In the Blog

Hey yeah, I wanna… study black history?

February 5th, 2009     by Anna Leventhal     Comments

So, I don’t know if y’all noticed this or not, but Barack Obama is president of the USA. This, for many reasons, is cause for celebration. But while it is very exciting and thrilling and hopeful to have a person of colour holding the highest office in the United States (some would say the world, but that’s a little America-centric, don’t you think?), there is occasionally a slightly disturbing undertone to all the optimism; the joy has the possibility of sliding into smugness. It sometimes seems like we’re thinking “Alright, it’s been proven that people of colour can do anything, that means oppression and racism are things of the past!” This seems akin to if, had it been Hillary in place of Barack, we here at Shameless would pat each other on the back, shake hands, and retire the magazine, because - guess what! Feminism is over!

Well folks, it’s not over. We are not, as some would like to believe, post-feminist. And we are definitely not post-race. Although major ground has been gained in high office, struggles continue every day, on the street, in the home, in prisons, in hospitals, in the workplace. So this Black History Month seems like a good time to think about what those struggles mean, and where they’ve come from.

I know there has been a lot of objection to the idea of Black History Month itself, and one of the best arguments against it, I think, is that besides being tokenistic and marginalizing, it suggests that black history and American history are two separate things. Which they are pointedly not. In light of this idea, I choose to think of Black History Month as being less about recognizing the contributions of people from the African Diaspora - which is something that should happen every day, not one month a year - and more about considering how history is told, and by who. That is, can we imagine a history of America that is told by black people, or Indigenous people? Can we imagine a history of Canada that is told that way? Can we imagine histories told by women? In the words of someone or other, yes we can. We can and we have to. Because rethinking history is a way of reshaping our ideas, and ultimately allowing ourselves a way of imagining a better world. Okay, so I’m an idealistic corndog. So sue me.

Wait, this column is supposed to be about music, right? Oh yeah. I’m getting to that. So for this week’s Pick, I want to honour some black women musicians who have been instrumental to my personal history. Not because they “gave” something interesting or important from black culture to “the rest of” society, but because they are both making and telling history, in their own words. And I honestly believe that if more people thought more like them, the world would be a better place. Oh yes. Oh yes. I’m talking about Salt ‘N’ Pepa.

Everyone knows their hit single Push It, and just about as many people are familiar with Shoop, their unabashed ode to female sexuality that is one of the earliest songs I can think of that puts a woman in the place of the aggressive seeker-and-getter of sex. Okay, Blondie’s One Way Or Another came out in 1979, but Shoop is about 100x more interesting a song. And Blondie’s song is mostly just about obsession with love, while Shoop is fiercely and graphically about hot guys and the things they want to do to them.

I first encountered Salt ‘N’ Pepa shortly after the album Very Necessary came out in 1993, when my dance school choreographed a number to Shoop. Oh, the scandal! That song still makes me blush… at least in 1993 I didn’t know what half of it meant. These days I listen to Salt ‘N’ Pepa on my headphones while I’m running and marvel at how damn progressive they are, then and now. For instance, their take on sex and sex work, from None of Your Business:

If I wanna take a guy home with me tonight, it’s none of your business! And if she wanna be a freak and sell it on the weekend, it’s none of your business!

I play this song every time I DJ, hoping it will somehow infiltrate the consciousness of my peers, because seriously, some people can’t be reminded enough. From the same song:

The difference between a hooker and a ho ain’t nothin but a fee.

Which I take to mean, lots of people have sex, it’s just that some people get paid for it. It’s not a moral or ethical choice, it’s a labour choice. And the song Heaven and Hell is one of the most articulate pre-gangsta-rap critiques of daily life for urban black kids that I know:

A lot of my friends are sick and tired (sick of who?) The police (word!) rollin’ on ‘em, pickin’ on, holdin’ on ‘em Hopin’ that they got one of ‘em It was a drug bust, but something’s weird (Well, what’s the matter, Spinderella?) The way half a million disappeared.

In conclusion, these ladies rule. They wrote their own songs, they told it like it is, they topped the charts. They blew my teenage mind, and continue to do it to this day. And they had really good style too. Long may they… shoop.

Tags: picks from planet venus, playlist, race and racism

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