We Wear the Mask
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!
Paul Lawrence Dunbar
I want to thank Jeff Johnson, itinerant teacher, for bringing this issue to my attention. Shot guerilla style with a single camera and a lot of moxie, Erykah Badu’s newest music video is a walking tour of the last path John F. Kennedy rode and an observation on self-censorship and challenging the status quo. Yes, she strips naked. And the people who you see in the video don’t expect a thing. The uproar seems to be trapped in the details. Children and small woodland creatures have been confronted by art, molested by social commentary, and their parents have been aroused by a big black butt in living color. The laws of Texas state:
Sec. 21.08. INDECENT EXPOSURE.
(a) A person commits an offense if he exposes his anus or any part of his genitals with intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person, and he is reckless about whether another is present who will be offended or alarmed by his act.
(b) An offense under this section is a Class B misdemeanor.
Sec. 42.01. DISORDERLY CONDUCT.
(a) A person commits an offense if he intentionally or knowingly:
(10) exposes his anus or genitals in a public place and is reckless about whether another may be present who will be
offended or alarmed by his act;
Are Americans morally offended by nudity? Does bathing occur fully clothed? Some are suggesting that Badu’s intent to record a naked black woman getting shot by an invisible shooter was to sexually arouse or provoke. Her crime against the city? Filming without a permit and, maybe, disorderly conduct if they can prove that her legs were open enough to reveal genitalia. Although, tourists don’t need permits to film while they are walking that same route. No one seems to be disturbed that the naked women, as far as they could tell, fell to the ground shot and apparently dead. No one mentions that part of the controversy surrounding JFK’s assassination stems from his making moves to alter America as we knew it then with Civil Rights Law and massively proactive foreign engagement [yet, ironically, had nothing to say against McCarthyism].
A side bar: It reminds me of Janet Jackson’s infamous Super Bowl costume malfunction. Naked black women are either scary or sexually enticing and an affront to the “standards of decency” which have defined film & television, advertising and Western beauty standards in general.
In the aftermath of Erykah Badu’s recent foray into nudity I have to ask. Why are we more attentive to her figure, affronted by her freedom and not enlivened by her message? Erykah Badu’s artistic history tells the story that with each album she is changing, growing. Her 1997 debut album, Baduizm, was more than feel good music. It was poetry and perspectives unvoiced during a period of American music history saturated with sex and violence in the aftermath of gansta rap. She helped to usher in the genre we now call neo-soul. Her Live album (1997) even had my mother singing along, “Ya betta ca-all Ty-ro-one.” Mama’s Gun (2000) put the focus on self-appreciation and accountability whereas Worldwide Underground (2003) had a lush nostalgic feel reminding us all that it’s the party that keeps the pain at bay. Whether or not you like her singing or her production or her videos or approve of who she is dating and how she wears her hair[pieces], it is apparent that unlike some “artists,” Erykah Badu has never created a body of work which was purposely detrimental, misleading, or degrading to her audience or anyone else. The New Amerykah Albums (Pt. 1: 4th World War, 2008) have been clearly presented as a challenge to the norm which, President Obama and all, hasn’t substantially altered much. When it comes to voices of dissention anyone black, seems to stand alone, perhaps is even considered a sell-out; anyone white who does looks like a racist; and the other racial phenotypes are generally discredited somehow. At least, that’s how many media outlets present it. “Window Seat,” the lead single from the 2010 release New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh is a part of her evolution as an artist and from, my perspective, a human being.
From the beginning, I can recall people who felt that Erykah Badu’s lyrics were too esoteric for mass consumption. However, I want to present this thought. For centuries, the songs sung by people of African descent in America were coded. Songs like, “Follow the Drinking Gourd” and “Steal Away” were part of the abolitionist repertoire, and in direct opposition to the socially acceptable practice of slavery. Later as slang terms developed, blues and jazz musicians kept powerful secrets in seemingly innocuous words like jazz and jelly roll. Rock and Roll artists like Little Richard altered their often burlesque lyrics but never lost the brash spirit behind the words. Perhaps we’ve forgotten that song lyrics are poetry set to music. [Even if we don’t like it. That’s fair. Art is subjective.] All artists make music considerate of lyrical content and what responses they want to evoke in their audiences. Double entendre can still be heard in the crassest of “urban” music chart toppers. And Erykah Badu’s lyrics are challenging, particularly if one puts no stock in her world view. Everyone though, according to Nietzsche, can regard their own subjective reflections as truthful, with the caveat that they also accept those of everyone else.
Matt and Kim, a New York based music duo also bared all in the video for their song, “Lessons Learned.” Badu thanks them in the beginning of her video. One artist is paying homage to other artists brave enough to break the monotony of Groupthink, a sociology concept attributed to William H. White in 1952 and evolved by Irving Janis in the 1970s. Just why is Groupthink in need of being broken? Badu’s statement at the end of the video clearly says it holds back the individual from their right to growth.
They who play it safe are quick to assassinate what they do not understand.
They move in packs, ingesting more and more fear with every act of hate on one another.
They feel most comfortable in groups–less guilt to swallow.
They are us, this is what we have become, afraid to respect the individual.
The point Badu makes in the “Window Seat” music video is echoed clearly by the wagging fingers and clicking tongues of disapproval. I’ve heard many voices either dismiss her nudity as publicity, a prank, or give it the weightiness of child abuse, sexual depravity, and accuse her of desecrating John F. Kennedy’s legacy. In those highly oversimplified reactions, the lack of understanding of her social-political intent is painfully obvious and it is clear that Badu is not preaching to the choir. In fact she is, as the video suggests a lone voice of dissention. She gets it.
I am not a fanatic worshipping at Erykah Badu’s temple, participating in the orgiastic rites of Baduizm. But I am ignoring the crowd’s directives in favor of my own journey. I am a force for positive change in this world and I respect the spirit of an artist daring enough to do the same. I am open enough to understand that, like uncorrupted civil servants [what few there may be], many artists are soul-bound to serve their communities regardless of their communities’ appreciation. Badu choosing nudity as a metaphor for freeing oneself of social masks proves that she is not a monster but an irritant promoting the evolution of herself as individual and subsequently, society as a whole.
A single person within her circumstance can move one to change, to love herself, to evolve.
As of Friday, April 2, the “Window Seat” video was showing in reverse on the Erykah Badu website. This reading is consistent with the following commentary: the artist who speaks up and out is still attacked and shut up by the society which is not yet prepared to comprehend the message.