When Erykah Badu stripped down to complete nudity in order to sell an album, I knew the tides had finally turned for the worst — not only for music, but also for the image of black women. Erykah has been considered for some time as a true artist’s artist, not the kind of person who would use sex to sell anything, let alone an album. In her video for “Window Seat” she claimed to be making a statement for freedom, non-conformity, and the questioning of authority. But what most of us saw was a black woman bearing her rather bodacious body near the time of her album release, which is something we would expect from Lil Kim, not a creator of quality.
There was a time when Madonna was cursed for using such tactics to sell, but now such antics are beyond par for the course. The hyper-sexuality of Beyonce’s video for “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” The over-the-top, bi-curious video from Usher featuring Nicki Minaj, “Lil’ Freak.” The video for “Telephone” by Lady Gaga featuring Beyonce, in which meaningless girl-on-girl innuendo is taken to an absurd extreme. It seems that one cannot turn on the television these days without a black woman thrusting her crotch into your face, showing you her goodies, or inviting you to join a happy-go-lucky lesbian coupling sans serious cultural consideration.
Not that all of that is bad. The promotion of the notion of the hypersexual black woman has been used for centuries to justify the rape and abuse of black females from slavery through the times of Jim Crow. As a defense against this horrible cultural portrayal, many black women over the years have retreated from any sexual display to hide behind an asexual veneer. It was better to be seen as somewhat unattractive if efficient, than to possibly give fodder to the idea that black women are the insatiable vixens that the mainstream sought to cast us as. This strangulation of African American female sexuality has been a burden and a curse for a number of years. The freedom for black women to be sexual beings, while being seen as human and worthy of respect, is a relatively new phenomenon.
Fast forward to the 21st century. Now we have a veritable smorgasbord of black women serving up piping hot cakes of our sexiness for the consumption of an eager public. We want to see this as an empowering departure from stifled black women seeking to avoid the Jezebel stereotype. But could there be another stereotype black female stars are playing into by using sex to sell?
Fascination with the black woman’s body began with the infamous career of the “Hottentot Venus” — a black woman named Saartjie Baartman displayed like an animal due to the huge proportions of her derriere in 19th century Europe. The “Hottentot Venus” was a real woman with a full spectrum of emotions and needs, but it was her African body features that made her stand out as a freak show item that could draw huge crowds. We have to wonder if stars like Erykah Badu, Beyonce and Nicki Minaj are similarly using their booties to draw huge virtual crowds in this mediated age.
Beyonce, we expect this of. We love her catchy songs, and could not imagine a Bey video that did not feature her backside gyrating to a popping beat. Nicki Minaj has of course allegedly enhanced her buttocks considerably for the sole purpose of sensually presenting them to new audiences she hopes to commandeer. But Erykah Badu?
Much like India.Arie, Erykah Badu has always seemed to be both ahead of her time and beyond the pressures of music business money-making. She is someone who we would expect to use actual talent to sell records rather than the public’s inherent fascination with the black woman’s bottom. But perhaps after her last album failed to cause a sufficient stir, she decided to reach for that never-fail attention getter in every black woman’s PR arsenal.
When we watched Erykah slowly undress in her new video taking a walk in Dallas’ Dealey Plaza, as she saunters in her lingerie, there is a distinctive shift in attention as her black panties come into the frame. There is shock and there is awe. For we hardly think of her as being super curvaceous. But when that ample badonka donk comes into view, we knew we had it wrong all along. Erykah was not only that angelic, airy purist we all thought she was. She was also that black female sex machine this whole time. And she is taking this timely revelation all the way to the bank.
I know, I know. She gets shot in a recreation of the assassination of JFK, and the words “Group Think” spill out of her head onto the pavement. But all anyone is really thinking about at that point in the video is that primal ass shifting from left to right before those damned censor patches obscure it from view. Erykah pulled the booty card at exactly the right moment of her career. And she got what she wanted. The attention of an entire nation. It makes one think.
When Saartjie Baartman, was cruelly displayed, she was a slave and died an early death due to her dehumanizing treatment. Now we have African American women today using the power of the black woman’s ass to fully empower themselves, whether it’s to make money or promote something they believe in. We have to applaud Badu for using her assets to challenge people’s narrow mentalities, but we also have to wonder whether she is taking black women back to the 19th century by using this tactic. It’s empowering for her career, but reduces her to being more powerful as a bootylicious body rather than as an artist.
Will there ever come a time when a black woman is not judged or used for her body, even if she is using her body to enhance her own social standing? If even a respected black female musician is willing to use her body as a tool, we may have to wait another 100 years to get the answer to this question.