Revolutionary Soul Singer

1993 was the beginning of a new decade and an entirely new era. This is when Me'shell Ndegeocello's Plantation Lullabies was first issued. This was also a significant moment for the Black community: Bill Clinton's election received the general support of the Black community, to which Clinton appealed throughout his campaign. In Black popular culture, another era had just come to a close with the end of The Cosby Show, Bill Cosby's take on (middle-class) Black life that helped to mold a generation of young African Americans, both culturally and politically. The early nineties were also important years in hip-hop: groups like Public Enemy and A Tribe Called Quest reigned alongside Dr. Dre, Digable Planets, and Cypress Hill. The range of hip-hop artists was key to the variations of musical styles that allowed Me'Shell Ndegeocello to emerge. (5)

It was also a time when many Black young adults were moving away from the Spike Lee-influenced eighties, which often represented both the rise of the Black middle class and, at times, the "ghettos" that they left behind. This is best exemplified in one of Spike Lee's characters in his 1986 film, She's Gotta Have It. In a scene in which Nola, the main protagonist, scans a string of Black men she's dated, one man, Dog #6 (with appropriate intellectual wire-rimmed glasses, suit, and tie) states: "I got my BA from Morehouse, my MBA from Harvard, I own a new BMW 318i, I make $53,000 after taxes, and I want you to want me." (6) In direct contrast to this image, Ndegeocello articulated what she referred to as a "revolutionary politic," explicitly discussing what (and who) had been left behind in pursuit of capitalism and integration: segregated inner cities, drug addiction, teenage pregnancy, and AIDS. Ndegeocello's Black life reflected a different social reality for African Americans--one marked by what Patricia Hill Collins describes as a "new racism" (Collins 2005). For instance, despite the non-feminist lyrics of "Boyfriend," several of Ndegeocello's songs on Plantation Lullabies are decidedly political, critical, and even feminist.

In the song "Shootin Up and Gettin' High," Ndegeocello directly confronts the middle-class aspirations of the Black community by turning the listener's focus to everyday realities of poor and working-class Black youth. The song opens with a budding relationship between a man and a woman, post-civil rights:

He lived two train stops away
I was a train ride away from heaven
We signify about politics
Low-income housing
Birth control and abortion
The capitalistic hand around my throat
Shootin' up dope to cope
in this dehumanizing society
We both found God when he O.D'd

 

In these lyrics, Ndegeocello describes a dual reality for urban youth: simultaneously pointing to poverty in low-income housing, unplanned/planned pregnancies, impending unemployment, and drug use. Ultimately, one of the male characters overdoses from the pressures of urban life. In Black Sexual Politics, Patricia Hill Collins (2005) describes this as a "new racism," which is a combination of both new and old. As she states, "In the United States, the persistence of poor housing, poor health, illiteracy, unemployment, family upheaval, and social problems associated with poverty and powerlessness all constitute new variations of the negative effects of colonialism, slavery, and traditional forms of racial rule" (Collins 2005, 55). These combinations situate the social location of the hip-hop generation--one marked by desegregation of Black communities, abandonment and neglect of urban areas and, ultimately, of urban youth (West 1993; George 1999; Chang 2005). Ndegeocello brings these issues to the forefront in her lyrics. While public figures like Lee and Cosby painted a picture of Black life where people went to historically Black colleges, lived in middle-class Black neighborhoods, and jazz music and Black artwork shaped the cultural backdrop, Ndegeocello instead identifies in her music Black middle-class abandonment of their poor and working-class counterparts. In her song, "Diggin' You (Like An Old Soul Record)," she suggests that these decisions have had a detrimental effect on the political consciousness and collective movement of the Black community. As she states:

Remember back in the day
When everyone was Black and conscious
And down for the struggle?
Love brought us all together.
Just sittin' back and talkin'.
Cultivating a positive vibe.
Blue lights in the basement.
Freedom was at hand and you could just taste it.
Everything was cool. Diggin' on me diggin' on you.
Everything was cool and brothers were singing
"Ain't no woman like the one I got."

 

Here, Ndegeocello's lyrics point to a lack of political and social movements among African Americans at the same time that she critiques those who used to be "down for the struggle." Those who once struggled and fought for civil rights, who loved and respected their Black brothers and sisters and worked toward movement--perhaps some of the same ones who were swept up in the Cosby eighties and Lee nineties--have ultimately lost their "Blackness" in pursuit of middle-class status. This critique of the Black middle class's abandonment of their poor and working-class roots defines the experience of a Black generation born after the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a generation that has grown up without a charismatic leader or a clearly defined, impassioned social movement to join. In spite of this absence, many turned to hip-hop because it reflected that voice, had the potential for movement, and defined a community (Lipsitz 1994; Pough 2004; Chang 2005). In lyrics like these, Ndegeocello calls for a clear examination of race, class, and gender politics.

Through her analysis of race, class, and gender, Ndegeocello's music articulates feminist politics, particularly when she focuses her critique on traditional gender roles. For instance, in "Souls on Ice," she draws on the feminist critique of U.S. beauty standards, stating that as Black people:

We've been indoctrinated and convinced
by the white racist standard of beauty
The overwhelming popularity of seeing,
better off being and looking white

 

In these lyrics, she again directs our attention to the complexities of race, gender, and class by describing the racist beauty standards that Black men (and women) have internalized as the basis for acceptable womanhood. These definitions include not only physical beauty, but the "feminine" expectations of purity, docility, and innocence. Moreover, she suggests that our very souls are in jeopardy because of the deep-seated history of expectations of womanhood among Black and white women. Here she echoes the work of feminists like bell hooks, who claims that the construction of white womanhood and beauty "relies on the continued production of the racist/sexist sexual myth that Black women are not innocent and never can be" (hooks 1992, 160). Agreeing with this dichotomy, as Ndegeocello suggests, is the denial of one's own heritage.

Gwendolyn Pough (2004) discusses how Black women shaped and influenced the Black public sphere, especially in blues and in the civil rights movement. She implies that had it not been for the work of the women in each of these arenas, the movements would not have unfolded the way that they did. Both of these areas have been significant in the shaping of the hip-hop generation and especially of women's role in music. Female hip-hop artists take on a role similar to that of blues women in their discussion of politics and sexuality.

Still, it has been difficult for female rappers to identify themselves as feminists. In her groundbreaking work on hip-hop, Tricia Rose (1994) interviewed popular female rappers Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, and Salt (from Salt and Pepa) about feminism in hip-hop. Despite overwhelming assumptions at the time that, given their lyrics, their working of the crowds and the industry, and their overall pride in being female, these rappers were feminists, each woman emphatically denied that she was a feminist. Instead, they chose to define themselves as "pro-woman," or feminist in their approach, but not in their identity.

Like others, Rose discusses this as a general issue that Black women associate with the feminist movement itself. She concludes, "for these women rappers, and many other Black women, feminism is the label for members of a white women's social movement that has no concrete link to Black women or the Black community" (Rose 1994, 177). While I have found no accounts in which Ndegeocello identifies herself as feminist, her lyrics are, at times, emphatically political, allowing for others to embrace her music as a feminist critique.

Me'shell Ndegeocello's work is similar to that of the women in blues in that her message is both (homo)sexually explicit and marked by social protest. As Angela Davis suggests in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, "There is also a significant number of women's blues songs on work, jail, prostitution, natural disasters, and other issues that when taken together, constitute a patchwork of social history of Black Americans during the decades following emancipation. Most often such themes are intertwined with themes of love and sexuality" (Davis 1998, 91). Ndegeocello begins her own patchwork of Black, queer experience in her song "Leviticus: Faggot." Here, she targets homophobia directly in her lyrics:

Go to church boy
Faggot you're just a prisoner of your own perverted world
No picket fence
Stop acting like a bitch
that's all he sees
ain't that what faggot means
No love dreams
Only the favors sweet Michael performed for money to eat
'Cause the man kicked the faggot out the house at 16
Amen mother let it be
Before long he was crowned queen for all the world to see
His bloody body face down
The wages of sin are surely death that's what mama used to say
So there was no sympathy

 

In these lyrics, Ndegeocello directs her listener's attention to the sexist and misogynist violence that young Black gay men are subjected to because of their identity. By pointing to the existence of the Black church, an important site for identity, organizing, and culture in the Black community (see Morris 1984; Pattillo-McCoy 1998); the white picket fences associated with heterosexual marriage and lifestyle; and the categorization of men who have sex with other men as perverted, Ndegeocello identifies the homophobia that continues to structure Black queer lives.

What is significant about the social protest piece is that the lyrics are written at a time when the work and struggles of the gay and lesbian movement, and of Black radical feminism, created spaces that have allowed an artist like Me'Shell Ndegeocello to emerge. However, the backlash that has been directed against feminism is also targeted at the queer movement and sexuality. Moreover, because there is no visible movement to join, (7) Ndegeocello's words are significant because they reveal a reality that many queer people internalize as part of our experience. For instance, for a long time, I assumed the lyric "Ain't that what faggot means" was actually, "Ain't that faggot me." While this was a mistake, I think it speaks to the continued need for popular representations of Black lesbian identity.

This is particularly true in hip-hop, which is much more explicit in its attack on queer sex and sexuality, particularly among women. As T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting states in her recent book, Pimps Up, Ho's Down: "viewed through the prism of hypermasculine culture of hip hop, lesbians and lesbianism are in some respects the final frontier of conquest. The prevailing mentality is that all lesbians need is a 'good stiff one' to [put] them on a 'straight' (or at the very least, bisexual) course" (Sharpley-Whiting 2007, 15). This is repeated not only among male (and female) hip-hop artists, but among members of the hip-hop generation as well. In the recent case of the seven New Jersey women, the alleged victim, Dwayne Buckle, asserted that he would "fuck you straight" as he grabbed his genitals and gestured to the women as they passed (Henry 2007). Songs like "Faggot" explicitly expose this reality as it persists in the post-civil rights era.

As Ndegeocello's words and recent events suggest, it remains true that "the [Black] woman who takes a woman lover lives dangerously in patriarchy" (Clarke 1981, 134). At the same time, many of Ndegeocello's songs about queer sexuality move away from a painful and marginal queer existence. Oftentimes, she is playful and seductive in her depictions of everyday Black lesbian experience, which is where she may be most celebrated. This is first reflected in an early discussion she had with journalist Greg Tate (1993), in which she told him that her Swahili name "Ndegeocello," in addition to meaning free like a bird, also had "a hidden meaning Nde-GAY-ocello." (8) Even in her debut, her sexuality was a significant piece of her identity. This commitment has been present in her lyrics throughout her career. For instance, on her second album, Peace Beyond Passion, Ndegeocello's lyrics are much more detailed about her sexual identity and the everyday trials and tribulations of Black lesbian/queer relationships. This is evident on the first single from the CD, a remake of Bill Withers's "Who Is He (And What Is He to You?"), which begins:

A man we passed just tried to stare me down
And when I looked at you
you looked at the ground
I don't know who he is but I think that you do
Dag gummit
Who is he and what is he to you
Something in my heart and in your eyes
Tells me he's not someone just passin' by
And when you cleared your throat was that your cue
Dag gummit
Who is he and what is he to you

 

Although written by a male performer for his female partner, Ndegeocello's remake re-positions the lyrics in a same-sex context. Often when female performers remake songs originally performed by male artists, the pronouns change. Here, the object of Ndegeocello's desire remains female in this instance, but the conflict between the two central characters takes on a different meaning, one that becomes explicitly queer.

In "Mary Magadalene," another track on Peace Beyond Passion, Ndegeocello's lyrics further explore queer sex and desire as they discuss her desire for a lover who embodies "the faith of Mary Magdalene":

In a harlot's dress you wear the smile of a child
With the faith of Mary Magdalene,
Yet you wash the feet of unworthy men
Come, and I'll set you free into an endless valley of
fruits both sweet and sour
And whatever displeases your palate, my kisses will wash away
If you must dance, dance for me
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God
So close your eyes and dream
For the world will blind you
And I'll judge not, so that I may not be judged
Give me what I want
Tell me I'm the only one
I want to marry you

 

While the gender of her is not explicitly defined, the "harlot's dress" that the object of desire wears indicates that the one she wants to marry is indeed female. Long before same-sex marriage became a battle cry for the gay and lesbian community, Ndegeocello names the desire to marry her same-sex partner as an important symbol of her love. This is further complicated by Ndegeocello's use of the biblical character Mary Magdalene, who was considered both a reformed sinner and a saint. By drawing on this story, Ndegeocello continues to challenge accepted norms of Black (female) sexuality, Christianity, and the church. Ultimately, she repositions the church, which is central to the Black community (including in her own upbringing), by bringing it into a queer context.

The ownership of her sexuality and desire is explored further on the 2002 single, "Pocketbook," which explores her sexual desire for another woman:

Your mama gotta be fine
You're probably breastfed
'Cause you look all healthy
With your chi chi pretty eyes
Put on your lip balm (shit, baby!)

With the swerve in your hip
Order: "Can I get a drink?"
Yeah, Yes you can ...
You like to have money
In your pocketbook
That's all right
Got a lot of sense
Running through your bones
And that's all right
You like to hang out and
Shake that thing all night
And that's all right

 

Here, her lyrics are decidedly playful and sexual. With descriptions of "pretty eyes," "pocketbook," and "swerve in her hip," Ndegeocello situates herself as the main subject whose desire, again, is same-sex. As the protagonist, she takes on the stance usually reserved for Black men (or men in general) in popular music--much like Mos Def's stance as the observer in "Ms. Fat Booty," or L.L. Cool J. in his description of the kind of girl he wants in "Around the Way Girl." In this instance, Ndegeocello articulates a strong Black female sexuality and even eroticism that continues to be under-represented and, often, denied to Black women--gay or straight--in popular discourse. As Audre Lorde's seminal essay, "Uses of the Erotic," suggests, "[t]he erotic has often been misnamed by men and used against women. It has been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, and the plasticized sensation. For this reason, we have often turned away from the exploration and consideration of the erotic as a source of power and information, confusing it with its opposite, the pornographic" (Lorde 1984, 57). In songs like "Pocketbook," Ndegeocello presents her observatory stance as a powerful source for her sexuality as a queer woman, therefore taking back what continues to be used against Black women, particularly in hip-hop culture.

In the post-civil rights era, Ndegeocello's lyrics may still be read as a political gesture, one that Patricia Hill Collins alludes to early on in Black Feminist Thought. In her chapter, "The Sexual Politics of Black Womanhood," Collins begins her working definition of sexual politics by emphasizing the connections between individual identity and social structures. As she states, "African-American women inhabit a sex/gender hierarchy in which inequalities of race and social class have been sexualized. Differences in sexuality thus take on more meaning than just benign sexual variation. Each individual becomes a powerful conduit for social relations of domination" (Collins 1991, 165). This definition of sexual politics still resonates, particularly as it relates to queer Black women. The importance of Me'Shell Ndegeocello's queer lyrics and visibility can thus be read as empowering for a generation of queer Black women.

Conclusion

In this essay, I have examined Me'shell Ndegeocello's words and music in relation to Black feminist discourse. By exploring the works of Black feminist thinkers like Lorde, Collins, and Gomez as well as feminists of the post-civil rights moment like Morgan and Pough, I argue that Ndegeocello is symbolic of an emerging critical discourse on Black women, queer identity, and sexual politics. This is an effort to provide an opening not only for Ndegeocello's work, but for the work of queer hip-hop artists like Hanifah Walidah and Queen Pen, for ongoing feminist work of third-wave organizations like Sista II Sista, and for the work of spoken-word artists like Sarah Jones and Suheir Hammad, all of whom continue to articulate a feminist politics and to challenge popular representations of women of color.

A Black queer female sexuality is also significant at a time when Black women continue to be degraded in hip-hop videos and lyrics and our everyday lives. In this sense, Ndegeocello's lyrics also point to a distinct difference between early Black feminist theory and the writings of hip-hop feminists. First, her work reaffirms the discussion that post-civil rights feminists articulate about the persistence of racism and sexism as a backlash to previous social-justice movements. While early Black feminist writings did not suggest that racism and sexism would be "willed away" by the feminist movement, the experiences of hip-hop or contemporary feminists are often overlooked or misunderstood because they do not fall within traditional feminist analysis. Second, because her work is often linked to the neo-soul, hip-hop, funk genre and because she uses spoken-word forms in her music, she is indicative of the hip-hop generation, which some feminists may struggle to understand, acknowledge, or appreciate.

At the same time, I do not mean to suggest that simply because Me'shell Ndegeocello articulates a queer sexuality, that she or her work is necessarily feminist. Rather, her work lends itself to feminist interpretation and critique because she makes Black queer identity visible for a generation of Black women who must continue to search for positive, out representations (or any representation) of lesbian experiences in popular culture. As Kara Keeling suggests in her discussion of Black lesbian identity:

"Black lesbian" still can provide a salient critique of the sexism
and heterosexism of dominant articulations of "Blackness," of the
racism and heterosexism of dominant articulations of "women," and
of the racism of dominant articulations of "lesbian" ... however,
"Black lesbian" has garnered a type of political transparency
that should trouble it. Currently, the designation "Black
lesbian" is perceived as itself a guarantor of a radical or at
least a progressive politics. (Keeling 2005, 220)

 

I agree with Keeling's critique of using the term "Black lesbian" as an inherently political term. A queer or lesbian identity does not guarantee a feminist, or even a liberal politics. However, coming out as a Black lesbian is still a dangerous endeavor for women. (9) This remains true in hip-hop, where no other popular female artist has publicly come out as queer. Further, hip-hop artists like Missy Elliot and MC Lyte, who have managed to control aspects of and are often playful with their sexuality, are few and far between in a homophobic and sexist culture. And while a queer Black identity itself is not a political identity, for Black women, the "fight for a revolutionary soul singer" still persists.

 

acknowledgments

I wish to thank Mark Anthony Neal, Maylei Blackwell, Mako Fitts, Marcia Ochoa, and Janell Hobson for their enthusiastic and important feedback regarding this piece, as well as audience members at the American Studies Association and Stanford University who helped me think further about the development of this work.

 

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notes

(1.) I capitalize "Black" throughout this article and use it as a political term.

(2.) For an excellent discussion of the construction of feminist waves, see Springer 2005, chapter 1, "The Soul of Women's Lib."

(3.) See Springer 2005.

(4.) See Gamson 1989.

(5.) This would quickly shift in the mid-1990s, which may explain Ndegeocello's movement away from the genre on later albums.

(6.) "Dog #6" in She's Gotta Have It, directed by Spike Lee.

(7.) I'm not suggesting that these movements do not exist, but because they do not take the shape of previous movements, often existing on a much smaller, local scale, they are often ignored.

(8.) Ndegeocello 1993e.

(9.) Fifteen-year-old Sakia Gunn's death in 2005 demonstrates this danger (for an in-depth discussion see Neal 2006 and author and cultural critic Keith Boykin's website http://www.keithboykin.com/arch/2006/07/31/how_many_ more_w. Accessed November 27, 2007).