I often think about the ridicule that Black women face every day for not presenting their vulnerability in neat and digestible packages. I think of how Black women aren’t given empathy until their lives are merely a memory. I think of artists like Solange, Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, and now Summer Walker, being labeled as “rude” or “ungrateful” when their vulnerable moments are unapologetically on display. I cheer when these artists refuse to keel over because of the criticism, even if I don’t agree with every decision they make. I celebrate this protest because I am often that woman—the one choosing to live how I desire, despite how others think I should be living.
As a Black woman, being vulnerable and open is a trying task, especially since our endless emotional labor and presentation of strength keep us in society’s good graces. A Black woman like Summer Walker defies odds by performing her vulnerability out loud and in the face of thousands. Black women in music showcase their vulnerabilities at the expense of losing their privacy and overall agency.
When Summer Walker first hit the music scene in 2018, her smooth yet raw tunes about staying prayed up and needing love transported listeners to another realm of transparency. We already had Solange and SZA, but something about Summer felt different and more familiar. Here was a young woman sharing her feelings of loneliness, rejection, and lovestruck contemplation. Our proximity to Summer’s feelings reminded us it’s okay to acknowledge and mourn our failed relationships. Summer didn’t just bring something new to the table; she built a modern table we could all fit around.
Summer Walker’s career trajectory was all too common. Her path from unknown to well-known included moving away from writing for oneself, and to extremely public displays of life for all to see. As more people became familiar with Summer’s work and felt at home in her lyrics, her privacy and agency were slowly stripped away. Imagine having social anxiety, always under a microscope, and under contract. Imagine having to remain in society’s good graces by offering not only your beloved talent, but also your body, time, and emotional energy.
It’s important to ruminate on social anxiety when analyzing the career of Summer Walker, or any Black woman. Think of social anxiety as the literal antithesis of everything we desire from our favorite artists. During these moments, we yearn for soft and outgoing personas, but social anxiety might move them to behave differently, if not unfavorably.
Of course, social anxiety manifests differently for different folks. To lessen the effects of anxiety, artists must find a way to feel safe in the spaces they occupy. For Summer Walker, finding a sense of safety in her everyday life might mean jeopardizing being society’s favorite. It might mean choosing what works for you in a world that wants you to do what works for them; in a world that sees you as something to be consumed.
Here’s my question to the world: Where’s the empathy for our Black women?
When I wrote about my sexual assault for the first time, my veil of privacy was shattered. My goal was to be vulnerable, to share a story that could resonate with others. I never expected the bombardment of my privacy or the total disrespect of my boundaries. After sharing a fragile page of my story, people expected me to discuss the most intimate details of my life upon request. People expected me to be emotionally frail. They didn’t expect enforcement of boundaries. They didn’t expect moments of anger when my boundaries weren’t respected. What they wanted was for me to present my vulnerability in an open field for all to play in. They tried to give me sympathy, but what I needed, and what many Black women need, is empathy.
Empathy is not about feeling sorry for someone, but about putting yourself in the shoes of others. It’s about envisioning yourself in similar situations, taking on the same blows and the same vitriolic remarks. How often do you find yourself doing that for Black women—especially Black women in music—who are hypervisible?
Despite Summer Walker expressing her suffering from social anxiety, many people continue to critique her for how she is choosing to foster safety while building her career. Many on social media have openly wondered why she’s decided to go on tour, hold meet and greets, or why she’s even an artist at all. But we often forget that money is a part of survival. For an artist like Summer Walker, who is signed to a label and just now receiving recognition for her work, writing songs and relying on streaming income isn’t enough.
For all artists, touring has the potential to be the biggest portion of income. With this in mind, Summer has no choice but to tour, and for someone who may not want to speak to people or engage fans—who may want their music to simply exist independent of themselves—this scenario is a nightmare.
Empathy should follow, but for Black women in music, empathy rarely follows. Black women are the least cared for, yet somehow the most sought after, in the music industry. The recording industry is a dangerous place for Black women attempting to make their mark. The stakes are higher, and there’s more to prove in this “boys club.” The least we can afford these women is the ability to live out loud—or quietly—without receiving harsh judgment.
Black women should be able to breathe without being analyzed for perfection, without people deeming every annoyance as an “attitude problem.” They should be allowed to make choices that serve only themselves without fans threatening to pull support.
You may not like everything these artists do, but they deserve to have agency over their actions. They also deserve the space to pursue their safety and take care of their mental health. Our beloved Black women, not only in music but everywhere, deserve better.