My mother says black women are promised two things in this life: Deep belly laughs and the exhausting lineage of having to pick up black men who resent us for being able to see over the mountain top. In life and music, her words have always rung true.
“Song 33,” the latest release from Chicago rapper and book club organizer Noname, speaks to the lineage of my mother’s words. As a response to J. Cole’s less than savory “Snow On Tha Bluff,” Noname, in less than 70 seconds, opens the world up and closes it without blinking an eye.
In what feels like an effortless respite on the strife of violence black people have lived through for the past month and more specifically since chattel slavery, Noname moves like an Olympic athlete, swift and precise.
Noname begins “Song 33” with a necessary truth: “I saw a demon on my shoulder, it’s lookin’ like patriarchy.” Hip-hop loves machismo, which is praised and upheld as the only way to maneuver public vitriol. Yet, in Noname’s rebuttal of this praxis, she grounds us in the need to do something different, and it makes way for the ghosts of outspoken black women haunting all of us outspoken black women.
Recall 1979, wherein Audre Lorde wrote “Sexism: An American Disease in Blackface.” Lorde, very much like Noname, used this essay to respond to the critique of black male scholar Robert Staples. Lorde posited sexism, at its core, is the work of patriarchal violence.
The disease ruins any attempt at the liberatory struggle. It ignores the ways that black men must take responsibility for the emotional labor they have so often placed on the backs of black women.
In the very first seconds of “Song 33,” we hear a clip from Anthony Perkins’ 1986 film Psycho III. The words “Oh, I have ambitions, dreams, but dreams don’t come cheap” allude to how the fight for black liberation and the fall of capitalism require loss.
We all have to shed our ideas of grandeur to show up for the world we need: A world without police or cages. This sample, coupled with the soft elegance of veteran producer Madlib’s composition, keeps us grounded.
For his part, Madlib develops a beautiful sonic arena for Noname, which allows us to hear her with clarity. She works a muscle that has always been her first language. She gives us the new world.
As listeners, we are asked if this moment is the best we can do and if the blood being spilled in the streets will come at the hands of the primordial need for domination:
“One girl missin’, another one go missin’ / One girl missin’, another / But niggas in the back quiet as a church mouse / Basement studio when duty calls to get the verse out / I guess the ego hurt now / It’s time to go to work, wow, look at him go / He really ‘bout to write about me when the world is in smokes?” –Noname
Why, Noname asks, are we policing a black woman’s tone when centuries-old issues are coming to the forefront of the American consciousness?
In Soraya Chemaly’s book, Rage Becomes Her, the author speaks to how benevolent sexism is not new to the lexicon of tone policing:
“Benevolent sexism, also known as ambivalent sexism, is tricky because it broadcasts the ‘special’ value of women and the ‘protective strength of men. It’s a solid way to make people feel good while they are materially discriminated against.”
On “Snow On Tha Bluff,” J. Cole clumsily moves through a personal diatribe about his insecurities, the stake of the movement at hand, and how the tone of an assumed politically sharp black woman makes him question his intelligence.
We assume Cole is tone policing Noname. Tone policing, a vehicle of misogynoir—misogyny directed towards black women where race and gender both play roles in bias a term created by black feminist moya bailey—is about asking for liberation at a softer volume.
At its core, tone policing is about dismissing ideas when they are perceived to be delivered in an angry, frustrated, or otherwise emotionally charged manner often by a person with a marginalized identity. This action is often taken against black women, more specifically dark-skinned black women, as a means to question their lived-realities.
“Men avoid women’s observations by accusing us of being too ‘visceral.’ But no amount of understanding the roots of woman-hating will bring back Patricia Cowan, nor mute her family’s loss. Pain is very visceral, particularly to the people who are hurting. As the poet, Mary McAnally said, ‘pain teaches us to take our fingers OUT of the fucking fire.’” –Audre Lorde
White supremacy limits our imagination and kills us for dreaming too big. The type of public freedom Noname and many other cultural workers of this time demand shakes the cage of white supremacy and misogynoir.
For black men—who, as marginalized people with immense privilege to access patriarchy—this means that our collective freedom might require us to lose something. The work of necessary loss is not on black women alone. It is the work of other black men to sit with why this moment between J. Cole and Noname strikes a nerve.
We must learn from our discomfort.
On “Song 33,” Noname asks all of us to be a part of a new type of being, one that allows us to join this movement to abolition more authentically than ever before.
What I know from my mother and all of the black women in my body is this: The fight for freedom will require us to untangle these systems of white supremacy and misogynoir from our tongues.
Noname enters a legacy and lineage of public critique that many of us know too well. Black women—cis and trans—can not and will not be your mothers. How can we be expected to both demolish white supremacy and rock you to sleep? We have too much to lose.
As Lorde writes eloquently in her canonical text: “This abuse is no longer acceptable to black women in the name of solidarity, nor of black liberation. Any dialogue between black women and black men must begin there, no matter where it ends.”
Or, as Noname puts it on “Song 33”: “I’m the new vanguard.”