by Josie Pickens
Being Black + Woman is exhausting as fuck.
I keep typing (and erasing) this sentence.
I don’t want it to be true.
I don’t want to deal with the feelings of hopelessness that accompany its subject and predicate.
But here I am.
Here we all are.
Reading this well-known, but rarely acknowledged truth.
I wear this sentence, its meaning, like a heavy winter coat—necessary to navigate the weather, but cumbersome because I’d rather be naked.
I wore it as I spun in circles dancing to James Brown while other kindred lovers of funk celebrated the soul brother’s birthday. As I dressed to dance until I dripped sweat, I contemplated how much I could celebrate Brown, a man who had a long reputation of mercilessly beating Black women.
I chose to dance still.
I wore it, also, as my social media feed filled with celebrations of Kwanzaa (and the meanings of the Nguzo Saba), an I wondered if I could continue to enthusiastically support the Pan African holiday, knowing its founder ferociously tortured Black women with little consequence.
I chose to celebrate still.
I wore the sentence again when I decided to accept an invitation to attend Free Press Houston’s Day For Night Festival where Grammy nominated, and bomb ass rapper, Kendrick Lamar was the headliner.
To be clear, I don’t fuck with Free Press like that, specifically because they chose to hire “alleged” child rapist R. Kelly to headline their Summer Festival, despite significant push back from many in the Houston community to cancel his appearance. Ultimately, the conglomerate decided that Kelly entertaining young White hipsters (and making them lots of money in the process) meant more than standing up for an entire community of Black girls whom R. Kelly stalked and raped.
I chose to rock with Kendrick. I chose the experience of seeing one of my faves rap about Black life and Black death and Black joy with audacity.
I am aware that these choices are mine, before some asshole lights up the comments section telling me that I could have said no.
I dress and drive and park and make my way onto the festival grounds. I’m thinking: Damn, choosing R. Kelly and profit over Black girls must have really paid of for the Free Press crew, because this set up is lit. Lots of food trucks, tons of beer and booze, and an impressive international mix of attendees create an interesting vibration for the night.
Flying Lotus hits the stage before Kendrick. He’s my dude. FlyLo is more than a beat maker, producer and deejay. He’s a visionary from the pool of Black genius. I am always enthralled by his soulful, trippy musical concoctions. I am even more impressed by the visuals he presents to accompany those concoctions. That’s where the magic is, it’s in how he allows his listener to peak inside his brain—a gorgeous playground of radical imagination. Take his collaboration with Kahlil Joseph on Until the Quiet Comes for instance, or the song and video Never Catch Me feat. Kendrick that literally makes me weep when I hear and watch it, everytime.
FlyLo makes sure to captivate the audience at Day for Night as well, or at least those of us eager to ride. A fellow rider, the homie (and exceptional creative and storyteller) Marlon Hall, reminds me that Flying Lotus creates the visuals that accompany his music when he plays at fests. Marlon got deep into the images, discussing screen measurements and how those measurements are chosen to achieve a specific visual affect on the crowd. He then asks me why Fly Lo seems so interested (maybe even fascinated) with death. His latest album is called, after all, You’re Dead!
I don’t know how all of us Black folk are not obsessed with death and dying as images of blood soaked, lifeless Black bodies make up a majority of the 24 hour news reel, well Black death and Donald Trump, which may not be as dichotomist as we might imagine.
Anyway. Back to the Black + Woman shit:
Marlon asks me how I feel about seeing Kendrick, knowing that he is so important to the game and the art of activism right now, but also knowing that he doesn’t seem to get the Black women matter too thing quite right.
“It’s the only song I know, really,” I tell Marlon.
I’ve been working as an activist since I was 19. I have loved Black men who have loved themselves, and have only seen Black struggle created in their own image. I have been reminded that Black pain is Black men’s business. I don’t expect Kendrick Lamar to disrupt that narrative, although I’m hopeful that one day he will.
One day, but not today.
I mean, To Pimp A Butterfly ‘s album artwork itself is absent of Black women holding wads of cash and squatting in the illest of rap poses. His boys are there though, stomping on the grounds of the White House like the slaves that built it. His image of revolt erases Black women, even in the age of so many Black women leading the current televised and tweeted movement towards Black liberation. That’s a problem, yes, but it ain’t a new one.
I choose to get it how I live. I choose to be grateful that Kendrick is less misogynist than his rap forefathers. I choose to acknowledge that we all have a bunch of growing to do.
Having just had this conversation with Marlon, Kendrick beginning his set with “For Free?” made me slump my shoulders. I’m already tired.
“Pity the fool that made the pretty in you prosper
Titty juice and pussy lips kept me obnoxious, kept me up watchin’”
The interlude says.
I have two degrees in Lit, I understand Kendrick’s use of metaphor and personification to address our addiction to capitalism, and neo-colonialism as a result. I love Kendrick because his words are dense and viscid. They mean to cut you the fuck up into jagged pieces. Do that shit, Kendrick. Do it.
But I don’t want to be made to bathe in a pool of tired, overdone tropes of Black womanhood in order to receive the message of how mass consumerism is, also, ruining the Black community.
Kendrick heads into Wesley’s Theory. Rocking out with a live band of Black boys. He’s wearing a plaid button down and cornrows as the backdrop on stage reads, in lights, “Never Trust a Nigga with Cornrows.” Well played, K Dot. He is resuscitating me a bit.
“Backseat Freestyle” is up next, and now the crowd seems to be powering up. It becomes apparent to me that the folks attending the fest are fans of Kendrick’s first (and less revolutionary) album—the one where he served as storyteller of life in Compton that could be coveted without the guilt by White fans.
Kedrick’s next trick? He invites fans onstage that can rap “m.A.A.d City” word for word. He chooses a White male fan who does exactly that—Corporate Dough, he calls himself. I couldn’t make this shit up, family. It’s something to watch, Whites who adore Black culture, and even Black artists like Kendrick, but who seem un-invested and even against our movements to demonstrate how and why Black lives matter.
I’m a jealous lover. I don’t want to share Kendrick’s stories of living and dying in LA., which is a retelling of all our stories. I wish, for a moment, that Black folk in America spoke a different language that requires translation before recitation. I want Corporate Dough to be more invested in Kendrick, in us. But maybe we already own that language. Maybe that language is one of familiar collective pain. Maybe there is a moment of rememory that happens when we listen to Kendrick that belongs to only us.
Here’s to hoping.
“Hood Politics” comes through bangin’. You gotta respect K. Dot’s showmanship. He’s a beast on stage. It’s a stellar performance, especially to someone who remembers the days of hip hop shows consisting of twenty niggas on stage screaming and holding solo cups filled with lean or brown liquor chanting some random lyric about how bitches ain’t shit.
There is more fire. KDot energetically pushes through “King Kunta”, “Swimming Pools,” and “I Love Myself.” The crowd goes wild when Kendrick performs songs from his first album about drinking and fucking and rolling slow through the hood. They are a bit more reserved, more distant even, when he tackles topics of police brutality and systematic racism. They aren’t here for that shit. Kendrick is running their high.
Kendrick Lamar leaves the stage. Those in the crowd who know, who have accepted “Alright” as the new negro national anthem, begin to chant the chorus of the song, in their own way begging Kendrick to come back on stage. It’s his last song of the night, and the one I’ve been waiting to hear and witness:
When you know, we been hurt, been down before, nigga
When my pride was low, lookin’ at the world like, “where do we go, nigga?”
And we hate Popo, wanna kill us dead in the street for sure, nigga
I’m at the preacher’s door
My knees gettin’ weak and my gun might blow but we gon’ be alright
Part of me, maybe being a masochist of sorts, wants to see KDot’s non-Black fans chant those lyrics. I want to look into their faces and search for solidarity. I want to believe that the hopeful despair present in those verses vibrates through their bodies like the baseline does.
But it doesn’t. It is an empty repetition.
I feel Kendrick though, deeply, like skin, like a first kiss. I feel, too, all of the Black joy emitting from the rapper’s body as he dances across the stage at a show he might have only wished he could afford to attend some years ago.
It’s a beautiful moment, within a beautiful struggle, and while I am standing, chanting and celebrating with KDot, I only wish that he could see me in the many ways that I see him.
Being Black + Woman is exhausting as fuck.
But nigga we gon’ be alright.
A great African Proverb reminds us that until the lions have their own storytellers, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. Josie Pickens’ life work is to help the lions of the world tell their stories. Pickens is an activist, culture critic, scribe, educator and soldier of love. She utilizes all of her various talents and passions to uplift and translate the narratives of women and people of color through the lenses of creative writing, journalism, performance and professorship. As a columnist for Ebony Digital, Jo explores love and relationships in a manner that focuses on our humanity and self-love foremost, and specifically comments on topics associated with race and feminism. She also offers insightful and authentic cultural critique on subjects ranging from pop culture to politics for various publications including Ebony.com, The Root, and The Guardian, and serves as a composition instructor and mentor for students at Texas Southern University.