To Those That (Re)affirmed For Me That There’s More Than One Way to Be Black: Why Media Representation Matters
Drake, Lizzo & Beyonce. These 3 artists mean a lot to me.
I know it’s easy to dismiss celebrities as unimportant frivolity but as someone that has spent most of my life studying media & culture, I believe the most important reason why celebrity matters is because of representation.
Representation goes beyond seeing someone that looks like you. It also means seeing people that have similar experiences to you, seeing someone that has a similar background to yourself, seeing someone you can identify with.
One issue with the representation of Black people in media is that it can often be monolithic. Almost every time I tell people I’m from Baltimore, the next sentence out of their mouth is about The Wire.
My parents raised me in the suburbs. I was first-generation American, my parents sheltered me from anything that could conceivably be even a minor plot line on The Wire. At the time it was airing, it was brilliant television that only resonated with me because I could point out landmarks.
So, I know at this point you’re thinking, what does all of this have to do with Drake, Beyonce and Lizzo?
These 3 artists (and many more) affirmed (or reaffirmed) what my Black experience has been and that there is more than one way to be Black.
One of my favorite shows, Insecure (an amazing show highlighting a joyful Black experience) has one of my favorite quotes:
“Every Black girl that went to college loves Drake.”
So much of Black representation is tied up in poverty, drugs & crime. I, in no way, want to invalidate that experience but it’s not mine. I grew up in the suburbs, I grew up on Tumblr, I grew up with a sense of entitlement, I grew up with a lot of expectations placed upon me, I grew up with a whole lot of emotions. Drake in the same breath can be vulnerable, celebratory & proud. People ask me what I love about Drake (especially knowing he’s problematic in many ways). But, as a Black kid from the suburbs with big ideas and an even bigger ego, I see myself in Drake.
I also see myself in Lizzo. Though in very much parallel to the previous quote, a much more harmful quote I’ve read is:
“Lizzo makes music for white girls.”
This is meant to imply that Lizzo is not Black enough.
This is also very much my experience. Making pop music (or God forbid, rock or country music) somehow invalidates you as a Black person. Seeing successful Black women get to be whole versions of themselves is honestly life-affirming in many ways. It’s a reminder that just because I grew up in dirty rock clubs, love pop songs and literally swoon when a southern boy strums a guitar doesn’t make me any less Black because there isn’t just one way to be Black. Both black & white people throughout my life have tried to tell me that I should stay in my lane out of fear that I would transcend the limited expectations & stereotypes assigned to me. Because they knew nothing else, they expected nothing more. Many Black pop stars have been this person for me in the past but Lizzo feels like the most evolved version of the road Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Lauryn Hill (and so many others) worked to pave.
And finally, most importantly, I see myself in Beyonce. Everything above about Lizzo, of course, can very much be applied to Beyonce but there’s so much more.
Beyonce came into her full self. You can literally watch the evolution as she discovered feminism, as she discovered her African heritage, as she embraced being a wife, a mother, and a business person.
The quote from Black Panther that sticks with me more than any other is:
“Y’all sitting up here all comfortable. Must feel good. Meanwhile, there’s about two billion people all over the world that look like us, but their lives are a lot harder.”
At the beginning of this increasingly long post, I talked about The Wire. It was something that happened nearby, but not something that affected me. Without knowing (or fully understanding), I distanced myself from parts of the Black experience (and for that matter, feminist culture) because I did not know any better. I grew up privileged and though I saw people like me suffering, it took me a long time to understand why. And when I finally truly did, I was angry.
Beyonce has been one of those people that I felt in solidarity with as we, quite frankly, radicalized. The Superbowl performance of “Formation” was an anthem for both blackness and feminity in a space very much held sacred for primarily white men and it was truly awe-inspiring.
A few years later, she followed that up with performing at Coachella. Though she never went to an HBCU she embraced that iconic part of the Black experience to, again, occupy a space that is normally saved for a white audience.
On stage she said:
“Thank you Coachella, for allowing me to be the first black woman to headline Coachella. Ain’t that about a bitch?”
I felt that in my bones.
Because for me, a very specific part of my Black experience is expectation & ambition. Beyonce reportedly was paid $10 million for those 2 Coachella performances and then another 20 million for the Homecoming Netflix special.
While there are fundamental issues conceptually with the existence of billionaires, Jay Z & Beyonce being billionaires honestly just makes me feel a bit lighter every day. While I’m not in any way naive enough to think I’ll ever be a billionaire, I do genuinely strive to be a millionaire. I do strive to exceed even my own expectations. I do strive to be as successful as possible and I feel absolutely no guilt about that. I am allowed to be ambitious & Black. I married a man that not just tolerates my ambition and success but actively supports it.
That intersection of feminity, blackness and ambition is what motivates me to rise up. Breaking down systems that were specifically built to keep me down is my everyday experience. As Beyonce said:
“Always stay gracious. Best revenge is your paper.”
I could go on about all of this for days, but if you’re still reading at this point, I’ll spare you.
To put it simply (after over 1000 words):
It’s easy to roll your eyes at yet another post about Beyonce. It’s easy to dismiss pop culture as vapid. It’s very easy to call an artist “overrated” but ask yourself what that person represents. Very often, it’s more than “just” music. It’s called pop *culture* for a reason. Music drives culture. Music matters.
Oh and Black Lives (Still) Matter.
Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.