And He was asking him, "What is your name?" And he said to Him, "My name is Multitude; for we are many."
If you have been following our latest posts, you have noticed how these black women sang lyrics (and behave) outside contemporary gender norms and expectations, and how we have been celebrating that and using them to express our feminist politics, besides the appreciation of their musical talent. But at the same time, their white counterparts (white mainstream top American female singers) were singing/performing accordingly to societal expectations. Just think of Dinah Shore, Doris Day, Julie London, Peggy Lee, etc, who sang mostly about (straight, monogamous) love: missing their beloved man, being fooled and/or abandoned by men, being a housewife, etc. [And bear in mind that I´m not arguing against them, or even rejecting their subversive potential – but I won´t engage in a text about it now]
The female artists of color (faoc) we have been celebrating serve as a counterpart to the white female singers, who were, themselves, subversive and trying to conquer a stable moral reputation (the association of women performers with promiscuity and prostitution has a very long history of its own). While these black women were empowered through their musical activity, this empowerment is not at all produced to work as such, but rather as an excretion to black women alone. This excretion guarantees the norm of the good white woman (prude, monogamous and straight, who devotes herself to a man, no matter how he treats her) by reinforcing racism and/by building identities outside that norm which work as a tool for comparison and as a measure of suitability for white women. [It is not by accident that in the 1920s, 30s, as well as nowadays btw, black women largely outnumbered white women in north-american prisons. Keep in mind that many faoc were arrested either for drugs, alcohol and/or sexual activities, while white counterparts that often engaged in similar activities were not, e.g. Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo] The identity of the black female singer, and of the black women by consequence, is thus created.
The supposed sexual availability of the ´exotic` female body, sine qua non, comes hand in hand with their ´immoral` behavior: their taste for liquor, cigarettes and other drugs, sex with many men and women, and their lack of trustworthiness as a wife/partner (they want to wear pants, figuratively and literally, take care of their own businesses and even cut their husband´s throats!) However outdated this might seem, it still occurs and it is among the reasons why Rihanna can sing this or this (black with latina, another wild threatening identity) and Beyonce, well, can sing whatever she wants, and as soon as Miley Cyrus takes off a t-shirt she is filthy and a terrible example for youth, and other white female artists publish patronizing whorephobic letters about it.
This takes me once again to Foucault, who stated that power doesn´t exist as such, that power is not a commodity, or an instrument that can be owned, exchanged, bought, sold; rather that it circulates. And it is the circulation of power (how it is put into practice) that creates instances of repression, domination, appropriation, submission, etc. Particular instances (created by particular objects such as here, the music by woc of the 1st half and middle of the 20th century) create different meanings, sure, but more than that, they create different ways in which power circulates and how it operates.
“I’m gonna show y’all my black bottom” is meant to be demeaning by/for its producers, and for a wide elite of white people, but it ends up being empowering to the woman who sings it, and it will be empowering for many women who listen to it, including white women.
Orgies and affairs of women seem like a progressive liberation for lgbt people, but how much of that is garbled by white people to unwillingly reinforce the idea that poc are immoral, and woc are wild and promiscuous?
So let´s be cautious when idolizing faoc, either by forgetting how empowering what we could read as slavery and commodification is, either by doing the opposite: glorify them ignoring the (several) exploitation(s) behind the phenomena. The fact that we celebrate these remarkable artists doesn´t mean we are blind towards what was going on besides their amazing talent; but focusing on the industry, rather than on the artists, reinforces the structural violence that results by omitting/negating their agency, which is to say their voice, their role in the process, and denies the importance of how liberating they and their music are/were/have been for so many people.
On a side note: The play Ma Rainey´s Black Bottom by August Wilson exposes well some of these tensions of power playing between class, race and gender.