On Becky, M.I.A.,and the Problem of that “Good Hair”

Via eonline.com

It’s a ‘do you remember where you were when…?” kind of event.

Years from now, I’ll say, “I was at a friends birthday party where some of us gathered around the TV, shushing the others, to watch Lemonade premiere.”

It was a warm, April evening in Houston and I got to the party with about 4 minutes to spare. We had a hard time hearing, but we leaned in to hear. We gulped the visuals down with wide eyes, like we’d never seen any music video before. There was hollering, cheering, praising, waving, conferring, and more than a few times, there was a stunned silence.

So many have written already, about the well and tide of resonance that the album inspires. There is something powerful, bigger than a single story in the fact of hundreds, thousands, and hundreds of thousands of women, saying, “Yes. I know this story.” One of my favorite writers, Robin Boylorn, an anchor of my understanding of Black feminism says, Lemonade  “bore witness to lifelong legacies of blackgirl womanhood.”

For those of us that see familiar stories in Lemonade, but are not Black women, to whom Lemonade is a love letter, so clearly —  there may be the question how to ally, sincerely with the resonances, and note but not occupy any dissonances.

I, myself, find the deepest resonance with the rage. Specifically, with the righteous rage and the clarity with with the album points to the wrongs, carried out by a person and those carried out by the state. The unapologetic political drive of Freedom speaks to my angry heart — a song I can imagine chanting in marches, and at rallies, and in my house at my computer when the trolls come out.

But, really, I came here to talk about/with the South Asian women.

Because there is also the question of Becky With The Good Hair. There is the question of good hair. And there is the question of our girl M.I.A.

The album addresses infidelity, including a reference in the song “Sorry” to a woman Beyonce calls “Becky with the good hair.” Becky widely rumored to be fashion designer Rachel Roy. Rachel Roy is a mixed-race Dutch and Indian woman who was once married to music producer Damon Dash with whom she has two daughters. Let’s side-step the question of whether Rachel Roy is indeed Becky, and whether or not she had an affair with Jay-Z. Those are questions best left to those directly involved, and to the wine-induced gossiping that the rest of us will be doing forever. In fact, given the trajectory of the album, if it is indeed biographical — Beyonce and Jay are working through the challenges in their marriage and making good progress. So, let’s keep it moving.

What to make of the matter of “good hair?” Beyonce spits the words at the the end of “Sorry” – full of anger and some resignation, perhaps. Just a few hours later, when Rachel Roy would (foolishly) post “good hair, don’t care,” the first thing I thought of was colonization. How many of us, here I’m thinking of the South Asian women that are my family and friends, are told, before we know much else about ourselves, whether we have good or bad hair? The straighter, the better. The silkier or lighter in color, the more beautiful. Couple that with the deep-seated colorism and the fact that Fair ’n Lovely skin whitening cream is sold on every street corner and bazaar in India, and you’ve got a recipe of beauty standards that are pervasive, impossible to achieve and so dangerous. Proximity to whiteness is beauty and power, proximity to blackness is detested.

In Lemonade, Beyonce reclaims some of that conversation about beauty. Interestingly, some of the comments on Roy’s instagram be sure to point out how Roy’s hair “isn’t even that good” and “that the real Becky” is the blonde woman in the photo with Roy. Hoo boy, this stuff runs deep. Now, I’m mostly here for the stanning, in particular the copious amount of lemon emojis and the fierce protection of a Black feminist idol, but let’s note the contradiction. The fact that THIS is the story so many are telling after witnessing a piece of art that upends our idea of what a pop icon can do? Beyonce’s work in Lemonade seeks a radical redefinition of beauty, and power, that centers Black women. Does it succeed? Let’s have that conversation. The fact that so much of the media (notably, most of these pieces are not the ones written by Black women) is fomenting a rivalry, and dwelling on the rumored infidelity, should tell you something about the power of these racist narratives.

Why are we even playing this game? This game in which the prize is self-worth. This game that’s rigged from the start.

What about Rachel Roy’s mixed-race daughters? What about the fact that they might not have the “good hair” that their mother is so proud of? What about the deep anti-blackness that is at the core of designating straight hair as “good” and kinky hair as “bad?”

Why are we even playing this game? These are not our standards, they did not come from us. They came from our oppressors who would have us hating ourselves and each other, so that we don’t turn our rage in their direction.

<puts “Freedom” on again>

On this matter of tearing each other down, in a recent interview with the Evening Standard a reporter asked M.I.A. for her reaction to Beyoncé’s black power salute during the 2016 Super Bowl half-time show. Her response: “It’s interesting that in America the problem you’re allowed to talk about is Black Lives Matter … Is Beyoncé or Kendrick Lamar going to say Muslim Lives Matter? Or Syrian Lives Matter? Or this kid in Pakistan matters? That’s a more interesting question.” She continued, “And you cannot ask it on a song that’s on Apple, you cannot ask it on an American TV programme, you cannot create that tag on Twitter, Michelle Obama is not going to hump you back.”

Hoo boy, this stuff runs deep.

M.I.A is operating here from a warped understanding of solidarity. But let’s start with the fact that her comments betray an ignorance of what it has taken, what it continues to take to keep our national media conversation paying attention to the liberatory work of the Black Lives Matter movement. They hardly cover it at all, and if they do it is so often distorted beyond recognition. So, to say that here in the US we are “allowed” to talk about Black Lives in the US is clear and willful ignorance about the death and destruction brought to bear upon every single historical struggle in the US that fights racial injustice and proclaims the value of Black lives. It is false. To say it that way undermines the great cost that Black activists have borne in order to be seen and heard. Get into the Google, girl.

On the question of solidarity, where to begin? First, saying “Black Lives Matter” does not exclude “Muslim lives” because there are, of course, Black Muslims. Second, while I concur that Islamophobia is deep and pervasive in the U.S., the BLM movement does not preclude additional movements (which already exist) from taking up the question of Muslim lives, Pakistani lives, refugee lives. In fact, I think that both Beyonce and Kendrick should talk about Islamophobia – these are conversations that we must have across our communities. To place the burden on Black leaders and activists, completely misunderstands the way that solidarity works. To act in solidarity means to understand the movement and the demands of those you seek to ally with. It means, sometimes putting your demands second to theirs. It means making space at the table for your allies when you are there and they are not.

It requires building relationships and trust across difference. As we can see from the conversation about “good hair,” it involves working to understand the multiple systems of oppression that you share, as well as those you don’t.

It doesn’t involve a flip and uninformed chastisement in an interview, I’ll tell you that much. I hope that her deep commitment to social justice will push M.I.A to re-think those remarks, and push her to do better.

<puts on Hold Up>

Solidarity is hard work. It is a commitment and a way of being. At least I have a new soundtrack for all that hard work.

8 thoughts on “On Becky, M.I.A.,and the Problem of that “Good Hair”

  1. I am brought to tears by the resurgence of discourses on race and gender that are happening at this particular moment. May we always remain awake and vigilant! This is beautiful stuff.

  2. Can’t wait to have the album in hand so that I can feel it’s balm of truth to flow through me as I listen to it…Peace my sisters.

  3. I’ve been working a lot on cross racial feminism — its possibilities and impossibilities. Would love to chat more! How do I get in touch?

  4. beyonce is most definitely not defining a radical new definition of beauty when she wears a fur coat and whips her hair while biting Malcolm X quotes about the oppression of women. i am troubled by her toddlers and tiaras/jonbenet blonde hair in a way that rupaul’s blonde hair, or kentrell collins’ blonde ombre twists, or a blonde ‘fro, do not trouble me. i am troubled by her blonde hair the way i’m troubled by rachel dolezal’s — or axl rose’s — dreads. by wielding a baseball bat in an evening dress, she turns the bat into a dress. black panthers in booty shorts? deeply disrespectful appropriation of moral authority she entirely lacks, as is, i’m afraid, her interation of blonde. the only way beyonce is defining radical new standards of beauty is in the context of 30 years of hateful, sexist rap. and, in the perfection of the art, video, music, and literary surface of her production — much more highly evolved, like donald trump’s and spielberg’s — than the feral politics they espouse.

  5. so, so love this essay: you have written movingly, brilliantly…i am assigning to my classes and I keep re=reading it and learning from every line. wow. THANK YOU.

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