Just a few months ago, two of the biggest music stars in the world dropped groundbreaking projects, both sonically and politically. When the highly anticipated Rihanna album leaked on January 26,, followed by Beyoncé’s pre-Super Bowl surprise digital release of Formation on February 6, the Internet and pop culture aficionados collectively imploded with unbridled excitement. However, once the initial excitement subsided, the public conversation quickly veered towards which project would be deemed the “winner,” with the other automatically relegated to flop status. The rhetoric following these two releases was almost as obnoxious as the unwavering refusal by many to recognize current pop music as containing any value.
The mainstream music industry traditionally pits female artists with similar musical styles against one another; women are infrequently awarded the automatic respect that their own unique sound is incomparable. While modern-day feminism continues to emphasize the need to diminish our culture’s eagerness to pit women against each other (as it does nothing but ultimately further a hegemonic patriarchal agenda), it nonetheless remains a common narrative in mass media. Research shows that within the hip hop industry men outnumber women drastically; further, the conduit from songwriter to producer to artist remains male-centric and actively reduces the economic opportunities for women to have equal participation and support in the hip hop music industry, both as artists and executives. (See “Oppositional Consciousness within an Oppositional Realm: The Case of Feminism and Womanism in Rap and Hip Hop, p. 254.)
The problem with these comparisons is that they a) communicate that a woman’s value will be determined by being better (prettier, smarter, cooler, sexier, etc.) than another woman; b) are rooted in sexist and racist ideas centering on the historical control of the mass media over Black female identities; and c) divert attention away from a conversation about the actual contributions these artists are making to music.
“I am Not a Girl that Could Ever Be Defined”
Rihanna and Beyoncé as visual artists control their own images, displaying autonomy over the mass cultural production of their music and identity.
Rihanna has morphed into a darker pop star, as reflected in Anti. Yet her most endearing quality comes when her darkness melts into tenderness; she is both brass and vulnerable at the same time. Her embracing of the erotic coupled with her yearning for substance in Anti is authentically complicated. The complaints that Anti was a disappointment because it had no immediate pop hits (despite the success of “Work”) and introduced a new, nuanced Rihanna strips her of the space men are afforded to grow in as musical artists.
Beyoncé has steadily transpired from the girl-next-door to a full-fledged political activist. While the impact of Beyoncé’s Formation has already spawned dozens of articles on her use of Black Power imagery and ideas, it can’t really be said enough that Beyoncé producing a mainstream song and video dressed in Black Panther garb and ostensibly calling out both the federal government for their role in Katrina and the police force around America for their continuing brutality against Black men and women is a highly important mass media visual of a Black woman taking control of her identity and message, regardless of whether or not it fits a comfortable narrative expected of her. The success of her song should not be diminished to the fact that people just liked Formation better than Anti; this strips the narrative of its meaning.
The last time I remember a mainstream hip hop artist making a public throwback to the Black Panthers was when Young Jeezy’s “Crazy World” came out, and he dressed up a legion of men as Black panthers during a BET performance. I was an undergrad at the time and in a hip hop studies class at my university. I remember my professor explaining her shock and kept repeating, “I mean, Jeezy had to do it? JEEZY. had. to. do it. Not Killer Mike, not Talib Kweli, but Jeezy.” This was poignant to me because pop culture is so frequently looked over as a legitimate political vehicle.
“Defining certain women as beautiful, and others as not, is a form of sociopolitical control that empowers some and disempowers others.”
While many would like to believe we live in a post-racial society, mainstream images continue to celebrate the standard of beauty for women as thin and White. Coupled with the marginalization as a whole of women within the music industry, I find it troubling that the conversation surrounding the two releases went in such a vapid (yet expected) direction.
Rihanna and Beyoncé are sending a message for women to get into an identity formation: women, like all humans, are nuanced, complicated, and can never be compared. In an industry and mass media culture that wants women to be one-dimensional and passive, two female hip hop artists embracing their unique beauty and sexuality as a form of empowerment—yet never letting it define or reduce them—deserve to have a conversation greater than the equivalent of a whose-dick-is-bigger contest. Both Rihanna and Beyoncé navigate the continuing transformation of one’s identity outside of the confines of a hegemonic culture; this is reflected in both Formation and Anti, not in one over the other. There are too many stereotypes of women in hip hop and public conversations too often shrink female hip hop artists to abstractions rather than ongoing cultural contributors.
Jessie is the owner and operator of Arn't I a Woman? a blog focusing on intersectional perspectives on mental health and pop culture.