Although he’s best known for his romantic duets with Roberta Flack, I would argue that you haven’t really experienced the genius of Donny Hathaway until you’ve heard him pray in song form. To listen to his soulful testimonies like “Thank You Master [For My Soul]” and “Lord Help Me” is to invite them into your bloodstream.
Because Hathaway left us with so many gifts and he was so sincere in his calls for Black unity and a better quality of life for poor folks, I have never paid much attention to his gender politics. When I introduce that line of inquiry into my communion with his work, I feel deflated. Suddenly—too loudly and on repeat—I’m hearing how in “Lord Help Me,” Donny asks God to show his brother “that there’s a purpose for living” but asks that the Lord teach his sister “not to worry about fashion and style/Lord, Lord help her spend her time just raising her child.”
Of course that’s some good old-fashioned Ward Cleaver-style sexism mixed with Black maternal-shaming. But on a cellular level, his work inspires me to put my own messy, spurty, word-making-upping, post-Golden Era Hip-Hop voice out into a world that very deliberately tells me that because I’m Black, female, unmarried, childless, and so-far-from-ballin’ that I am not worth very much.
I’ve taken you the long way (sue me; I was born in the mid-‘70s) because, in the name of inspiration, I want my Internet community of progressives, feminists, activists, Nationalists, hip-hop fans, academics and other assorted thinkers to be aggressively constructive in our critique of “Bitch Bad,” the second single from Lupe Fiasco’s upcoming “Food & Liquor 2: The Great American Rap Album.”
I urge you to listen to the song for yourself. But here’s my take: Through the lenses of a young boy “maybe 5, maybe 4” and a group of Internet-savvy girls ages 9 through 12, Fiasco explains how adult women’s casual re-appropriation of “bad b#@ch” can scramble romantic communication for their children down the line. For the boy, confusion takes root when he hears his mother—ostensibly the most central female figure in his life who he’s been taught to exalt—sing along to “bad b#@ch” lyrics on the car radio. Meanwhile, the girls are looking at the sex-positive interpretation of “bad b#@ch” via scantily clad “lead girls” in videos who garner the attention of male artists.
Fiasco’s story is complicated and all of the pieces don’t add up. So in what seems to be his attempt to turn a cognitive tightrope into solid ground, Fiasco sums up his fable with a Madonna/Whore hook:
“Bitch bad/Woman good/Lady better.”
Now, egghead critics like Spin’s Marc Hogan have slammed the song for it’s alleged lack of artistic merit. (I disagree; I like it.) And The Crunk Feminist Collective’s always-insightful, eloquent Brittney Cooper rightfully challenges the narrow respectability politics Fiasco invokes in the hook.
But there’s another voice I’m hearing, from within, that wants a minute to celebrate how Fiasco has interrupted a genre that has become so one-note and unimaginative when it comes to gender. Call me desperate (really, have at it; I’m desperate for a win) but I’m thankful that he’s not telling anybody to bounce, jiggle, or tighten up her shoe game. Lupe didn’t get it “right.” But he got it true. To me, at least, that’s inspiring.
Akiba Solomon is an NABJ-Award winning writer, freelance journalist, editor and essayist from West Philadelphia. She writes about the intersection between gender and race for Colorlines and is the co-editor of Naked: Black Women Bare All About Their Skin, Hair, Hips, Lips, and Other Parts .