Wednesday, February 29, 2012

How Are You Doing? Nicki Minaj a True Rap Renegade

I truly love the Non-White Afrostocrasy’s (NWA's) quirky sense of priority. A quick rundown of recent events: 

- Billy Crystal uses the memory of Sammy Davis Junior as an excuse to do blackface at this year’s racially tense Oscars. NWA: At least Octavia won, poor, poor Viola.

- Petrol companies continue to wreck environmental and political havoc in Africa’s most populous country. NWA: Yawn. Can you believe gas is gonna hit $5 a gallon?

- Nicki Minaj’s Grammy performance. NWA: BOYCOTT NICKI MINAJ! BOYCOTT NICKI MINAJ! 

In `Moment of Clarity’, Hova famously raps, “If skills sold, truth be told, I'd probably be/Lyrically Talib Kweli/Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense/But I did 5 mill' - I ain't been rhyming like Common since”. The best rapper alive admits to dumbing down his music (or at least masking his intelligence) because commercial audiences are aggressively stupid.

If you’re outraged by or dismissive of Nicki Minaj chances are he’s talking about you...Yeah, I'm going there.

Nicki unquestionably plays to the lowest common denominator. But, those who care to listen -and think - know that there's much more going on. Maybe…just maybe she’s holding up a mirror to today's women, shining a light on femininity constructs and exploiting society's unflinching amorality.

One of rap’s creeds is: expect to be misunderstood. And, even for artists not on a Lupe Fiasco like ‘esotericism’, the craftier the composition the more likely it is that you’ll be explaining yourself to people not particularly interested in understanding. Why? Because certain audiences are committed to seeing things through  lenses of stereotype and self-serving prejudice. Like really, who thinks that 'uneducated' black people are capable of complex narration and masterful socio-historical critiques?

There isn't much reason for rap artists to entangle themselves in the `does life imitate art?’ debate. Mos made it plain on `Fear Not of Man’, saying, “We are hip-hop…next time you want to find out how hip-hop is doing, ask ‘how am I doing?” And, if you want to get all afro-cultural: from the days of village djelis and before, `black' performance artists operated in a tradition of ‘call and response’ and improvisation. The (post) post-mods have just caught up, telling us that 'the audience is part the‘text’’. 

Hip-hop’s been on this, though. What’s an OTT freestyle if not recognizing audience reaction as a co-author? And, the 18th letter already told us what 'mc' means.

Going back to Hov’s plays on ‘common sense’ we see that, musically and lyrically, even hip-hop’s literal meanings can’t be appreciated without reading context (i.e., 'audience reaction') or tracking a subtext conveyed through progression, multiplicity and allusion. Fact is, subtlety and critique don’t move the crowd much these days. So making money makes an emcee. Or does it?

Biggie’s Ready to Die gives you your sex and violence ration, sometimes hilariously and other times chillingly. But, its a critique of the (Black) American Dream: the complex of expectations - and deprivations - set black kids up for mental health problems and early graves. It's probably B.I.G.’s spin on his one-time roommates’ T.H.U.G.L.I.F.E (The Hate You Gave Little Infants Fucked Everybody) theory. For goodness sake. Just look at the album cover: a baby picture is captioned `Ready to Die’.

The album begins by dramatizing antecedent action. A sound-montage establishes music as a marker of time. Or even a setting of sorts. Through dialog and transition, the sound-play depicts critical transitions in B.I.G's life: joy at his birth gives way family dysfunction, his precocious criminality leads to a violent juvenile delinquency, his imprisonment and release beget uber-crimey aspirations. The first song, `Things Done Changed’, describes B.I.G’s return to his Brooklyn neighborhood. The inciting force - the question - is an existential crisis particular to life in a 90’s American bantustan. Memory provides a contrast which contextualizes his resumption of criminal life: a vision of an idyllic past, where kids “pitched pennies” and “shot skelly” is crashed by a mercenary reality. The Crack Trade has turned child's play into a high-stakes, zero-sum sport. Sample choices compellingly echo these pressures and shifts, marking B.I.G as a man out of time.

'Things done changed up this side/Remember they used to thump, but now they blast right?' is lifted from Dr. Dre’s “Little Ghetto Boy” which depicts the rise of gun culture in South Central L.A. It too links current conditions to past political events. Its intro takes us to something reminiscent of a Black Panther rally: impassioned talk of racial solidarity and co-operative economics. The song’s first verse is narrated by a young man who proves himself in a prison riot; the second, tells the story of an ex-con, OG gunned down by a younger gangster he had up for a mark, the third act brings closure and context: Snoop Dogg explains that gang life and making money in the drug trade makes a man a `real man’. Underscoring the progression is Snoop signifying as a Crip: a L.A.-based gang that had its origins in a Black Panthers community organization. These allusions bring even more weight to `Little Ghetto Boy’ and consequently to B.I.G.’s quiet paranoia in `Things Done Changed’. 

And, it gets weightier still.


‘Little Ghetto Boy’ is a remake of a Donny Hathaway’s song of the same name. Hathaway’s version though was an inspiration anthem, rooted in a “Up with Hope-Down with Dope” Civil-Rights ethos. It empathizes with a boy growing up in the ‘hood, but then challenges him to overcome his reality. Not only that. Through resolve, and I guess and 'content of character', ghetto boys are to change the 'hood for the better. It’s grand ol’ American bootstrapism gone soul. Snoop’s response to Hathaway’s questions helps scare any inkling of conscience right out B.I.G.

The sampling in “Things Done Changed”, rich with political allusion and import, puts a palpable 'adapt-or-die' pressure on the soon to be tragic hero. And, in the fractal sampling pattern there’s a ‘fuck you’ to the ancestors. I mean, just what are we to make of adults publicly committed to justice but selling 'the revolution'? Or watching from the sidelines - selling hope and DIY redemption - while a familiar program of `racialising’ disenfranchisement unfolded?

Biggie survives these socio-political constructs. More than survives, actually. `Juicy’ celebrates his living the dream. But the album’s mood changes immediately. His conscience returns and self-disgust plunges him into depression. He then kills himself. His 'unmaking' underscores then flips the album’s theme: even if you do `make it’ (Black) American dreaming is killer.

In the 90s few people responded to that meaning. Our filters, aversions and investments - our dreams - just didn’t allow for that kind of engagement. But Ready to Die was an instant success. A hybrid. It's street credibility and `mainstream’ success changed the course of East Coast rap music. The 'glorification' of sex and violence however sparked outrage. Outrage that coincidentally (?) promoted the album but didn’t help anyone understand what a deep social commentary it was. The intermingling of judginess and willful ignorance continues in how we, who should by now know better, receive Nicki Minaj.

Much of the NWA either doesn’t 'get' Nicki or choose to see her as an airhead 'selling out' for fame and fortune. It’s understandable. Fake boobs. Fake butt. A rather liberal use of make-up. The wigs. Airs and affected accents. But, there's a catch. With a sort of 'it's-mine-'cause-I-bought-it' posturing, Minaj is unapologetically artificial. How's that 'fake'? Taking in her lyrics makes it impossible to have her up as just some affected dummy. Don’t believe the hype. Don’t dare believe that Minaj isn’t a real emcee or that as a story-teller she's incapable of the kinds of allusions that brought chilling dimension to Ready to Die. Trey Songz’ `Bottoms Up’ for example is a carefree club song, but, Minaj is very crafty with her allotted 16.   
She begins her verse by asking, commandingly, that Trey buy her some very specific hoity-toity drinks. Then, Minaj ups the ante, assuming the voice of `hyper-sexed' ingĂ©nue: King of the Hill’s Luane Platter to wring out of Mr. Songz a bottle of Dom Perignon Rose. It's dear: costing about $1000 in the club. Nicki flips, bragging about having men so weak that she doesn’t have to say `hello' to get the ultimate wifey props: keys to the Benz. She gets suddenly defensive; protecting her privilege and yet 'proving' independence by threatening to go upside a rivals' head then 'making it rain' on her. Minaj regains her composure, apologizing and returning to a now less convincing Luane impersonation to smooth things over. See, it's a 'Young Money’ thing. And really they do some good stuff for people. Really...Slim and Baby haven't been bad influences at all. 

Nicki then mimics Trey's lothario crooning to get herself more looks from women and in the process likens herself bi-sexual Playboy bunny Anna Nicole Smith. (It’s easy to miss how she’d already shouted out one tragic starlet: it was Em’s 8 mile co-star Britney Murphy who voiced the Luanne character). With “Say hi to Mary, Mary and Joseph”, Minaj suggests Smith's made it to heaven and then drinks, on Trey's dime, to the memory of her fallen sister.

Minaj’s signifyin’ sequence offers plenty. The calculated voice switching says: `I’m not really a bimbo but I’m having fun playing one to get what I want.’ How affected is that? Women everywhere claim to 'dumb it down' so as to not have men feel threatened and  'play' `male hegemony’.

Guess they're kind of like rappers.

And, there’s a slightly morbid twist to Nicki's allusions. By shouting out and mimicking the siliconed-up centerfold, as well as voice-actress Britney Murphy - both of whom died of prescription drug complications – Minaj’s saying something like, ‘Yes I know this might end quiet badly, but until then, wheeeee!’ She's ready to die. Pink Friday shows her to be profoundly ambivalent about what she’s 'had to do make it’. It also shows that she's given some thought to the girls looking up to her.

After the credit card swipe heard round the world, the women of Spellman college declared enough was enough. They partnered with Essence Magazine to launch the Take Back the Music (TBTM): a campaign intending to curb the misogyny in rap music. Mainly through manufactured outrage, racial appeals and shaming tactics.

No one bothered ask just who the fuck listens to Nelly? Or who’s idea it was to include that particular gag. Or why didn't Essence, owned by Time-Warner Publishing, devote its considerable insider clout to the cause? Nope. There was public misogyny and hurt feelings: the victim-privilege opportunity machine flew into high gear.

Conferences were held. A few rousing talks were given. But, the campaign accomplished little: it didn’t stop videos from getting more explicit. It didn’t stop some times pretty accomplished women from fighting for the chance to skin-out in rap videos. And – quite notably – it didn’t make the industry's female execs, managers, stylists and PR- types 'want to take back the music'. 

It didn’t even break a single new female artist.

About the time TBTM was in its death throes Onika Maraj was still a relative unknown. The Port of Spain transplant had had a tumultuous childhood in Queens; living with a crack addicted father and witnessing domestic abuse. She’d attended LaGuardia Performing Arts School, depicted in the series ‘FAME’, and focused on Drama, but left school before graduating. By 2007, she was appearing on mixtapes and in DVD’s. That Nicky didn’t quite have the polish we see today: much less of a split-personality black Barbie and more 'hood chick as likely to crack your brow with the mic as spit fire into it'. She did though create a buzz. And, the rest is a Cindarella story: “discovered” by President Wayne Carter 'Nicki Lewinsky' was whisked away to luxury and unprecedented ‘success’. Minaj was the first female rap artist since 2002 to top the charts; the only artist ever to at once have 7 songs in the top 100 and, as of this writing, Pink Friday's  sold 1.7 million units.


Her debut LP though makes no attempt at sustained narrative. For the most part, the beats are boring, cotton-candy affairs. It’s a pop record. But, there are insightful flashes that offer glimpses of unutilized depth. Wit infuses and adds substance to her persona(s). And, Minaj has cribbed wisely from her influences: she borrows Lauryn’s insight, Foxy and Kim’s bad-bitchedness, Remy’s menace and Missy’s weirdness. The voice changes, punch-lines and extra-ordinary rhythmic sense, are skills that no rapper - male or female - besides Busta can lay claim to. And though Nicki’s since depicted herself as a rapping blow-up doll, Pink Friday had little fucking, innuendo or even the sultry yearning of Miseducation. Yet, I found the album intriguing for some of the same reasons I was initially cool to Lauryn’s solo effort. 
There’s a disarming soul-baring, and more singing than I expected. Tracks like “Right Thru Me” and “Save Me” make it pretty clear that Minaj is a layered personality managing self-destructive streaks. “Dear Old Nicki” is an ode to that ‘Come Up DVD’ girl who the media skewered and Now Nicki sacrificed to the Gucci gods, a decision she now regrets, certainly more than Jay-Z did: ‘Did I chase the glitz and glamour money fame and power?/ ‘cause if so that will forever go down my lamest hour’. In `I’m the Best’(bitch doing it), reminiscent of Jay's 'you wasn't using it right' comeback to Nas' claim that Jay bit his style, Nicki basically raps the song as Lil' Kim. And, while sinking her nails into the Queen Bee's throat, the new and improved black barbie acknowledges 'women’s struggle' and her role in it: “As long as they understand/That I'm fighting for the girls never thought they can win/’Cause before they could begin you told them it was the end/But I am here to reverse the curse that they live in.” Empowering, no? 'Fly’ with Rihanna is estro-triumphalism that Minaj ends on a motivational note, “cried my eyes out for days upon days/ such a heavy burden placed up on me/ but when you go hard your nay's become yay's/ Yankee Stadium with Jays and Kanyes”.  Sly. Because when next to those two on wax she showed everyone what a real monster sounds like.  

Let’s speak of monsters of another kind. In 2001 the Catholic church faced a slew of civil suits: it emerged that in the U.S., Mexico, Belgium and Germany, priests had been - for decades - diddling boys. That wasn't all.  Often church officials were aware of the abuse but covered it up: re-assigning pedophile priests to new jurisdictions. Most just found fresh victims. Many Catholics questioned their faith – or lost it outright. The Vatican was moved to action: John Paul declared those rapes to be spiritual sins, and ordered new screenings for priests and church workers. They'd get tough on child abuse. He opposed, however, extending the statute of limitations likely because that'd limit the church's exposure to criminal charges.

In summer 2011, Pope Benedict’s `sex-abuse adviser' (I'm not making that up), Riccardo Seppia, was allegedly caught soliciting boys for coke-fuelled sex parties.  It turns out that the good father asked specifically for boys with `family problems'. This year, cases continue to make the news: in January a class-action suit filed in 2007 against the California Diocese was settled for an unprecedented $600 million. In the agreement, the Diocese didn’t have to admit any wrong-doing. 

I didn't watch the Grammy's. And haven’t listened to Nicki in a while. Been busy. But, when I heard that she attended the ceremony with the Pope on her arm and in character as `inexplicably’ angry gay boy Roman Zolanski, my first thought wasn’t: `that Nicki Minaj what a ‘Stupid Hoe’.' I was thinking she’s saying something about the cyclical and institutional nature of sexual abuse. And, given Minaj's history of gay rights advocacy and what was all over the news just weeks before, how could one not?  

Predictably, everyone was outraged and confused by Minaj's exorcism of Roman. Granted, her Grammy performance wasn’t coherent - or accessible - but there was an obvious attack of church child abuse. Yet, the NWA muses over a Minaj boycott. As if. Emboldened the Catholic Church went on the snark offensive: claiming that Minaj might truly be possessed. Others just went on and on about how clueless and ho-ish Nicki was and that we ought not bother with her. It was a pretty effective, and suspicious, `shutdown'.
There’s a Kat Stacks interview from a few years back that’s simply vile. On Hot 107.9, though obviously drunk, Kat goes into autobiography, breaking down to break down in detail the child sex-slave trade that thrives in virtually every major U.S. city. What was particularly disgusting though was how Kat's story received. The hosts pretend to care then use Kat’s sex-work background (which stemmed from her being forced into child prostitution) to undermine her persona and, conveniently, dismiss all she’d said about how ingrained the sex-slaving of children is in the U.S. The `Durtyboyz' displayed the kind of callousness that cowards master: they ignored what was made plain, and refused to see Kat in a way other than what was for them socio-emotionally convenient.

Some women claiming to be feminists have had harsh things to say about Nicki Minaj. They see a ‘sexualized’ black woman - and despite sexual expression being marketed by women as a preferred form of ‘empowerment’ or the subversive streak in Minaj's work - part-time feminists straddle the highest horse and gallop off to their Hansberry Readers. Or, worse yet, they dig up Saartjie Baartman’s horror story of racial spectacle, sex-work, dismemberment and macabre enshrinement in L'Ouvre to frame things.

That reaction though isn't too far removed from the one Kat Stacks received in that 107.9 interview (or the one Baartman got for that matter). Its the (neo)colonial status-building tactic of `othering'; seizing upon – or inventing - a particular image then responding only to define the 'other'. How masterfully these responses unfold, and how justice tropes are invoked, makes me wonder who the real phony ‘sell-outs’ are.

And maybe that's been Nicki's point.

While it’d be a stretch to 'prove' that Minaj presents an intelligible polemic on post-modern femininity I promise you someone, somewhere, maybe even at Spelman, is frantically clacking away on ‘On Onika Maraj becoming Nicki Minaj: Mirage play, the work of  De/Constructing the Black Female Body and the Impossibility of Knowing’. Or some crap. It wouldn't be entirely off base. Minaj is pastiche; a clever absorption and critique of her forerunners. And she gives us plenty reason to believe her Minaj character is a caricature of society's own contradictions animated by our failures as listeners and our worship of `success'. A product of her environment.

A test: Without the plastic surgery, the “fakeness”, the gimmicks - and controversy - how many of us would have known of little Onika from Queens? 

And, what would her NWA critics give to see Nicki’s next album produced by Missy and executive produced by Queen La? And feature Jean Grae, Eve or some phenomenal femcee we've never heard of? What would they give to see it distributed by a company owned and controlled by Nicki? Probably nothing. The NWA'd not ruin a chance to appear morally superior by pretending to care.

So. Say, how are you doing?

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Do They Find Their Way Home?

You've heard all about it by now.

A statuesque, almost unfathomable beauty. A voice that spanned three octaves, and hit notes with a power and delicacy that’d rub souls bright. Cultivated in the church, it lent its grace to the likes of Jermaine Jackson and Chaka Khan. “I’m Every Woman” was a song Whitney Houston’d later make her own.

Her success was swift and immense. She’d done some notable early recordings, but hit it big in 1983 when she signed a $250 000 deal with Clive Davis at Arista Records. Two years under his tutelage prepped her for a 1985 eponymous debut. It would sell 12 million copies, produce 4 number one singles and stay 78 weeks on the charts. Rolling Stone named it `Best Album of 1986’. Her second LP followed two years later and debuted at No. 1.  She'd win six Grammys, over her career, tour the world and sell about 170 million units. In 1999, the RIAA named her 'Female R & B Artist of the Century'. She’d star in movies: ‘The Bodyguard’ opposite Kevin Costner before returning `home’ with ‘Waiting to Exhale’ and ‘The Preacher’s Wife’.


Death is always difficult. But some passings just don’t sit well at all.  

Michael was supposed to regain his form and show everyone that despite, the weirdness and the rumors, he still had that magic. Weren't we to see Heavy D morph into the old Jamaican man he always really was? And watch him chant and skank into his 60s? Don Cornelius’ was to go out cool. In his sleep, maybe. Not sick, vengeful and alone. Put those insults next to the monumental loss that was Etta James’ passing; and any merciful person’d hope the reaper’s scythe’d be by now too blunt to cut down anyone else.

Then Whitney.    

Mainstream news outlets lit up.  Facebook and Twitter blew up. Tribute poems materialized. 'Saving all my Love', 'I Wanna Dance with Somebody' and 'Where do Broken Hearts Go' choked news feeds.

What struck me were the pictures of Whitney and Michael Jackson together. It fit. They both were geniuses who had too much too fast and were gone too soon. Both died unexpectedly on the cusp of a comeback. Both battled `personal demons’, and did so in a business that suckles demons.  

The tributes rolled in. People said the thoughtful things, but soon the cruel remarks surfaced; and became focal points. It's just people's nature, i guess. And part of the business.


It goes beyond the surreality of fellow artists glad-handing each other at the Clive Davis party while Whitney’s remains were in that Beverly Hilton hotel room. Or maybe that’s spot on. 

Entertainment’s the business of dream exploitation. It does that to the fans of course, but also to those who work in it. It is a place where one better be quickly disillusioned: expect the same people charged with developing you – loving you - to use you up and leave you for dead.

It's a pretty tense existence. And, the physical toll of a performing life is under-appreciated. Long hours and binge diets strain body’s recuperative systems. Performing before thousands require these typically nervous individuals to surf surges of adrenalin, wiping out when the crowds fall silent. Their work can mean conjuring emotion, self- `triggering’ (pulling a psycho-emotional nose hair) or otherwise keeping oneself in a charged yet vulnerable space. It's a disposition that advantages unsentimental views of feelings: performers regard emotional experience as farmer might a fresh litter of piglets. 

That explains the drugs. Partly. Substances do fun things to dopamine and serotonin. Weed and coke can make feelings feel real again and offer the illusion of emotional control. Prescription drugs can numb you. Or make you sleep on schedule. They let you function.

A chemically mediated reality is `normal' in the entertainment world. But, you might’ve noticed that it is one of those `normal things' that fucks with black people disproportionately. 

Roll call: James Brown, Dionne Warwick. Mary J., DMX, DMC, Jimi Hendrix, Brenda Fassie, David Ruffin, Gregory Isaacs, Bobby Brown, Dennis Brown, Monica, ODB, Nina Simone, Gil-Scot, Billy Holiday, Chaka Khan, Marvin Gaye, Esther Phillips. Many major black musicians had careers marred, or ended, by their own brain chemistry experiments. Underscoring this oddity is research. Compared to other ethnic groups black people are significantly less likely to do `hard drugs’. 

So what’s up?


There’s a lot more at stake identity-wise. And, the psycho-emotional landscape is more treacherous. Black artists subject themselves to a `schizophrenic’ vacillation fueled by aversion to ‘blackness’; the need to use black cultural skills to win mainstream (i.e., white) acceptance and a fear of mainstream rejection. And it isn’t just crazy talk. Racism, and racial pressures, have measureable physiological and psychological effects ones exacerbated by the 'normal' stresses entertainers face daily. Further, those these effects are each compounded by the political history of the entertainment industry. 

Black virtuosity in the performing arts is very much an outgrowth of the industry’s Minstrel show roots. Black people once mocked for the amusement of whites, used those very channels as in-roads into American culture, becoming 'merchants of cool'. It follows that entertainment is one of the few spaces where black excellence is demanded. Moreover, it is a place where `blackness’ is made. And, as Tavis Smiley’s, Viola Davis’ and Octavia Spencer’s triply disturbing exchange illustrated, Black artists still squirm under the race representation burden, one made more slippery by the pressure to ‘break through’ to a quietly hostile, fickle `mainstream' audience; having to rely upon white svengalis, writers and deal brokers to do so. 

Michael and Whitney were both ‘post-civil rights’ artists credited with ‘breaking down the barriers’ (to white audiences) with (color) blinding black genius. Indeed, those dynamics, those pressures, shaped their lives in rather stark ways.

We watched a black kid from Gary Indiana undergo a ‘race-lift’. He'd eventually  'father' white-skinned children: the product of a white surrogate mother and sperm donor. Yet, the King of Pop had a ‘black card’ maintained in part by ‘ethnocentric’ streaks. Bold, nutty, self-serving/sabotaging ones. 

In a business where having a surname ending in ‘–stein’, ‘-berg’ or ‘–feld’ is practically seed money, it was more than ballsy for MJ to scream ‘kill me, kike me’ on record. But, he’d later hire the Nation of Islam as security. At the height of the Afro-centricity debates, the ‘Remember the Time’ video depicted the Kamau as blacker than Central Booking. Jacko made one-time collaborator Paul McCartney feel like a industry-pimped soul artists when Mike snatched up the Beatles catalogue, denying Sir Paul ownership of music he'd created. He raised his flag over the `King of Rock ‘n Roll’s' castle by marrying Lisa Marie Presley. Not long after that, the littlest of the black Mike trinity scared even Al Sharpton when he went off script to call music industry mogul Tommy Matolla a deivilish racist. And of Black economics? MJ hired black cooks, producers, drivers and er…doctors.

He was loved - protectively and crazily - by black people, but his fascination with whiteness (and little kids) had him on a perennial 'black probation', which, oddly made him even `blacker'. 

At that same time, Whitney’s church-burnished pipes, fondness of Nelson Mandela and a marriage to the poster boy for ‘love and trouble’ one Mr. Bobby Brown didn’t deflect accusations of ‘racial inauthenticity’. I suppose there were some other important differences. Unlike the King of Pop, the Queen was infamously stiff-backed. Couldn’t cut a rug if she had scissors. 


Early in the adult careers, Mike played up the weirdo-mystique of genius, Whitney was all ‘good girl affection’ or ‘defensive hauteur’ as one movie reviewer put it.  And while the crotch-grabbing black Peter Pan made music that spanned the spectrum, Whitney’s aesthetic was managed in a way that that’d accommodate the subtle racism of adaptation inequality embedded in post-Civil Rights ‘acceptance’ narratives. Once rich, her music became bland and soul-less. And like Janet and Mariah, she made sure to keep a safe distance from Hip-Hop. Black fans, ‘respectable’ women too, questioned her selective use of her soul/gospel roots. So did the niggerati. In his seminal 1989 essay ‘The New Black Aesthetic’ Troy Ellis wrote,  'Lionel Ritchie's 'Dancing on the Ceiling' and Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance with Somebody" are so lifeless precisely because they have applied Porcelana fade cream to their once extremely soulful throats. The two now-pop singers have transformed themselves into cultural-mulatto, assimilationist nightmares; neutered mutations instead of thriving hybrids. Trying to please both worlds instead of themselves they end up truly pleasing neither.’

And that wasn't it. There were nagging rumors that Whitney might’ve had same-sex dalliances; behavior then ascribed mostly to bougie-bohemian white women and the non-white women who idolized them, and certainly not to respectable, church-going presentables. 

Indeed, 1989 was a pivotal year. At the Soul Train Awards, Whitney Houston, Karyn White, Regina Belle and Vanessa Williams’ were nominated for Best R n B Urban Contemporary Single by a Female. Whitney’s nomination was booed. Adding injury to insult, ‘Where do Broken Hearts Go’ lost to Belle’s ‘No One in the World’: a song that, as Regina was sure to point out, was dedicated to her husband. 

That night's events stayed with Houston. In an 1990 appearance on the Arsenio Hall show she’d feigned ignorance offering ‘universalist’ dodge, by asking "what did people meant by ‘singing white’?". In a subsequent interview, she'd answer her own question: `Sometimes it gets down to that, you know?  You're not black enough for them. I don't know. You're not R&B enough. You're very pop. The white audience has taken you away from them.’ 

The '89 Soul Train awards stayed with her in other ways too. Whitney’d met then reigning King of RnB, Mr. Bobby Brown that night. Five years later, at those very awards, they’d perform ‘Something in Common’ as man and wife.  Some fawned and gushed. Cynics asked aloud whether that 'something' was ‘crack’; a remark that pointed to, among other things, Whitney’s fake 'good girl' image and self-destructive foray into ‘authentic’ blackness.


The odd pairing made the whisperings of Whitney’s supposed closet lesbianism grow louder. She’d address them directly in a 1996 Dateline NBC interview ‘‘KC:  Because she plays basketball, people think she's a lesbian./ WH:  She's a very tall, very broad woman.  She's been my friend for years.  I don't know.  We've just stuck it out.  And now we're just... I don't know...they just think we're just... I’m not gay.  I'm not lesbian.  I'm a mother, I'm a wife, I'm a daughter.  Lesbian and gay I'm not. Two titles I can't claim. I'm sorry.  I just can't, you know. But I do have a friend.” She’d brook no besmirching of her identity choices and family life. She’d call the media ‘bloodsucking demons’ and the entertainment world ‘madness’.

The pop music landscape had changed dramatically and `home' seemed a better fit now. Celine Dion and Tommy Mattola’s then wife Mariah Carey were dominating the pop charts with voices that rivaled Whitney’s. And, a younger, urban black audience was installing the ‘real’ Mary J. Blige (who took pains to show that she could dance) as their embodiment of black girl pain. Clive Davis was busying himself grooming the next church-bred, classy cross-over:Toronto-born Debra Cox. Houston went `back home', starring in the jilted black girl classic 1995’s Waiting to Exhale and then the Preacher’s Wife the following year. After the gospel soundtrack cracked the charts and won her all sorts of respect, Whitney released the comeback hit “Your Love is My Love” with former Lauryn Hill beau Wyclef Jean. The album of the same name would be a critically acclaimed blend of hip-hop, reggae, and dance, relegating her power ballad and pop sheen days to distant memory. 

She was more herself. And things seemed back on track: Houston would win Artist of the Decade, Female at the Soul Train Music Awards. In 2001, she’d sign a $100 million dollar deal with Arista. Something though was amiss. Despite the cultural comfort and success, she grew more erratic. Some might say, more 'black'.

In 2000, she and Bobby were caught with way too much cannabis. She bailed on Clive Davis’ induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And, in another instance, was sent home for showing up high to work.  In a 2002 interview with Diane Sawyer Houston, when pressed about her rumored drug use, Houston offered perhaps the most ridiculous and self-indicting deflection available:  feigning complete ignorance of drug culture by demanding that her accusers produce receipts from her dealers. She’d then shatter that innocence with a classist dodge, saying: "First of all, let's get one thing straight. Crack is cheap. I make too much money to ever smoke crack. Let's get that straight. Okay? We don't do crack. We don't do that. Crack is wack." The exchange showed overconfidence in an ability to pull the wool over the public’s eyes, and, was the first sequence in a pattern of deflecting then confessing. Years later, she’d admit on Oprah to smoking cocaine laced cannabis prior to meeting Bobby. 

It'd be only reasonable to wonder if she’d been so `cagey' about pandering to white audiences, and her drug use, what of her sexual attraction to women?

In his 2008 tell-all Bobby Brown: The Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing But… Bobby'd revisit those old rumors, presenting their marriage as one of convenience for Whitney (he, of course, had only the purest of motives): “I believe her agenda was to clean up her image, while mine was to be loved and have children. The media was accusing her of having a bisexual relationship with her assistant, Robyn Crawford. Since she was the American Sweetheart and all, that didn't go too well with her image . . . In Whitney's situation, the only solution was to get married and have kids. That would kill all speculation, whether it was true or not.” This week, British gay rights advocate Peter Tatchell  took the baton, and stirred things up with his`Whitney’s REAL tragedy was giving up her greatest love of all – her female partner Robyn Crawford.’ The title pretty much says it all. As this hit the 'net the just-let-Whitney-rest-in-peace appeals and respectability shut downs came fast and furious. But, what these would-be defenders of Whitney's reputation dared not ask was: why would having a sexual relationship with a woman sully her memory at all?  It doesn't. Right?...Right? 

Funny that Bobby’s malicious and bragging reading of his marriage to one of `the biggest stars in the world’ offered something that the decent ‘shut-it-down’ers' didn’t. Straight or bi, Whitney was still very much affected by ‘homophobic’ attitudes: her own and those belonging to  the respectable folks who comprised her fan-base. No wonder they’d rather not talk about it or wonder in what other ways was Whitney 'Every Woman'?


The quiet pressures of the aspiration-identity complex, where 'respectable folks' dwell, is crucial to appreciating why so many black artists of a particular generation develop serious drug problems. And, whether we attribute Whitney's overdose to her toxic marriage; the pressure to be ‘black enough’; the difficulty of crossing over or self-doubt, we ought to be having some of the same discussions that we have when a bullied gay kid kills him or herself. 

And, let’s go further. Race, gender and sexual preferences are always talked about, but the master gene in the 'slow suicide' sequence: 'love' as a reward of ‘success’ is skillfully talked around. No accident. Engaging it means questioning some of the core beliefs of our 'get ahead' culture. The life arcs of some of our most revered people, people we watched grow up or grew up with, show that genius, beauty and 'success' aren’t `redemptive'. They, in fact, can hasten a demise. They can numb and break your spirit and coke, cannabis, valium, morphine, alcohol, xanax, propofol or whatever else recreate the feeling of normalcy and promote the idea that one can only be safe around those who live the void  because, though they're dangerous, they, like the substances you have in common, can’t judge you. 

I'm thinking that's part of what Whitney meant when she said that 'Bobby was her drug.' 

These questions of Whitney's drug use, marriage, possible queerness, are convoluted ways evading the gaping subjunctive. What choices would she have made had she felt secure in the belief that she could be `successful' and `loved' without having to make herself `palatable' to either a black or 'universal' (i.e., white) audience? 

I suppose that will never be answered. Or the answer isn't at all relevant to the 'mad' world Whitney claimed to save Robyn from, a world that she chose for herself. We, though, can choose better, simply by choosing not to make homes where the hatred is.