How Soul-Baring Black Women Are Challenging Music’s Fragile Male Egos

Grammys president Neil Portnow said women need to “step up” if they want awards’ recognition, but women—particularly black women—have been stepping up musically for years.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Pain is a part of art. In music, its often romanticized—intrinsically connected to how we see some of our most revered legends. Some of the best music comes from that dark place that all of us at some point have had to fight our way out of, and a musician can give voice to our internal battles by exposing their own. In black music, some of our most beloved singer-songwriters have been those who laid their pain bare. And so many of the greatest have been women.

The best music of Mary J. Blige’s career has always been informed by her sincerity. It’s a hallmark of classic albums like My Life and Share My World. And many of Mary’s peers likewise delivered masterworks that were, in varying ways, defined by pain. 1997’s The Velvet Rope is Janet Jackson’s most personal album, a multiplatinum seller that earned raves as she crafted some of her most emotionally naked music. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was a starkly introspective record, at least partially inspired by the real-life relationship pains young Lauryn was enduring at the time. It, too, was wildly successful commercially and famously took home five Grammys in 1999, including Album of the Year. These albums aren’t just landmarks for female artists—they’re standard-bearers for contemporary music.

There is a similar musical wave currently shaping and reflecting the culture, with high-profile creative triumphs from artists like Beyoncé (Lemonade), Solange (A Seat At the Table) and SZA (CTRL), the latter completely shut out at the recent Grammy Awards, at the forefront of a resurgence in personalized popular music. This is occurring alongside the beginnings of what looks to be a cultural shift; as a generation and a society is being made to examine how we suppress and oppress women. With the ongoing national conversation surrounding #MeToo, critics of the movement (and usually, of modern feminism in general) have routinely painted the current national dialogue as an assault on men and masculinity. They suggest that, in taking a woman’s voice seriously, we are undermining a man’s right to be a man.

What a sad commentary on how some of us define manhood.

Beyoncé’s rise hasn’t diminished the superstardom of her male peers just because her star arguably burns brightest. And it’s shameful that anyone wouldn’t celebrate black women getting their due.

Remember J. Holiday? The singer-songwriter was one of the more promising up-and-comers in R&B back in 2007, when his hit “Bed” (co-written by The-Dream) made it all the way to the top five. His debut album Back of My Lac was a gold-selling success, and he’s been recording fairly consistently over the past decade, but hasn’t recaptured that early commercial glory. Nonetheless, Holiday (born Nahum Grymes) resurfaced recently with a strange Instagram rant taking aim at some of the more prominent women in the music industry.

Just after the announcement of the 2018 Grammy nominations, Holiday went off about prominent black women in the industry and the music they’re making.

“So apparently the Black men still losing to the women—I get it,” he said in the Instagram vid. “No disrespect, I was raised by a woman, I have two older sisters, man, I have absolute, all respect for Black women. But with that being said, understand this, man: Black men, African-American men, men from the hood, we go through everything to make sure that who we care about are taken care of.”

“I got daughters, man,” he continued. “Beyoncé, Cardi B, SZA—all y’all motherfuckers—stop using that fucking pain to make it OK to say some bullshit on your record, and get nominated for a Grammy for going through some bullshit. Because so have I as a Black motherfucking man.”

It’s not clear why Holiday thinks that the success of these women somehow negates their similarly-acclaimed male contemporaries like Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar. But it’s unfortunate that he’s decided that these black women’s achievements represents a “loss” for black men.

Of course, Holiday was roundly mocked on social media for what was an undeniably incoherent rant, but he’s not alone in his belief that somehow black women having voice diminishes black men. There are those who do sincerely think that the current wave of successful black female singer-songwriters—artists who are penning songs about their specific experiences, often with men—represent some wave of man-hate that is taking over the culture.

In no way has the success of black women ever hindered or stifled black men. Black people have been deterred, oppressed and exploited by racism. But the narrative surrounding the struggle of black folks has often centered the experiences of black maleness—and popular music oftentimes reflects this.

One of the most significant aspects of Beyoncé’s legacy is that she has emerged as the defining pop superstar of a generation in both celebrity stature and cultural sway. In previous media-driven generations, such a position was held by artists like The Beatles or Michael Jackson; for it be a black woman today is noteworthy—even with the iconic stature of a Janet Jackson or an Aretha Franklin in decades past, our society has typically looked to a man as the top artist in music and we’ve rarely applied the dreaded “Voice Of A Generation” tag to a woman. But Beyoncé’s rise hasn’t diminished the superstardom of her male peers just because her star arguably burns brightest. And it’s shameful that anyone wouldn’t celebrate black women getting their due.

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R&B is the one popular genre of black music that centers black women—as artists and as consumers. For decades, the music that has been centered as most culturally “important” was male-driven, from the blues to rock & roll to hip-hop. Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson sang songs about the pains of black manhood, in the same way that the rhymes of Ice Cube and 2Pac gave voice to that same perspective, albeit in a different generation. In the male-dominated blues world, women in songs tended to be heartbreakers or duplicitous; in the just as male-dominated hip-hop landscape, women are often treated like trophies or warning signs. The kind of misogyny that fueled countless songs about “bitches” and “hoes” was born of hurt feelings and entitlement that young men wallow in after being met with their first bit of heartache. How many women in hip-hop have been elevated to its highest levels of acclaim and visibility? It should be obvious that there haven’t been enough to counter the misogyny of the status quo. And how many hip-hop fans know Queen Latifah albums as well as they know Biggie albums?

Even in jazz, is it “hipper” to name-drop an instrumental genius like Monk or Parker as opposed to legendary vocalists like Sarah or Ella?

I still love to revisit Mary J. Blige’s early music. It feels so lived-in, so real. Her passion and pain made for powerful art that spoke to millions. I never once listened to those albums from a defensive place. I never thought that her expressing her heartache, hurt and anger was an attack. I thought it was an expression. And I related to that. Artists expressing themselves is what this whole thing is supposed to be about. “Stop using that fucking pain to make it OK to say some bullshit on your record” is one of the strangest things I’ve ever heard an artist say to or about another artist. And it’s sad that anyone would want to tell an artist not to express their pain. It’s healed souls and made for some brilliant art. These women bare their souls. Examine why you need for them to suffer in silence. We’ve never demanded that of men. We shouldn’t want it for women.