So Anxious: Black Love & Intimacy in Black R&B Music Videos

 

What does Black love feel like?

Many of us have grown up listening to sultry sexy artist like D’Angelo, Jodeci, Janet Jackson, Sade, Ginuwine and SWV. These are just a few of many R&B artists that have provided the perfect soundtrack to serenade your lover. If you had the perfect night in with your lover, D’Angelo’s “Brown Sugar” or Monica’s “Angel of Mine” probably set the mood and help the one you loved most understand and sense what you were feeling. However, one important aspect of these artists and their passionate love songs is how the artist and director were both able to create an intimate imagery of Black love and sexuality that was nostalgic and beautiful.

What does Black love look like?

If I had to decide, to me it looks like Erykah Badu and Andre 3000 in her 1997 song “Otherside of the Game”. Erykah describes the commitment and love she has for her Black man and the things she goes through as the girlfriend of a drug dealer. In the video, you see a pregnant Erykah and a busy Andre 3000 co-existing in their loft starting their day. Importantly, this song provides an iconic soundtrack to what they are experiencing that morning along with showcasing their love as she wakes Andre up, they play fight, he caresses her belly and holds her tight as they embrace. This video provides an everydayness of waking up together and loving each other where others who watch the video can resonate with.

I also think in Joe’s video, “All The Things Your Man Wont Do”, there is sex appeal and curiosity between him and his lover.  In the beginning, you see Joe confessing his love to a woman on a pay phone and telling her that she deserves better.

This inevitably leads him to make an appearance at her job where he continues to serenade her and convince this Black woman that he possesses qualities that her current boyfriend does not. Throughout the video, the director creates a late-night mood and intimacy that is shared between the two. This is seen in the way the young woman flirts with Joe in the restaurant and making the ultimate sacrifice to take a chance with a better man

How far will Black love go?

A classic R&B music video that had a more scandalous storyline, but still had meaningful lyrics was Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time”. Boyz n the Hood director John Singleton, directed his first music video which was set in ancient Egypt and starred Eddie Murphy and supermodel Iman. Although Michael Jackson also serenaded someone else’s wife in the video, this video honored  Black people as rulers of ancient Egypt, the fight for love and an amazing dance sequence with both Black men and women of all shades. This video, in particular, reflects on the past of two lovers while still honoring the beauty of Black love and Blackness through the wardrobe selection and various skin tones of Black characters and dancers.

While many 90s artists brought us sexy and intimate love ballads, their music videos accompanied imagery that made you believe in Black love that was complicated, honest and sincere. While the videos discussed aren’t true to every relationship, these videos did portray a side of Black love and intimacy that wasn’t easily found in the typical raunchy Hip-Hop videos. R&B music videos were able to tastefully showcase all shades of Blackness that wasn’t necessarily misogynistic or overly provocative. However, it did showcase a variation of Black love and intimacy that took place in ordinary locations such as the subway, club or local coffee shop. A brotha would proclaim his love in the rain, or on the phone. A sistah would make a late night trip to her man’s crib or wake him up and sing to him in the early morning. Either way, watching and reminiscing on 90s R&B I’m sure one could find the perfect video that embodies and reflects how they feel about their Black love. — Adeerya J.

 

Kara Walker: Visualizing the Intersections of Race, Gender, and Sexuality

Kara Walker represents a new voice and new perspective that came of age in the 1990s that offered a new visual platform to explore the complexity of race, gender, and sexual exploitation. Her fame came quickly and at a young age. She became an “art star overnight.”[i] In 1994, Walker presented Gone: An Historical Romance of Civil War as it Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of a Young Negress and Her Heart. The piece uses a Victorian era art medium of hand cutting paper silhouettes. While the medium is historical, her approach to the subject matter was not. Gone contains caricatures of slaves in sexual exploitative positions that highlight issues of miscegenation. In other words, these life size silhouettes (seen in the image below) show the lived and imagined realities of slavery in a size that cannot be ignored.

Gone: An Historical Romance of Civil War as it Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of a Young Negress and Her Heart (1994)

Kara Walker reflects the changing approach to grappling with the complexity of the legacy of slavery. Hazma Walker (no relation), argues that Kara Walker is part of the generation that is both post-Civil Rights Era—and post-Roots (the television adaptation). Young artists may no longer feel they must “address slavery in a strictly reverential way.”[ii] In other words, coming of age in the 1990s offered new ways to explore intersections of race, sex, and gender that may still be offensive or at least uncomfortable to the older generation. I would argue they are meant to make you uncomfortable. Discomfort, or even a visceral reaction, should accompany an exploration of identity and the legacy of slavery often minimized in mainstream American society.

In 1997, at the age of 27, Kara Walker won a $190,000 “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation and became the second youngest person to ever earn the award. It came only three years after Walker had graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design and was met with controversy, especially within the African American artistic community.

An extreme example of the backlash can be seen from artist Betye Saar; the artist was in her early 70s at that time and began a letter-writing campaign petitioning curators to prevent her work from being shown. In the 1999 PBS documentary I’ll Make Me a World, she refers to Walker’s work as “‘revolting and negative and a form of betrayal to the slaves.’”[iii] Furthermore, Saar suggests that the younger artist’s use of racist stereotypes was betraying African-Americans “under the guise of art.”[iv] Saar admits she used caricature in her work, but argues that she was using it as a tool to reclaim and “recast” these images to give them power. The most noted example is her piece “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima,” which presents the title figure holding a broom in one hand–but a gun in the other. Therefore, Saar seems to be frustrated by the ambiguous nature of the characters. On the hand, writer Rhonda Stewart seems to emphasize that this “ambiguity” in Walker’s work is part of what makes it “thought-provoking.”[v]

front view of A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby (2014)
side view of A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby (2014)

Walker continues to take risks and repurpose old mediums. In this case, “elaborate medieval sugar sculptures displayed as symbols of kingly power at royal feasts.”[vi] In 2014, she built “a 35-foot-tall and 75-foot-long sphinx, [made] with 30 tons of white sugar,” entitled A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby (seen above).[vii] The sculpture was built at the former Domino Sugar refinery in the Williamsburg neighborhood of New York City. It was free and open to public. Writer Carol Kino described it as a “leonine body,…[and] like much of Walker’s work, built for controversy, with pendulous breasts, an Aunt Jemima–esque face and kerchief, a Kim Kardashian rump and a vulva so enormous one critic likened it to a temple entrance…[T]he installation was a monument to the slave labor that enabled sugar to become an everyday commodity.”[viii] It attracted 130,000 visitors and celebrities (including Beyoncé, Jay-Z and their daughter, Blue Ivy). The lines sometimes extended for eight blocks.[ix] Walker has now collected a body of work that can no longer be minimized due to her age or medium. Ebony Gibson

[i] Kino, Carol. “Kara Walker’s Thought-Provoking Art.” Wall Street Journal. Nov. 5 2014.

[ii] Stewart, page 50.

[iii] Stewart, Rhonda. “Still Here: Artist Kara Walker in Black And White.” Crisis 111.1 (2004): 50.

[iv] Edgar, Allen B. “On the Cutting Edge or Over the Line? Kara Walker is Gifted, Angry, and Subjected to Criticism for Exploiting Racial Stereotypes in Her Art. The Main Resident is also Soft-Spoken and Unsettled by Her Own Success.” Boston Globe: 16. Dec 30 2001.

[v] Stewart, page 50.

[vi] Kino

[vii] Kino

[viii] Kino

[ix] Kino