I go to Afropunk in Commodore Barry Park EVERY year, but 2015 held a special place in my heart. The theme was def Black Girls Rock – Beverly Bond at the main stage’s DJ booth, and the QUEENS of sophistaratchetness and boogiosity as headline performers (Kelis, Lauryn Hill and Grace Jones)!
My eyes glazed over as I became entranced by a rhapsodic daydream of my younger years, when I would scream “I HATE YOU SO MUCH RIGHT NOW” on the bus going to school, or lock myself in my room playing “Nothing Even Matters” on repeat, as I sit with my journal on my bed trying to recreate the simple yet deep metaphors of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. I wanted to be pre-teen again, and for all the greats to act exactly as I had heard them and imagined them to be when I first listened to their groundbreaking albums.
My childhood wasn’t relived fully, though. Times have changed at least two, if not all the female powerhouse performers, which forced me to recognize that (a) I’m a grown ass woman, and the 90s were 20+ years ago; (b) with evolution comes lessons on femininity aged with grace.
For instance, I was very distraught when Kelis didn’t walk on stage shouting “YAW-OH! YAW-OH! YAW-OH/YAW-OH/YAW-OH!” or “I’M BOSSAY!” Like, I wanted her to start flipping out on bishes and take me way back, but instead she walked out like a tame lion (sophisticatedly coiffed with a blow dry), zen and pregnant, and thirty-six. Kelis’ style in music changed a while ago so I know she’s not that wild anymore, but I was extremely nostalgic for that angst that got me through middle and high school (and sometimes adulthood).
Lesson Learned: This is probably thinking too deeply, but I think what I learned from Kelis’ performance is to not get stuck in (or with) the drama. I’m not saying there isn’t still a time and place for a girl to get wild and loose, but perhaps there comes a time in your female journey that you grow tired of belting out everything you say in order to be heard. Growing up, Kelis represented to me the lengths I had to go in order to get people to know they messing with the right one, and I will fight back against what they think I should do/say/think/behave like. I still feel like I need to fight back, but I should no longer worry about the fight-back looking less violent or scary. I just don’t want people to take my calmness for weakness as I quiet down and adopt better behavior. But am I being domesticated in that process? Hopefully no, as Kelis has taught me unintentionally. My boldness is at a new age that finds subtle yet powerful ways to remind people I don’t f#$k around and I still know who I am, and yet am comfortable with changing the tone a bit. Kelis could stand still on stage and just let her strong alto carry us along with her, because she was and still is the first female to scream on the track, wear the natural look before anyone knew what to call it, and invent a space for a female to feel comfortable expressing herself, letting no barriers stifle her voice.
Now Lauryn Hill has developed a reputation for the record number of no shits given. Between showing up late or not at all to events, to more extra than ordinary backstage demands (like the purification process she had people doing with incense before coming out on the Afropunk stage), she’s been labeled a diva. I honestly had no idea what to expect – like was she gonna come out high as f%&k and not really vibe with the crowd?
No. OH NO. I wasn’t, nor was anyone present, ready for the amazing way Ms. Hill reintroduced herself to her fans. THAT PERFORMANCE was on track to being an historic comeback for an historic artist. Her amazing new arrangements for songs like “Mr. Intentional” and “Ex-Factor” were jaw-dropping – I’m sorry I couldn’t record, but I was lost in the energy! Lauryn really surprised and delivered more than expected, even keeping it real when giving directions on key changes and light/sound to her crew in between sets. It was watching a queen at work on her kingdom.
Then…le sigh. The power went off, the sound went off, and the stage blacked out due to technical issues. The energy was noticeably zapped out in the crowd – almost everyone in the front, at least, stopped dancing and just stared as Ms. Hill kept on going. I said Ms. Hill KEPT ON GOING. Even when the crowd chanted “We can’t hear you!” over and over, Lauryn was gyrating and jumping and seemingly shouting to her crew “Y’all better keep going”! It actually got too awkward for me as the crowd’s “WE CAN’T HEAR YOU!” got louder, so I had to look away for a bit. I was so disappointed in Afropunk, and sad for Ms. Hill, cause she had people catching the spirit with her show and woulda shut ish down where no one could get back up again.
Lessons learned: First and foremost, whatever Ms. Hill may have done in her past to lead some to believe she’s a doing-the-most-delivering-the-least type of diva, it’s behind her. She clearly wanted to give her fans something to remember, even though we were just in a park in Brooklyn and not Madison Square Garden or Staples Center. My lesson from her is don’t let what others say dictate how you illustrate yourself. And don’t let what anyone else says cloud your judgement on what someone else will or has to offer. Lauryn Hill gave me a special memory and was on her way to delivering a special piece of history with that performance. But the devil is alive and seeks whom to devour. He wanted to destroy that moment, but thanks be to the most High for still anointing Ms. Hill with some serious talent. And shout out to the strong women who can command respect in an authoritative way and still be soft and loveable at the same damn time. Lauryn clearly did not care if anyone heard or saw her correcting and directing mid-performance. She spoke directly into the mic with the commands, and it (to me) made the experience all the more authentic and profound. I imagine a young girl, for sure, anywhere between the ages of 5-18, looking at that and thinking People will listen and respect me that way some day.
Well Grace Jones is 67 years old and still walking around in body paint. So let’s get to it.
Lessons learned: While you do age and grow up, what is permitted is not written in stone. You may stay a little eclectic and off your rocker, but if you do it, you gotta COMMIT. I will be happy at 67 if my tits are still the shape of cantaloupe and not overused beanbag chairs. Whether I will then show them off in glow-in-the-dark pasties is up for consideration. I just want Grace Jones to know I got her message – she gonna do this shit until they shoot her corpse to space as stardust (I’d bet she has that in her will).
Most importantly, I must stress that these lessons are especially for black women. In closing, much too often darker skinned females are left to believe they are relegated to big asses that will twerk until they hoodwink a man to believe they’re worthy of wifedom. If that doesn’t work, then they’re “doomed” to dying alone as worthless non-factors. The truth is we can define who we are and whatever we’d want our life to be, and we have living legends as proof. Black femininity is not a typecast but an art, and we paint it with different strokes.
Now, as women defining ourselves we must understand that not everyone who looks at the canvas will interpret it the same. It’s easier said than done to be okay with not being understood. I wish I knew the answer to “But what if no one loves me the way I love myself?” But there’s a clear answer to “But what if I don’t love myself the way I want someone to love me?” And if you don’t know it, then babe, best not to bother with love at all!