It’s 2017, and I’m in Atlanta to attend a Noname concert. I took a bus from Charlotte to see my friends and catch the Chicago rapper live for the first time. An hour goes by after we arrive, and the crowd gets thicker. In between opening acts, a group of five young white men start mosh-pitting and yelling the N-word. This behavior has been going on since the doors opened. They are all smiles and drunken stupor with their one black friend in tow. These individuals clearly feel invincible. After two other black women and I break up a fight, venue security, finally, asks the young men to calm down.
“The white experience in America is one of acquisition of property, and the latest commodity to go is hip-hop.” —Taylor Crumpton, “Have White People Stolen Rap Concerts, Too?”
It’s hard to put into words, but there is a specific type of violence happening at rap concerts. This feeling occurred to me when I saw venue security laugh along as the white men in question knocked over a black woman. I realized, even though I had paid the same amount of money to be there, no one outside of my friends was going to protect us. No matter how much I tried, I felt like we were the ones everyone had come to gawk at.
“Because the machine will try to grind you into dust anyway, whether or not we speak.”—Audre Lorde, “The Transformation of Silence into Language”
It is 2019, and I am at my second Noname concert. This time, the show is at a much larger venue and with a crowd that is half white and half black. Every local black queer has shown up to see the Chicago rapper return Atlanta. Noname is on stage, sipping brown liquor when she begins performing “Song 31.” It is the newest single following the release of her latest album, Room 25.
Noname made it halfway through “Song 31” before forgetting the last verse. In true Virgo fashion, she started from the top. She does this at least three times. The rest of the show progresses smoothly until a white audience member yells out a song request. “No,” Noname replies sharply. She continues with the set, flowing through her concise yet classic catalog like it was an everyday sport.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but for a brief period, I stopped breathing. I clutched my phone a little tighter. I took note of how I felt at that moment. Even when we are in “supposed” safe spaces, black women (and marginalized groups as a whole) still must set hard boundaries. It is one thing to live audaciously, but to do it in a room full of fans who are projecting their wants and desires onto you is another thing entirely.
This feeling brings me back to 2013 when veteran music critic Jon Caramanica spoke the words that would go on to inspire Solange’s “Don’t You Wait,” from the singer‘s third album, A Seat At The Table:
“I went to Solange’s concert and I noted who her audience was, and if I were her, I’d be careful of making these statements because I’d be careful not to bite the hand that feeds me.”
Caramanica said the above in response to seeing the growth of Solange’s fan base after the release of her True EP in 2012. The comment was and still is a cornerstone of how black women artists are expected to remain docile; they should be grateful to be allowed at the table, approved to be in the room, or even brought up in the conversation. The notion of respecting the hand that is doing the feeding is a dog whistle to the policing of black women’s behavior in an industry fueled by their exploitation.
Which brings us back to Noname, who, just last week, took to Twitter to address her feelings about no longer wanting to perform for white crowds. As someone who has also been politicized on social media, I understand how jarring the learning process can be. More importantly, I, too, have also been met with intense and violent critique for speaking up.
In understanding Noname, I understand microaggressions do a weird thing to the body. They don’t affect you until you sit with the root of their prejudice. As a black woman, this feeling has been a reality of my life, and the lives of most marginalized people, since before we could speak our names. We are forced to develop a thick skin. We must survive on less than what we deserve.
Oppression can feel like your body, your name, and your life are not your own because you must continuously think about how other people may interrupt the way you move through the world. You are always tense; always ready to defend what you never knew was yours, continually having to assess how your truth may put you in danger at any given moment.
“Being visible, but as an object, is not a resume bullet nor is it pleasurable at all. It is not something that I am “thankful” for.” —@thetrudz
The public common sense is that black women, more specifically black women artists, should be grateful for the audience they have and for any semblance of fame they have acquired. As a double-marginalized person, we should appreciate any success or attempts at glory because we are not supposed to succeed in the first place. Being grateful in this regard requires a subdued tongue and a calm demeanor. At all times, you should be available for public consumption: If you just explained your oppression in a gentler tone, than maybe just maybe someone somewhere will listen to you. We know that is not true.
It doesn’t matter if black women are speaking up for the awards they deserve or simply being frank about their mental health boundaries, the larger world will harass, mock, and show little to no empathy. This mentality is an institutional failure of the broader music industry.
An old guard of white male voices run music criticism. Coming off of the late 2000s blog era, many of these men have become notable figureheads. They are allowed to criticize a culture that has made blackness a global commodity. These white critics who have no investment in black people or our well being are allowed to gatekeep who in our world gets to succeed. These men are the hand.
In an article in the New York Times about the dominance of the white male critic, Elizabeth Méndez Berry and Chi-hui Yang put it best:
“Yet those who have for decades been given the biggest platforms to interpret culture are white men. This means that the spaces in media where national mythologies are articulated, debated, and affirmed are still largely segregated. The conversation about our collective imagination has the same blind spots as our political discourse.”
These dangerous and antiquated notions that black women have to behave in particular ways to be seen as valuable are detrimental to the idea that we “trust black women.” It is apparent in the public domain, too. We do not trust black women enough to believe them at their word. When they publicly say “I am uncomfortable with this audience,” we tell them to go home because they should be grateful for the crumbs this industry has given them.
When we police black women’s behavior, we are also saying something about who we deem valuable in hip-hop. The harassment we face and the harm we endure in this industry is but an inconvenience. To avoid this inconvenience, we are told, “just quit.” That’s the scariest part.
In just the past six months, various black women in music have been vocal about their mental health. These women are saying out loud that they are not okay. We turn a blind eye because in looking at these issues, we might have to ask ourselves how and why we are okay with ridding ourselves of black women artists so quickly.
There are days where the thrill of being othered feels like home; when the intrigue of confrontation is a comfortable seat for black women. I often think about how one day I will be allowed in the right fancy spaces, being asked to sit eagerly and wait for that elusive hand to feed me. I should be oh, so, grateful.
When all is quiet, I will be ready to bite.