Tammy, Keisha and Kendrick: Black Women’s Liberation and Section 80

Listening to Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly” I couldn’t help agreeing with this writer that the liberation that Kendrick both propels and embodies does not include black women. Nowhere on the record does Kendrick attempt to incorporate the oppression of women into his message or create an alliance between men and women of colour who may interact with societal structures in a similar way. Delving deeper into his catalogue I discovered Section.80, an ode to a generation of crack babies, bastards of the Ronald Reagan era and general fuckups, which confidently includes stories of women from this same milieu. On this album, he intentionally creates a tandem where the tracklist reflects Kendrick’s inclusion of both men and women in his reflection on today’s black millennials.

This enthusiasm to talk about issues that affect women, I met with mixed emotions. Keisha’s Song (Her Pain) was on my top played list, in isolation from the rest of this album, for months before I came across Tammy’s Song (Her Evils) which I listened to with narrowed eyes for a long time before sitting down to write this.

On first listen Tammy’s Song appeared to be a demonization of a woman for showing only a superficial loyalty to the man she claims she rides for whilst being ready to jump into bed with another man should her partner ever betray her (which he does). Worse she finally abandons men altogether instead opting for a same gender relationship. With this understanding, I foolishly almost dismissed the track as even worthy of analysis. However, Kendrick shows far too much empathy for “these vulnerable girls,” and the fact that Tammy and Keisha are such focal characters in the album makes the track as a demonization seem an incomplete analysis. On closer inspection I realised that Kendrick was not rejecting Tammy; he pitied her.

Tammy, a woman who takes knock after knock and finally finds a trouble free relationship, is not celebrated for the qualities she possessed that led her through a journey that seems to have a happy enough ending to me. Instead, her story is represented as an example of a broken society and those who endure it. Ab soul’s take on her story sums up the complete stripping of Tammy’s agency and power as he asks “what if Tammy came across a real man who didn’t play games like children?” My response to which would be, maybe she would’ve ended up in the same happy same-sex relationship that everyone seems to have confused with some kind of inferno on earth?

Kendrick’s apparent commitment to uniting the struggles gave me so much hope, but I couldn’t help but feel, the more I listened to the album, that he still wasn’t quite there. Of all the ‘evils’ that surround a woman’s existence the one you felt most strongly about was a ride or die chick who ends up dating a woman? Really? You think that’s our key, defining issue?

Kendrick’s empathy for the black woman who constantly falls victim to the whims of the men this society has created, forms an important part of his identity on an album that seeks to address the range of ills that the whole generation has experienced. Now, there may well be an element of tragedy in a woman whose life is dominated by failed relationships such that she gives up on finding a true love opting instead for a safe bet. But 1) I don’t think that’s how most women find themselves in relationships with other women, 2) how is this a useful starting point or contribution to understanding the issues that affect women or a black woman’s experience more generally? 3) How can we define these events as reflective of “her evils”, what exactly does Kendrick even mean by this term? Searching for the balance in that thin line between empathy and pity we have to simultaneously consider the structures that restrict Tammy whilst recognising her agency and ability to make independent decisions that best benefit her.

We have to find the balance between holding members of society, and society as a whole, accountable when needs be and stripping women of their agency and power. Women can do things for ourselves by ourselves and we urgently need to move away from the notion a woman who deems that her happiness will not be determined by men or male approval, is too angry/delusional/psychotic. Tammy, as Kendrick’s creation, gives us an insight on the perception of a woman who appears strong, confident with ownership of her own body and who is done with destructive relationships with men. This move is not perceived as empowering, intelligent nor self-loving, it is instead represented as an unfortunate choice made merely out of convenience. Why reject the idea that she is liberated or empowered and view her instead as the victim of whimsical men?

Conversely, I had no real issue with Keisha’s song until I held her story up to Tammy’s. Thinking about agency, power and responsibility, and especially considering Ab Soul’s commentary, the red flags begin to appear. Keisha is a young woman who was abused from the age of 10 before turning to prostitution which eventually seems to lead to her death as she is stabbed to death by her rapist. Ab Soul, reflecting on her fate, asks: what if Keisha was celibate? So whilst Tammy is stripped of her self-determination, Keisha is awarded hers? Perhaps I’m missing something, but the end of prostitution would in no way lead to the end of sexual violence towards women, as prostitutes are not the perpetrators of these crimes. Again, I felt like Kendrick had come so close, but so far to actually adding some positive fuel to the discussion.

After listening to Section.80 so many times I’d lost count, I essentially found I’d come a full circle. Where To Pimp A Butterfly’s black liberation doesn’t mention black women, Section.80’s celebration of the dysfunctional does, but does that mean that it takes any significant steps forward in the representation of women in hip hop? Not really.

Although, Tammy is rebranded from being loud, tough and emotionless, she is still merely represented as collateral damage. Keisha, or Brenda, or Sasha along with the many nameless women who’ve featured in hip hop through the years as useless tragedies make for a decent track, but they are songs which lack in any kind of enlightenment. Honestly, I didn’t need to look as far as the female characters in his work to gauge where Kendrick positions himself in relation to women as tracks like “Hol’ up” say it all. But a song which fantasises about sex with an air hostess (not because he likes her, just because he wants to dominate her and claim ownership to the first class life she represents) and in which he claims “I call a bitch a bitch, a ho a ho, a woman a woman” apparently wasn’t enough for me.

Kendrick Lamar may well be hip hop’s saviour, and maybe even the saviour of a generation of lost black men, but unfortunately, he isn’t mine. Sexism in the music industry isn’t going anywhere and there are so many more subtle ways in which it is embedded in the business, a reflection of the credits alone reveals a glimpse of this. The reality is, I’m not going to stop listening to Section 80, just like I never stopped listening to To Pimp A Butterfly after reading For Harriet’s analysis. The only thing that keeps me sane is knowing that elsewhere on the planet, there are droves of other black women being semi-liberated by Kendrick Lamar with me.

On Gentrification

I won’t lie. The first time I had to queue to get into a bar in Peckham, I was outraged. Despite being from Lewisham and having only discovered the wonders of Peckham in my late teens, as a South London native I felt I deserved an automatic queue jump. When it became evident that I was fuming in vain, I jumped on my high horse (the 436) and rode off to a pub somewhere in Camberwell.

Peckham used to be a typical South London area with a high street that consisted of a Macdonalds, a Primark, a handful of black hair shops and a budget cinema. Over the past five or ten years that very high street has seen huge changes with many locals complaining of influxes of Shoreditch rejects congregating to sample the latest vegan* brunches and vintage fashion. As more and more shops catering to the hipsters and hipsters-in-denial have popped up and rents then have continued to increase Peckham has become the poster child for the gentrification of South London.

While I appreciate the availability of prosecco and proscuitto at a 15 minute walk from my house  my issues with the gentrification of South London run far deeper than frustration at excessive waiting time at a local bar. Growing up in a ‘deprived’ area of the UK, proprietor of the formidable Great British Pound, has always made me hugely sceptical of trickle-down economics. The idea that money that flows into the top will eventually find its way down to those who need it at the bottom is difficult to swallow when your borough has one of the highest rates of child poverty in the capital. Inequality in London is nothing new. Every year millions of tourists descend on the city to wonder at historic architecture, royal palaces and stolen artefacts pouring incomputable amounts into this wonderful city’s economy. Meanwhile, not too far South, overworked GPs and locals must campaign relentlessly to keep our hospitals open, because if not where else will the local stab victims, substance abusers and the mentally unwell be treated?

The deep set resentment that many feel towards the proprietors and customers of these new businesses and inevitably their new neighbours may seem difficult to grasp at first. Some newer residents may feel that if anything they are contributing by paying substantial prices for rent, food and nights out in the area, some who are more in tune may simply feel that they too are humans who need a place to live and have an appreciation of the neighbourhood. Fair enough. But it is worth acknowledging that the failure of trickle-down economics is more difficult to swallow when all you’re asking for is the money to trickle not from the top, but  across from those living on your doorstep. So as money flows into the hands of big landlords and savvy businesspeople who swooped in at just the right time, those outside of this network remain ignored.

Neglected areas are exactly that, they are areas where poorly paid social workers play mother and father to every abandoned or mistreated child (of whom there are plenty) and those with a community spirit spend their lives fighting tooth and nail to keep the community afloat, together. Their lives are made only harder as more money gets thrown forcing them to pay more for everything from rent to coffee.

Of course not every South Londoner is a hero, there are many happy-go-lucky “it’s shit but we love it” types and just as many “we might not have much but we’re a family” locals or even some “it’s not great but it’s all I know” ones. But there’s also an angrier, more bitter kind whose hardships were perhaps not so easy to overcome. Let’s call them the “I hate this place and everything it represents” South Londoner.

Growing up in an area like mine there are a million experiences available to the average teenager that shouldn’t be, from drugs and sex (and hence teen pregnancy) to the emasculating routine of stop and search and equally shameful procedure of getting mugged every other week. Many of those hit the hardest by the real issues of the borough, do not want to be there. Success would be to escape but they are trapped in a cycle of poverty that limits their options and confines them to that oh-so-trendy place. As superficial change  grows exponentially accompanied by that fearless freedom that comes with middle-class options, free to saunter down the street you scurried through as a scared teenager, reminding you once again of everything you never had, so then grows your resentment at still being stuck there.

This is no one’s fault and we are none of us perfect. I myself write this article from a fabulous three bedroom flat in Barcelona were vegan* brunches are advertised in the window of the café a few doors down from me, in an area, I am told, taxi drivers refused to go through prior to the 1992 Olympics, when it was populated predominantly by working class Catalans and immigrants from Pakistan, North Africa and the Middle East. It’s not obvious at first, the art galleries and bike shops that look like art galleries may distract you, but the ghosts of ghettos past are certainly there. Nonetheless, I take comfort in the fact that my awareness of this familiar situation encourages me to engage with the situation by educating myself in order to understand the local socioeconomic situation and contribute to long-standing local businesses that need the support, rather than just creaming off the cool of the area whilst showing no respect to those who must tolerate the high turnover of international hipsters with no interest in learning their language nor exploring their culture.

Gentrification is a reflection of the inequality and injustice that continually festers in our society. In the UK as inequality increases and the homeless are no longer ignored, but instead greeted by spikes at night as a reminder of their problematic existence, hikes in South London rents mean that those who have spent a lifetime in these previously neglected areas are simply being out-priced out of the area and the city alike.

The current issue is not that Peckham has changed. The issue is that Peckham hasn’t changed at all. A boy growing up in Peckham suffers the same hiked probability that he will become somehow become embroiled in violent crime as his counterpart did ten years ago. Despite huge efforts from local councils which have seen tremendous slashes in teen pregnancy statistics, a girl growing up in Peckham is still more likely to fall pregnant before her 20th birthday than a girl based in any other London borough, except neighbouring Lambeth.

I’m sure I was not the only child growing up in a neglected area who at some point experienced a profound epiphany which led to the understanding that actually I was not part of a national community in the way others were. The institutions and structures that govern us do not expect a 100% success rate which for me meant that many of my friends and neighbours would be unfortunately and inevitably among those who fell outside of those structures and would simply be forgotten, whether dead or in jail or just piss poor and angry their whole lives. It’s the realisation that actually not all that many people care about you and you can watch the children of Sweets Way N20 experience it here.

Pushing poverty from post code to post code seems to be a process that continually reproduces itself in society but the ignorance that often accompanies it is an individual choice. Today you can take a pleasant stroll through SE-anywhere, stop for a lovely coffee or maybe some delicious Jamaican food on the way and remain blissfully unaware of the ongoing local issues, from parents battling addiction and their children turning to crime to failing schools and crumbling hospitals.

Although no amount of cocktails and coffee can save our schools or hospitals, nor make the area any safer to grow up in, we can make the most of this transitional phase to learn about the issues faced by our neighbours that the media has consistently failed to communicate. It is easy to bury your head in your smartphone or cross the road at any sign of perceived danger but there is much to be gained by simply doing some research and befriending your neighbour. An area with such different worlds colliding is the perfect opportunity for us to discover the experiences of others and truly understand the fabric of our society, and perhaps then more young people growing up in the area might have the sentiment that someone somewhere noticed their existence.

*It’s actually a real shame that veganism is even associated with irritating hipsters, it’s supposed to be excellent for the environment.

If You Love Hip Hop, Buy Some

These past months have seen some classic controversy in hip hop. Azealia Banks, famous for her 2011 hit ‘212’, made headlines once again for attacking superstar Iggy Azalea, adding to a long and drawn out feud the origins of which have never been clear, and in reality aren’t even relevant at this point. The difference was that rather than Iggy coming off as the successful, demure hip hop royalty and Banks as a racist, bitter lunatic, as had previously been the dynamic, some interesting questions were raised this time, largely due to Q-Tip’s 40 tweet long sermon to Iggy about the origins of hip hop as a socially and politically conscious movement born from black oppression.

Let’s be clear, I like that ‘Fancy’ track as well as ‘Work’ and I thank Iggy for good nights out with good friends. But, I can see where Banks is coming from. There are injustices in the world and that’s life, but when you are on the receiving end of these injustices, a shrug just isn’t as cathartic as ripping into an artist who represents the injustices that are holding you back.

It is normal for the public to be more impressed by something that surprises them than something that’s been done before, like for example an angry, black woman ranting about racism versus a skinny white Australian chick who has a decent flow and a bubble butt she knows what to do with. It has a lot to do with marketability and selling an image. We always want something different, something new or fresh, because music moves at the pace of light and audiences get bored quickly. The angry black chick routine has been done, white girls who twerk are the new talk.

In an interview with US radio station Hot 97, where the current battle began, Banks points out that “Iggy Azalea isn’t excellent”. From the few tracks I’ve heard, Iggy’s flow is okay albeit unoriginal, lyrically she is average and her content is pretty reminiscent of every other mainstream artist: sex, money and swag. To me she is a good pop act who raps, she isn’t an excellent hip hop artist. Banks also pointed out that Macklemore’s Grammy award winning album wasn’t better than Drake’s and Macklemore himself believes that Kendrick’s album was better than his. Her point is that quality black artists are routinely overlooked because their white counterparts are easier to sell. Referring to Iggy’s Grammy nomination she says “all that says to white kids is you’re great, you can do whatever you put your mind to” whilst reminding black kids “you don’t have sh*t, you don’t own sh*t, not even the sh*t you created for yourselves.” She has a point.

In hip hop terms the race line ends more or less there, I feel exactly the same way about Iggy Azalea’s ‘Fancy’ as I did about ASAP Rocky’s ‘F***in Problem’ and Wiz Khalifa’s ‘Black and Yellow’. Those songs represent for me the loss of the era during which I fell in love with hip hop, and the numb acceptance that I had to get over it if I were to enjoy a good night out. Being that I was only 16 when Nas’ ‘Hip Hop Is Dead’ album came out, I was too young to believe the best of it was over but too old to pretend the previous five or so years hadn’t already formed my relationship with and my expectations of hip hop. So I quietly retreated into my classics and watched lyricism and quality of content slip down the list of ‘important qualities successful rappers should possess’.

Since this recent drama was unleashed there seems to be a tirade of Iggy haters jumping on the bandwagon desperate to get a cheap shot in. Now Iggy knows better than anyone that haters are gonna hate and being a female in the rap game she also knows sexism better than most. This may explain why she feels her having a vagina is responsible for the negativity because as she points out, Macklemore doesn’t get treated like this. But neither does Macklemore avoid the issue of how his skin colour affects his success and how white privilege affects his country, and besides, Macklemore has definitely received a decent amount of criticism. Is it possible that Iggy, being a female in a male-dominated environment and constantly a victim of sexism because of it, much like a black person in a white dominated environment often held back by the colour of their skin, could be being a little over sensitive on the gender front? Maybe her and Banks have more in common than just a name after all.

The fact is Iggy’s continued refusal to talk about why Banks was really crying on the radio that day (because of the ongoing injustices faced by black people in the US, not because Iggy got to be a pop star and she didn’t) makes her look either ignorant, in denial or just racist. But I’m starting to wonder whether it even matters anymore. Where was all this vehement passion and outrage when Tyga redefined repetition with a track that used the word “rack” in it 30 times? Or when YG repeated “my nigga” so many times that white kids had to start singing along because you can’t just bounce to a track in a club silently for 3 straight minutes. Or when Bow Wow and Soulja Boy had a beef through the mediums of youtube and twitter not once attempting to put pen to paper and lyrically attack their opponents as you would expect two so-called rappers to do. Why are we so determined to keep hip hop in the hands of black people if this is all we intend to do with it?

Iggy Azalea is not the problem. The problem is that hip hop is a commodity and it was sold to the highest bidder somewhere between P Diddy deciding that he could be a rapper and selling millions of records to prove it and 50 cent giving up on making good music after his first album, because flavoured water made him a multi-millionaire. Anything that sells gets made and gets distributed, heavily, from white Australian females with a southern drawl to ignorant black men with no talent or story to tell but a willingness to be any and every stereotype a white audience will pay him to be.

The good news is: it is possible for us to take hip hop back. And by us I don’t mean black people, I mean anyone who really cares about the art and feels more than the vibrations of the beat when they listen to hip hop that relates to their truth. J Cole broke records last year in the first week of his album release because people love him for his lyrical content and dedicated fans actually pay for music sometimes. If J Cole fans were given more Kendricks and more Nas’ we would buy that too! This is the message that we need to be sending to the next generation of artists who are now choosing their styles, deciding what their content is going to focus on and figuring out how they can make a career out of their passion, not if you’re a female stay running between the gym and the surgeon’s office and if you’re a man make sure you have someone around who can verify your gangsta. There is so much innovation and diversity within hip hop, Azealia Banks is just one example of that, and if that’s not your flavour buy Dave East’s ‘Black Rose’, go and see Chance the Rapper live, support the artists you want to see succeed. If you can’t do that for hip hop, do me a favour and sit down and applaud when Iggy wins that Grammy.