Last week Lupe Fiasco premiered his video for “Bitch Bad.” With its use of minstrelsy and blackface, the video as well the song brings to the forefront once again the complicated position of the black entertainer in popular culture. What is the role and responsibility of a black entertainer to themselves and their audiences? What is the role and responsibility of the audience? The black entertainer is in a constant struggle to perform black complexity not only in a space limited by capitalist, colonial structures, but also shaped by the cultural, social and historical background of the performer and audience. Probably unintentionally, “Bitch Bad” highlights the constant negotiations within black performance today and in the past.
In “Bitch Bad,” Fiasco attempts to start a conversation about the confusion over the meanings of the word “bitch,” and the influence over young children who hear it in popular music and see mainstream popular music videos. Though in the verse brings up problems with the word, by the time the listener reaches the chorus, it sounds as if Lupe is demanding the extinction of the word after the use of old-fashioned dichotomy of the bitch versus the lady. Listening to the song again, whether he meant to or not, Fiasco slightly comes off as almost patronizing or paternalistic. He seems to be paying more attention to women (rappers and audiences) role in the usage of the word than on the men who also use it. Some of the lyrics come off subtly as blaming women and slut-shaming, especially in the third verse. He also disregards how female performers use the word sometimes as a form of subversion in a male-dominated industry. The word has a different meaning within a different performance context. These may not have been Fiasco’s intention, but the song can be interpreted as an oversimplification of the topic.
Then he released the video, which is reminiscent of Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, and the video reveals Fiasco’s heavy-handed approach to the discussion of the word. He uses a common comparison by some of U.S. American blackface minstrelsy of the 19th and 20th century to today’s performances of “the gangsta” and “video vixen” in some hip-hop videos. Directed by Gil Green, the video takes place in an old-fashioned vaudeville-styled theater and visually expresses the details of the song through staged scenes. Towards the end of the video, the male and female performers put on blackface, visibly in pain over their actions. Although the video has some potential elements of good critique, such as the businessman counting the money at the beginning, connecting capitalism and exploitative entertainment, it falls short for a couple of reasons. First because of the cliched comparison between today’s hip-hop music videos and blackface minstrelsy, but also the simplified portrayal of minstrelsy.
When I saw Fiasco’s video, once again I saw another oversimplification; it is one-dimensional in its view of performance and language. Yes, blackface minstrelsy is a painful and degrading part of the American past, but often what is left out of the discussion is its complicated history, such as the agency in subversion for some minstrels and the cultural background of performers. Through the blackface and one-dimensional caricatures, some tried to create two-dimensional characters. They tried to reclaim it for themselves through multiplicity of meaning and control of narratives. Additionally, minstrels, like Bert Williams who was from the Caribbean island of the Bahamas, show the multiplicity of black performance and interpretation of that performance due to cultural and social background, as Louis Chude-Sokei writes about in The Last ‘Darky’: Bert Williams, Black-on-Black Minstrelsy, and the African Diaspora. The same can be applied to gendered black performances and the performance of the word “bitch.”
Fiasco’s song and video does not fully address the address the chaotic nature of performance, that it can be both repressive and resistant at the same time. For black entertainers, they have had to confront and negotiate that doubleness as part of a marginalized group limited in power. The minstrel performance is both restricting and a critique of the audience who is watching. Minstrels can be like jesters or tricksters; from far way the mask of the performances appears one way for the dominant social structure, but up close as one pays attention closely to the details, another story is etched into it. What I want from artists, like Fiasco, and critic is a deeper and more fleshed-out conversation about language and performance, not a final judgement.