No Sir, I will not be ‘humble’.
Scene 1: When I first heard that Kendrick Lamar released Humble, I was ecstatic. The week was coming to an end, Duke’s Black Student Alliance Invitational Weekend had finally arrived AND Kendrick Lamar had released a new song. My weekend was set. I quickly searched for a YouTube video and lo and behold the entire thing was popping. From the beats and the riff to the videography and the visuals – its perfection was seductive and I was grinning at my phone- making that smile that makes everyone around you think that your boo just sent you a witty/naughty text that you will find yourself searching for on difficult nights when you are trying to remind yourself of happier times. Yes friends, I was excited.
Everything was going great until that damn double screen came up. My eyebrows raised themselves promptly, as the black woman on the right side of the screen - clad in a diamond-encrusted choker and a sexy dress that revealed cleavage and some abdominal skin, topped with slicked-back relaxed edges and a face beat for days, walked through a filter of some sorts to transform into a black woman, THE SAME BLACK WOMAN, dressed in a less revealing tank top, with curly natural hair and no make up, on the left side of the screen. Meanwhile, Kendrick was rapping the lyrics “I’m so fuckin’ sick and tired of the photoshop/ show me somethin’ natural like afro on Richard Pryor/ Show me somethin’ natural like ass with some stretch marks”.
Needless to say, I have some thoughts.
In my interpretation, here Kendrick is expressing a fatigue with black women’s “Photoshopped” appearances - which is to say he is tired of black women with relaxed/weaved hair and make up or even just using Photoshop to alter their online image – in fact, he blatantly tells us that he is “so fuckin’ sick and tired of the photoshop”. Instead he prefers his women bare faced and sporting natural hair. He tells us this through the words “show me somethin’ natural like afro on Richard Pryor”. These words wouldn’t be as damning if they weren’t coupled with a visual of the same black woman changing from occupying a “made up” appearance to a more natural look – which eliminates the possibility of him using this moment to uplift black women with more natural appearances whilst celebrating women who choose to present themselves differently. No friends, this man told us he prefers women with natural appearances, and therefore “uplifted” natural-haired women and those who do not wear make up, at the expense of women who wear make-up, revealing clothing and relaxed/weaved hair. Furthermore, his use of the imperative “show me” in the lines “show me somethin’ natural like afro on Richard Pryor/ Show me somethin’ natural like ass with some stretch marks” speaks to a privileging of the male gaze over women’s prerogative to decide how they choose to present themselves.
Scene 2: I was sitting in Page Auditorium, watching Jabulani (Duke’s Annual African Showcase), enjoying the performances, screaming my lungs out as my friends and fellow black students slayed on the stage. Again the perfection was seductive, but this time I smiled that smile that my mother usually has when one of her children outdoes her expectations – the one where she cranes her neck slightly and tears almost role down her cheeks, but not quite. And then Nigerian Comedian, Aphrican Ape came on. I usually approach African male comedians with caution because they often tend to slander women or LGBTQ folks. So I sobered up, placed my index finger on my temple and prepared myself to cringe. Everything was going so well, hell I even laughed, until he started to speak about women. Women are always a deal breaker with these entertainers. Essentially, in addition to a lot of other shaming pertaining to “ugly friends” and cock-blocking, this man slandered women wearing weaves, “hair that isn’t theirs”, whilst attempting to compliment women with natural hair. He then made a poor attempt to salvage the situation by using the typical head ass comment “but its yours if you bought it” when he saw how shook we all were.
Firstly, in navigating this natural-hair space, I’ve had to check myself and realize that there are ways to uplift natural-haired women without deriding other women who choose to wear their hair relaxed or in a weave. I had to learn that hair usually isn’t a walking commentary of people’s politics or their embodiment of ‘blackness’. I had to teach myself to reject compliments that tear other women down. As Ghanaian black feminist @obaa_boni stated on twitter, Kendrick could have said ‘I love natural women’, but instead he chose to say ‘I am sick of photoshop, what happened to natural’ through his lyrics and his visuals. (I won’t even get into the hair politics of a man saying “show me an afro” and him promptly showcasing a woman with long curly hair LOL). He chose to make a comparison – appreciating natural beauty, relative to created beauty, instead of making an absolute and non-relative comment on black women’s natural beauty. In a similar way, Aphrican Ape, chose shame women for electing to wear a weave, whilst “uplifting” women who chose to wear their hair natural. He created an idealized image of black woman beauty that ultimately does not have space for women with “hair that isn’t theirs”.
Before, I receive some basic and sexist retorts that express confusion and misguided frustration at the idea that black women are never happy regardless of what black men say, it is necessary to remember that men’s opinions on women’s beauty trends and appearance choices are irrelevant. THEY ARE A NON-ISSUE. The fact that some men consistently feel empowered to make commentary on women’s appearances exhibits a strange hegemonic desire to have control of women’s aesthetical choices, where they really shouldn’t have any say. It expresses entitlement, and as such both these men engage in a long misogynistic tradition of attempting to police women’s appearances, except now some women interpret it as a compliment, when in actual fact these men are gaslighting us into believing that black women’s authentic beauty is an economized resource, reserved only for women who appear natural, when this is really not the case.
But I also want to delve into why so many men dislike women in weaves and make up. @obaa_boni interprets this as fear. She tells us that cis-sexual heterosexual men are threatened by the power of beautiful women, and the idea that we can ‘manufacture’ these reified visions of beauty through make up, weaves, Photoshop, and even plastic surgery, is scary – it calls some of them to retreat back to colonial and patriarchal tactics of ‘divide and conquer’. Beauty is a source of power in a world that uses appearance to decide what kind of partner or treatment one deserves; in a society that uses appearance to even decide the caliber of ones job or salary. It is lucrative, no matter how much these same men tell you that beauty is skin deep (it is but LOL, some of y’all abuse this). The superficial state of the world has created a situation in which beauty has been commodified and therefore it is only made visible and apparent through a select group of women at any given time. At no time have all shapes, sizes and appearances of women been established as beautiful, instead we have ‘eras of beauty trends’. As such, when women find ways to replicate these tropes of beauty through plastic surgery, or even through weaves or make up, thus making these specific images of beauty a more prevalent “resource” – less scarce, beauty’s novelty starts to decrease, and the power of the “beholder” shrinks. Beauty is now in the eye of she who is gazed upon, and that is unacceptable for a patriarchal, neo-liberalist society that thrives on scarcity. Ultimately, this dislike for women in weaves and make up, is really a reaction to the (limited) power black women have managed to accrue, whilst subsequently disempowering men’s ability to decide what beauty is.
Lastly, I would like to address the notion that women in weaves or make up have some sort of self-hate for their inherent blackness and natural appearances. This argument is usually used to rationalize the wearing of weavesas an attempt to conform to colonized, white definitions of beauty, usually consisting of straight or curly hair. This is not always the case. Whilst some black women may genuinely dislike their natural hair, usually as a result of consistently having their natural hair be criticized or never being able to have the ‘right’ type of natural hair, there is a large number of black women who choose to wear their hair relaxed or in a weave because a) it is a protective style b) natural hair can be a huge time commitment as well as a costly affair c) they just like it that way.
At this juncture, where we are engaging in this work of decolonizing our minds and attributing beauty to multiple visions of blackness, therefore nuancing our understanding of blackness, it is possible that a black woman with a weave loves herself and her blackness just as much as a woman with natural hair, she just chooses to express herself in a different way. The two are not mutually exclusive. To me this diversity in black aesthetic expression is beautiful. I love walking into any room and seeing black women express themselves authentically –whether she is bare faced or in make up or in a weave or a twist out, there is room for all types of black woman beauty, and men’s fickle and unsolicited opinions should not determine how we choose to present ourselves.
So, as I stated on my twitter: I love you Kendrick, but we will continue to use our damn make-up, our damn weaves and our damn Photoshop, thank you very much. I refuse to be ‘humble’.