#popculture

We Owe “Scary Spice” An Apology

Originally published on Medium in the Human Parts Collection. It was also listed in Dazed Magazine’s “Best of The Web” the week that it was published. 

mel b

Lately, I’ve been in my Black Girl Hair feelings. It’s winter and I’ve been travelling up and down the East Coast, so I’m spending more time in beauty salons, straightening it so that I don’t have wash it and risk pneumonia while it air dries (into curlsicles). But really, there’s never not a time that Black Girl Hair isn’t in my feelings. Solange’s wedding photos had every Black girl in the world — me included — feeling some kind of way. And as I finish testing over 15 products for an article about affordable hair care products for women of color in Paris, I’m being confronted with the global issues of how little Black hair is considered, much less, the possibility that it’s beautiful.

Of course, there are those comments to think about. The comments about Zendaya’s hair. The sound bites: weed. Patchouli. Dreads. Deeply rooted in anti-Blackness, the subtext of these remarks “dirty,” “undesirable,” and “unworthy.” Hair that is so unabashedly Black that it cannot be fantasied into racial ambiguity or “otherness” and thus, must be dealt with severely for its inability to amuse and/or be exoticized. Coiled dreads that are so unabashedly Black that Zendaya — who months ago many claimed she was not Black enough to play Aaliyah — is now so Black that she reeks of weed and patchouli through the television screen.

All of this talk has me thinking about Melanie “Scary Spice” Brown. For me, she was the first Black woman who wore curls and wore them proudly, the first I could identify with. And I think of her when White women say they are excluded from the natural hair movement, the new focus on curly hair in beauty products that hesitates to mention that aforementioned movement for fear of associating with Blackness. And in 2015, where a Black woman’s hair on the red carpet is evocative of deviant behavior, it’s worth collectively examining how we consider Blackness in its follicle form and the pathological fears and stereotypes that those follicles are wrapped in for mainstream consumption.

Nearly 20 years later, I still can’t get over the fact that we thought it was okay to call a brown girl with beautiful curls “Scary.” I can’t believe that we’re still using that name for her in headlines. Sure, she uses it herself in her Twitter profile — but as a public figure who uses name recognition as part of her brand, does she have much agency in the matter? That nickname is awful, erroneous, and racist. Why was Melanie scary? Because she’s Black? Because she has big curly hair? Because she’s the only Black girl girl in a group of White girls? Because mainstream doesn’t know what box to toss her in?

I remember so vividly the first time I saw Mel B. and her curls bouncing across the Zenith television in my room. My eyes immediately zeroed in on the cool Black girl amongst the other White girls, feeling an immediate kinship with that mise en scéne. (I was one of the few Black kids at my suburban elementary school.) It wasn’t that I didn’t think that Posh’s Gucci mini dress wasn’t cute or that I didn’t want Baby Spice’s pigtails; it’s just that I knew those things were unattainable for me. There was nothing in Baby Spice’s long, thin, blonde hair pigtails that went almost to her waist that spoke to my curls-turned-cute Afro puffs, not in any way. (And my mother was not buying a Gucci mini dress for her 12-year-old.) But Mel B. — she was a girl who looked like me. I was immediately obsessed. I wondered if she fought with her hair the way that I did, if she had ever gotten a relaxer (a Black girl in the 90s that did not get a relaxer might as well have been a unicorn), if she had spent hours of her Saturday mornings in beauty salons slathering creamy crack onto her curly roots while her White girlfriends were at soccer practice. I wanted to be Mel’s friend or at the very least, a pen pal. I did numerous and unfruitful searches on Netscape 2.0 for “Scary Spice hair conditioner.” Without question, “Scary Spice” was my first Black girl crush. After an 80s and 90s childhood that demanded I find myself in Alicia Silverstone and Winona Ryder, that gave me hair advice and tips that would never apply to my hair, Mel B. and her ringlets were manna from MTV.

But “Scary Spice.” It felt so wrong to call her that. Why was I calling this beautiful woman that looked like me, “Scary”? Sure, I thought she was beautiful, but why would the “people in charge” (in my 12-year-old mind, everyone) call her “Scary” if she were really pretty? I looked at her, trying to find something to justify the name, but couldn’t. And then I began to think, “Well, is she as pretty as I think that she is? Does that mean that I’m ugly?” The girls at my suburban middle school, many of whom vacillated between wanting to be Posh or Baby Spice, did not notice Mel B. at all. Was it because she was ugly? Less than that, she didn’t even register. She was just “the Black girl.” And though the “lesbian” and “slut” coding of Melanie Chisholm (“Sporty Spice”) and Gerri Halliwell (“Ginger Spice”) are for another day, the invisibility of Melanie Brown’s beauty to my friends only made me love her more, as I didn’t have to compete with anyone to prove who was a bigger fan of Melanie B. But it was also a reminder as to how hostile the world would be to me and the things that made me beautiful.

In normalizing “Scary Spice,” we trained a whole generation of Millennials to think about Black women and Black hair as frightening. (Millennials are less racially tolerant than you think.) Without realizing it, we’ve helped create a generation of feminists that lack intersectionality; those excluded are made to create their own spaces because of a lack of inclusion. And we’ve given a whole generation the continued license to not consider Blackness as something that can be beautiful without Whiteness being a reference point, thus enforcing White supremacy by means of implying that Whiteness is a neutral, identity-less baseline of objectivity. Beauty standards built on restrictive norms enforce this idea that beauty is a scarce resource and that anything outside of those resource boundaries (i.e., Whiteness) must be attacked and diminished to preserve the potency of resource horde.

I don’t think for one minute that Giuliana Rancic was thinking about all of that colonialism, perpetuation, and preservation of patriarchy when she compared the scent of a Black woman’s hair to patchouli or weed. I really believe she didn’t understand why those comments were hurtful. I think her apology was sincere and should be an example of how to listen to people of color and be an ally. But that’s the thing; the messages of ugliness, the unworthiness, the otherness of Blackness has been so thoroughly engrained and approved by our society, that the bias is implicit and subconscious. The associations of inferiority that were made were so smooth and unassuming, just like the straight, thin locks our society covets. Some might feel that being cognizant of how stereotypes and tropes are perpetuated isn’t fun, but having one’s humanity confined by them is a helluva lot less fun.

We owed Melanie Brown the apology that Giuliana Rancic gave Zandaya 18 years ago. And I’m glad to see we’ve come far enough that Zandaya received it. I don’t know Melanie Brown in real life, but she seems to be a complex, beautiful, and rather full person. A collective disregard and fear of Blackness and Black femininity prevented a more thorough appreciation of Melanie Brown, both then and now. The casualness of saying that a young woman on the red carpet at the Oscars smelled like drugs because of her un-malleable Blackness is completely related to the fact that for almost twenty years, we’ve called another Black woman scary because she too, had non-negotiable Blackness.

Some might say Melanie Brown’s singing talents are mediocre. This may be true, but then again, when did that ever stop the majority of White pop singers in this country? Melanie Brown deserves more credit than what we’ve given her. Not because she’s an overlooked talent, but because she stands as a testament to our subconscious anti-Blackness that is still rampant in its casualness and frequency. Mel B. was a big influence to finally cut off the chemicals and embrace their curls, and their Blackness, for many Black women — myself included — who went natural in the early 2000s. And though she’s rarely seen today with her curls, I still want to ask her what conditioner she uses — and to apologize for calling her “Scary Spice” without understanding what I was continuing or condoning.

From The Vaults: The Bee Gees’ “Fanny Be Tender (With My Love)”

the bee gees

The Bee Gees are some of the most disrespected, under-appreciated geniuses of pop culture and music. The creators of a sound that was so distinctive that even Michael Jackson borrowed it, the Bee Gees wrote close to a 1,000 songs for other acts, including Diana Ross, Barbara Streisand, Otis Redding, so on and so forth. So iconic were they, one of Al Green’s trademark songs, “How Do You Mend (A Broken Heart)” is actually a cover of their 1971 version.

Because this lack of knowledge is really reprehensible, I’m sharing one of my favorite songs, “Fanny Be Tender (With My Love)”. Have a listen, it’s really exquisite. You can read more about the song here.

So complex this song is, Maurice Gibb stated that while they all loved the song, it was hardly performed live, because of its intricacies. Honestly, this is one of the best love R&B songs ever written and performed. It’s one of the rare songs in which you can hear the range and depth of each Gibb’s voice; Maurice stuns with great harmony and Robin, long considered the best singer in the group, also shines with a surprising depth not normally seen in the fragile timber of his voice. It’s one of the few songs that Barry and Robin share lead vocals.

As to where this idea came from, last night on Twitter, where I frequently hold office hours, my timeline was full with love and admiration for the Bee Gees and a lack of understanding as to how deep and rich their catalogue is. And I get it; for those of us that came of age in the 90s and 00s, the disco era has been ridiculed so much that to actually like – forget about appreciate – the era, is almost a backhanded compliment of kitschy irony. I’m of the camp that the aesthetics of the 70s lead people to prematurely disregard the whole decade, which is both a mistake and a topic for another blog post.

But yet.

The Bee Gees’ catalogue is deeply, incredibly amazing. And genius. Their songwriting and harmonizing skills are truly genius – there’s no other word or hyperbole for it –  with no real peers of their peers. After all, Michael Jackson frequently cited them as his favorite band – which, if you listen to Barry’s his falsetto and consider Off The Wall a disco record (as Michael himself did), isn’t hard to see at all.

Check the receipts. And take a closer and more thoughtful look into the Bee Gees’ catalogue.

Happy Humpday: Frank Ocean’s Cover of “At Your Best (You Are Love)”oul

If you’re like most of us on the West Coast still struggle through your Wednesday, look no further than this inspiration:

For Baby Girl’s 36th birthday, Frank Ocean released a cover of Aaliyah’s cover of the Isley Brothers’ “At Your Best (You Are Love). It’s simply stunning. The beat is rather bare, letting Ocean’s falsetto play across scales and bars.  Ocean’s version is so reminiscent of Baby Girl as well as being his own creative interpretation that it’s one that you’ll have on repeat. Here’s hoping he releases a cover of “Back, Back, Forth and Forth”.

And for fun, listen to Aaliyah’s version and the Isley Brothers’:

“Anna Mae”, not “Anime”: Beyoncé and A Tale of Two Twitters

(originally published March 26, 2014, but updated to include the May 4th SNL skit, “The Beygency”.)

It’s been nearly half of a year since Beyonce released her  Beyhive Holy Scriptures “Drunk In Love.”

There have been memes, impersonations, sacrifices at the altar Bey, analysis about domestic abuse and a whole storm of news that has everybody much pretty much forgetting the other 16 songs on the album. There has no greater platform for the discussion of all of this than (Black) Twitter, the most segregated neighborhood on the Internet. Twitter drives a great deal of what becomes a part of the pop cultural lexicon for the Millennial crowd and you don’t have to be on Twitter to be influenced by its influence. The Beyhive, hashtags, memes – it wasn’t created on Twitter, but it found in Twitter an audience willing to create and share at a much faster and interactive rate than on any other social media platform. And when you’re talking about metrics, there’s almost no sub-Twitter group that does that better or more than Black Twitter. Though Twitter, as a company, has rarely mentioned 18% of its users are Black, it would be hard to deny that most of its ability to share and disseminate important news is because of the Blacks on Twitter.

But back to Beyoncé. We’ll circle back around. Beyoncé is beloved. Beyoncé is revered by presidents and hoodrats alike. That’s really a feat. And it helps that Beyoncé has become a part of the lexicon in popular culture. She’s become a verb, adjective, symbol, aspirational figure, untouchable figure, an icon for the 3D printing era, etc.  She’s admired and imitated by all Americas, all classes and all women, who are important but underestimated facilitators of the social media conversation. You really can’t go wrong with her and as SNL proved in their hilarious sketch, there’s a helluva price to pay when you run counter of the Beyhive.

but, alas, the Bey Hive can’t fix everything:

Image

Image

That’s right. “anime”, as in:

Image

lemon or german chocolate cake?

And this is where the path in the Twitter woods diverge.

We’ve already gone over some of the politics of code here, but “Drunk in Love” goes a little deeper, a little harder than that. “Drunk in Love” is an inside joke wrapped into a clever code. A visual analogy might be bacon wrapped dates. Not everyone’s going to get the flavor of a date on it’s own, but most people like bacon (except for me, can’t stand them) and it’s universal enough that unless you’re in San Francisco or any other vegan/vegetarian capital, everyone will eat it. Where it gets tricky is the date. Dates are supposed to be a little erudite, a treat for trained palates. For a lot of Black Americana, Beyoncé’s use of “Anna Mae” was kind of like that. Follow me for a second.  There’s no better master of mass appeal than Beyoncé and for many a Black artist, part of of the deal has been giving up a little bit of their Black card, as it were, for the sake of appearing less threatening. The Western world has been gawking at the waist, asses and breasts of Black women since Sarah Baartman. Black superstardom is littered with wasted bodies and minds of talents that were just too Black and/or too uncompromising to crossover; Florence Ballard, Phyllis Hyman and David Ruffin to name only a few. For those that did, the repressed public sexuality of Michael Jackson is a reminder of many lessons and magnitudes. Black superstardom rarely is allowed to explore Black sexuality openly and surely not explicitly. Black (pop) superstardom rarely allows its queens to be sexual; they’re too busy just trying to be whole people. And while Black superstars filter and translate Black soul for popular and mass consumption, their success is largely a direct correlation as to how raceless they can be for White Suburban America.

Catch a charge I might, beat the box up like Mike
In ’97 I bite, I’m Ike, Turner, turn up
Baby no I don’t play, now eat the cake, Anna Mae
Said, “Eat the cake, Anna Mae!”

So, for the Black populace, “Drunk in Love” was a celebration of the evolution of a woman, a Black woman who has reached the top with a lot of light skin privilege and Photoshop lightening along the way. That’s not to diminish the issue of domestic abuse, but Black America is used to having to take ugly, broken things and re-work and re-claim them. In the same vein and spirit that “nigger” has for some (but certainly not all) been re-purposed to stand for solidarity and camaraderie, “Anna Mae” has been re-worked, re-purposed, re-claimed to be a statement of unabashed sexuality.

And that’s ultimately was “Drunk in Love” was about, what Black Twitter instinctively got in those trap beats. It’s a celebration of Black sexuality, Black aggression and Black charisma. It’s an unapologetic romp in the Blackness that is rough around the edges, tastes like pound cake, sounds like dominos slamming on cheap folding tables and feels like the third cup of warm E&J on a warm summer night. So while the rest of the world was up in arms, Black girls across America were surfborting. It’s in that, that specific Blackness that responds “not a damn thing” when asked What’s Love Got To Do With It and embraces the “IDGAF, I’m still fabulous” bravado that Tina Turner needed to survive and reinvent herself after years of abuse and neglect. Black women have had to be their own Svengalis and there’s almost no better example of that than Tina Turner. For many Black women, they embraced that part of the storyline as a lifeline.

But all of that was lost on Kitty Pryde (now, just “Kitty”). In case you missed it, Kitty Pryde was the young rapper hired by Vice to live tweet her reactions to the Beyoncé album.

Wait she’s going IN right now. My Jay Z senses are tingling, I’m pretty sure he’s about to rap and I really hope it’s EXACTLY like his verse in Suit & Tie. Yes, it definitely is. Is this the same exact verse? I’m pretty sure it is. WAAAAAIT HE JUST SAID “I EAT THE CAKE, ANIME”. JAY Z JUST FUCKING USED THE WORD ‘ANIME’ AS A PUNCHLINE. THIS IS THE BEST SONG I’VE EVER HEARD. Am I supposed to be like explaining what these songs are like? I don’t know what kind of music this is.

The breakdown of white privilege soaking Kitty’s HTML has already been brilliantly and beautifully broken down by Alexander Hardy, so, no need to repave Appian Way. But this isn’t about berating or crucifying Kitty (Pryde?) because she’s That White Girl. Black Twitter already took it’s 10 lbs of flesh.

grape or cherry?

grape or cherry?

black twitter on kitty

Simple ass (1)

Kitty later apologized in a thoughtful and surprisingly self- aware Tumblr post. It’s well worth the read, though I doubt most of Black Twitter has read it. And it’s contains, definitely unwittingly, one of the best summaries as to why Twitter as a platform has found such a following within the digital Black community. Kitty’s manager, who also happens to be a Black man explain the vitriol as such:

 “…Black people are used to having to know the first and last names of the cast of Friends just to keep their jobs. the fact that you will never have to know about their culture and can easily make a joke about something that holds importance to them is offensive.” 

And now, the circle back. Twitter is the digital water cooler where a great many people who like Friends and even see themselves embodied and reflected in Friends come together to discuss, lament, complain and/or humble brag about the various degrees and layers of Friends-ness that their life contains. Friends is also super white. Not just in cast, but in cultural references, humor and fan base. Black America is well-versed in the standards and procedures of cultivating a double consciousness. Black Twitter is a natural product of and conduit for that code switching. The same trending topics and events flow through the timelines identically, but the conversations that follow are entirely different. It’s a way of being a part of the conversation and the literal facilitation of dialogue without having to prove that you know Ross, Rachel, Chandler, Monica and Phoebe’s character bibles. As the topics of water cooler conversation begin to change to reflect and incorporate more of America, it will be fascinating to watch how the Twitters tell those stories.