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.

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.