Don't act like black women aren't dominating music, especially this year. They’re in formation, on the front lines of the war against black bodies. They come from varying economic and artistic backgrounds. They come from different parts of the country. They have access to a wide array of collaborators and ideas. But one thing remains certain — their focus is on resurrection.  A ray of morose sunshine in a dark, unruly time to be black in America, their product is their self-growth. Their self-care. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.

black women in music
Photos: Amazon

The Knowles family women

Solange’s A Seat at The Table has a production credit list that’s insane. According to Fader, she’s got everyone from Questlove and Raphael Saadiq to Magic Cloudz, Moses Sumney and The Dream. It’s a confluence of disparate influences. Dave Longstreth is in the indie supergroup, Dirty Projectors. Sampha produced the airy reclamation “Don’t Touch My Hair.” It spills out the feels. “Don’t touch my crown,” she whispers, “Don’t touch my pride.” No matter who you are, the love held in those words is infectious stuff. The kind of thing that had us celebrating Warsan Shire woven into Bey’s Lemonade. "Where does it hurt?" she asked us. “Everywhere, everywhere, everywhere.”

Lemonade was about (among many other things) counting and then counting again the many crimes against black women perpetrated by black men. It’s a taboo in our consciousness, a seedling in us that refuses to grow. Beyoncé and her litany of collaborators watered it for us. They tended to the garden of denial that chokes us into being multiple selves. It reminded me of Junot Diaz’s character, Yunior, the shapeshifting watcher of his trifecta. A cheating, layered, loathing character study, Yunior is a historian and a history. He becomes, through his infidelity, a sea of scars through which to see the history of a nation, hell, of the whole-damn-world. That Lemonade ends in forgiveness is sometimes seen by men as sending a warning to the reeling party: Black women, hold onto your man. But it’s historical. A necessary break from the past. In essence, don’t ever play yourself (DJ Khaled voice). 

2 Dope Queens from Chicago

Noname’s Telefone and Jamila Wood’s Heavn come from a different perspective. They are not megastars or fashion icons. They are not average and they live with the supposition of their averageness like cotton shirts touching their shoulders.

Being seen is dangerous. Not being seen could mean your death. These four artists struggle with this perception. The vampirism of a society dependent upon your imagery but that casts your body in suspicion.

Noname was once Noname Gypsy, a poet out of the Chicago slam scene who eyed stardom. She’s teased out the banal violence and peculiar happenings of black life on more than just her new, incredible Telefone. Her flow is a rhythmic pulse. It acts as her Patronus, enveloping her in a +11 protection spell against industry nonsense. But her album attacks in Miyazaki-level beauty the short thoughts that define us. "Searching your Twitter page for something more than black death?" "Wearing tennis shoes to the club because fuck their club?" It’s a woman holding on to whatever innocence she has. One that’s being encroached upon by all sides. The collaboration list is much shorter, pulling Chance The Rapper, Raury and others. But what it lacks in quantity it makes up for in world building. And the Noname we meet is a warbling lover in a world she perceives as one ready to extinguish her. It’s all of us, yet particularly black and particularly woman.

Ursula K. Le Guin tackled the point at hand here in her 1983 commencement speech at Mill’s College, “Public speaking is done in the public tongue, the national or tribal language; and the language of our tribe is the men’s language. Of course women learn it. We’re not dumb. If you can tell Margaret Thatcher from Ronald Reagan, or Indira Gandhi from General Somoza, by anything they say, tell me how. This is a man’s world, so it talks a man’s language. The words are all words of power. You’ve come a long way, baby, but no way is long enough. You can’t even get there by selling yourself out: because there is theirs, not yours.”

It’s long been this way in music, too. "There is theirs, not yours," so it went, but moving images of bodies lying lifeless in our taxpayer-grown fields or our taxpayer-paved streets are helping to change things. The reality of a life as night people has revealed itself on Facebook Live and Twitter. It might still continue. But these albums are testaments to things we can get back. The gem of them all might be Woods' HEAVN.

On “Shadow Man,” Phoelix, The Mind and Cam ‘Obi sing, “Bless the nightingale/Darkness keep you well.” According to Genius, all the spitters are discussing their funerals. If Noname, for all her innocence, expects the gaze to kill her (and who can blame her), Woods shrouds herself in grit.  

In Kris Ex’s review for Pitchfork, he had this to say, “HEAVN is protest music that sounds like a children’s playground. Every song here is resilient and steadfast without being angry and militant; almost each tune is a jingle.” Jamila’s resilience is at the core of the record. We are all so tired. Our lives provisional. We are a rule, not a law. Jamila inspects this sentiment with careful, calculated whimsy.

All of these albums, their four sounds, their four attempts at wrestling with the question of blackness, are the point of music at the moment. As a black president leaves office and a cartoon runs against a real person for the highest office, we’ve got to say what we can. And that the conversation now is dominated by black women is a blessing for all of us. We need their perspective. We need them to turn our national inside secret and share it with the world more than ever. And they’re delivering.

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