When I was in middle school, my mama, brother and I went to Circuit City—RIP—to shop for CDs. There, I saw “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.” I had heard very little about it, except that it was Lauryn Hill’s only solo album (she had done two with the Fugees) and that she had class.
Class, of course, meant that she wasn’t sexualized. It meant that she wore her hair natural and spoke about real issues. She rarely cursed or talked about gangbanging like most female rappers did. One of my favorite lyrics from her is “Don’t be a hard rock when you truly are a gem” from “Doo Wop (That Thing).” We all listened to the CD on the way home that day, thinking I’d made the right—and only—choice.
As a black young woman, music has always been a part of my life. But with all my conflicting ideas about sexuality and my own body, it’s taken me a long time to be able to appreciate R&B and hip hop by women.
In the ’90s, a majority of female R&B singers were my age when they started. Brandy, 16, sung about pursuing a relationship with certainty in “I Wanna Be Down”; Monica, 15, expressed the need for privacy “Don’t Take It Personal.” But the most notable in my mind is Aaliyah, who at 15 released “Age Ain’t Nothin’ But a Number,” which was written and produced by fellow singer R. Kelly. R. Kelly and Aaliyah were illegally married when she was only 15 and he was 27.
Then, in 1995, a singer from named Adina Howard released her debut album “Do You Wanna Ride” with her hit single “Freak Like Me.” In the song, she states a need for sex, not love: “I need a freak in the morning, a freak in the evening / I need a rough neck nigga that can satisfy me.”
Howard was one of the first female singers that talked more about sexuality and in more explicit way. Decades before that, in 1935, a black female lounge singer named Lucille Bogan had recorded “Shave ‘Em Dry,” which was discovered many years later.
There was a fair bit of backlash about this older, bigger black woman singing about sexual encounters. “Why can’t the randy ones be attractive, or alive for that matter?” complained one commenter.
In the book “Sister Citizen,” Tulane professor Melissa Harris-Perry talks about the tropes that plague black women: The Mammy, the supportive older woman existing to help the white woman; Sapphire, the woman constantly boiling with anger; and Jezebel, the sexually free and independent woman. The Jezebel trope reinforces the idea that black women are inherently sexual. The word Jezebel comes from the name of a princess who appears in the Bible: Jezebel was thrown out a window to her death by her own court, after persecuting Yahweh and leading a landowner to his death.
Throughout history, Jezebel not only became a symbol for false prophets but fallen and shamed women. In Revelations 2:20-21, it says: “ But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality.”
Harris-Perry says of the trope, “The myth of black women as lascivious, seductive and insatiable was a way of reconciling the forced public exposure commoditization of black women’s bodies with the Victorian ideals of women’s modesty and fragility.”
These are the stereotypes and prejudices that black female artists must contend with. Female rappers in the game have always had to prove themselves as being just as hardcore as the men. By making money and bragging about their sexual encounters, these women aren’t doing anything male rappers don’t already do without any censure.
That’s something I, along with most of America, has only come to grips with now. I grew up as a socially anxious yet secretly horny girl. I listened to “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” and turned up my nose at women like Lil’ Kim and Trina.
Women in R&B have always expressed themselves on love, something we celebrate without question, but only now has it become acceptable to sing more explicitly about sex. Black female singers gained undeniable strength for themselves through talking about sex in their music.
Tinashe, one of my favorite new singers, not only talks about sexuality but drug use. Her breakthrough single “2 On” makes reference after reference to popping pills. Rihanna went off on a former accountant who lost her millions in “Bitch Better Have My Money.” Everyone who who criticized the video’s violent imagery probably had never seeing Robbie Williams’s video for “Rock DJ.” (Pro tip: DON’T.)
For a black woman to openly speak on her sexuality in a culture that consistently comes up with a new ways to women promiscuous (i.e. thots), it’s a sign of strength.
Music has been said to be a way to decorate time, so it helps to look far and wide to find your accent pieces. Look closer at the artists who you’ve been sleeping on. Open your mind to what taboos they discuss, and think about how they approach them.
Now, I instantly love someone who can sing about catching bodies and their dream guy.
I don’t just love Lauryn Hill. I love Nicki, Kim, and Dej Loaf.