Thursday, August 8, 2019

Let Us Have Our Things

Hot Girl Summer. Bonnets. Brown Skin Girl.

What do all of these things have in common?

They were created by Black women but later capitalized and co-opted by non-Black people, at the expense of both the creator and those who it was intended for. 

Rap sensation Megan Thee Stallion created the phrase “Hot Girl Summer” as a part of her “Realer” album release and as an ode to her fans, who she calls “hotties”. Her listener demographics consists almost entirely of Black women, which is clear from concert footage as well as her social media following and engagement. This became glaringly obvious to me at the XXL Freshman Class 2019 Concert I attended in New York. The fervent screams in the audience for Thee Stallion to show up were not coming from 16-year-old white girls who came with their boyfriends, no no. They were coming from young Black women, including myself, who were sorely disappointed when Megan couldn’t make it due to bad weather. However, numerous companies, corporations, and white women are using the phrase “hot girl summer” in Instagram captions, ads, articles, and memes -- the list goes on. Yet how many of those companies, corporations, and women can name more than 5 of Megan's songs without looking? How many know what the phrase means, who pioneered it, or why she even calls herself “Thee Stallion”? How many actually make way for and support Black women, Black models, and Black businesses with their dollars? While having a “Hot Girl Summer” isn’t explicitly exclusive to Black women under Megan’s guidelines, it was something created amongst us, for us. There is something to be said about non-Black women and companies continuously appropriating styles and vernacular created by Black women under the guise of “inclusion” while they remain deaf to including and supporting us in their marketing and spaces. In a recent episode of the Therapy for Black Girls podcast, Dr. Joy Harden Bradford and her colleague had to unpack what “Hot Girl Summer” means for some of their clients, but more importantly why people feel so threatened by Black women enjoying themselves. It’s not a meme and was never intended to be: it’s an unapologetically proud Black female-led movement in a world that antagonizes us. The good news is that Megan is in the process of trademarking the phrase, so hopefully by the time she releases “Hot Girl Summer” feat. Nicki Minaj on August 9th, companies will profit no more -- that is, without compensating her first.

In recent news,  Sarah Marantz Lindenberg, a white Canadian women, “created” the “Nite Cap” citing that she wanted to create a fashionable silk head wrap that could preserve hairstyles and prevent breakage. Sound familiar? Not only did she call these basic bonnets “nite caps”, she’s selling them for $98 a piece when I could just go to my local beauty supply store and purchase 2 for $5. Bonnets have been a staple of the Black community for ages, stemming all the way back to the African continent and before American slavery. This is not to be confused with bonnets that pilgrims wore tied under their chins, with a brim framing the face to protect them from the elements. For Black people, “bonnets are now worn as crowns”, drawing attention to our heads and revealing our faces. As Gia Peppers explained, it wasn’t always like that though; the growing presence of the bonnet and durags in media is slow progress towards normalization of something we have been vilified for for so long. Still, schools have put dress code policies in place for parents to drop off and pick up their children, targeting Black mothers who show up in pajamas (like any other parent) donning bonnets.This is about race, yes, but also its direct connection to institutional gatekeeping, access to capital and intellectual property, who reaps the benefits of such, and who doesn’t.  UNC alumna Leah Asmelash wrote an article for CNN dissecting the argument and unveiling the lengthy, racist history that has prohibited Black folks from getting rights to their creative property. For Sarah to claim that she created the bonnet or nite cap or whatever you want to call it, is blatant dismissal of Grace Eleyae, Isoken Enofe, and thousands of bonnet brands created by Black women and honoring our heritage. Although she issued an apology on the company's Instagram and the site is still up and running, time will tell if their “new approach” will involve putting Black women and Black dollars at the forefront.

Lastly, “Brown Skin Girl” is a song that Beyonce made for brown to dark skin Black women. Not for women of color, not for all brown women, not for lighter skinned Black women -- but specifically for brown to dark skin Black girls. Citing Lupita Nyong’o, Kelly Rowland, and Naomi Campbell, how much clearer could she have been? Whether it was to provide clarification, show appreciation to fans, or both, Beyonce eventually posted a video on Instagram of darker Black women from as little as 5 years old celebrating their melanin. In a world that is built on one’s affinity to lightness and whiteness and an obsession with eurocentricity, this is monumental. As a first-generation Nigerian, I know the phenomenon of bleaching has been in my parents’ home country for years and has pervaded across the continent; my mom can remember her peers using lightening creams when they were in secondary school. Just months ago, Blac Chyna went to Lagos to launch a bleaching cream line. Young dark-skinned Black girls can tell you themselves what it’s like being referred to as “burnt”, “manish”, “unattractive”, which are comments that even stem from our own community. However, it’s not just the words that hurt; there are real world, systemic inequalities perpetuated by colorism, such as being reprimanded more in the classroom, serving longer prison sentences, etc. Despite all of that, this song is a celebration of brown skin Black girls and in hopes that one day, we can stop perpetuating colorist ideals in our community. While we are not the only group that experiences colorism and anyone can appreciate the song, compromising who these lyrics are intended for is disrespectful to the experiences of darker-skinned Black women.

Many say that Black women should be flattered that we have such an expansive cross-cultural impact. However, the commodification of our culture without proper compensation, representation, and accreditation to Black women is not flattering in the slightest. If you’re not actively supporting us, amplifying our presence, and making a way for us, this is simply another form of cultural appropriation. While appropriation is frequently seen as an individual’s personal choice, it is also intricately laced within our capitalist system at large, begging the question of where privilege lies within it and the preservation of our cultural capital.

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