/ 4 August 2017

Don’t follow the Pied Piper

Don’t follow the Pied Piper
Fly away: Repeated transgressions against women by R Kelly and other stars are brushed off as minor lapses. (Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

This one is for the ride-or-dies. The angry black girls. Abomama who shield themselves in prayer. The scowlers whose faces repel attention.

Since Jay-Z dropped 4:44 and fresh allegations of paedophilia and sexual impropriety surfaced against R Kelly, the aptly named Pied Piper of R&B, the response from men, though expected, has been heartbreaking.

Jay-Z’s cheating cannot be equated with the sexual abuse claims that have dogged R Kelly since the annulment of his marriage to the then 15-year-old Aaliyah.

Jay-Z’s confession and subsequent grovelling may well have been a sincere commitment to change, but the responses to his apologies — adulation and praise — had the effect of diminishing the gravity of his actions, reducing them to forgivable, inconsequential lapses on the trajectory of his growth as a man, a father and a musician.

On 4:44, Jay seems contrite, admitting his fecklessness: I apologise/ Often womanised/ Took for my child to be born to see through a woman’s eyes. He continues his shopping list of regrets, saying the phrase “I apologise” no fewer than seven times on the title track. When he says: You mature faster than me/ I wasn’t ready, he seems to forget the 12-year age difference between them. When Jay-Z was 30, Beyoncé was 18.

I have always been uncomfortable with society pushing womanhood on girls under the guise of maturity. Maturity is a poisoned chalice. Girls don’t get to be children because they are being groomed for adulthood before they get a chance to understand the implications of that maturity.

As I’ve grown older and less accepting of labels, the mistreatment of black women and girls through the “strong black woman” or “mature” tropes has become more apparent, from the women who board Putco buses before dawn to make it in time to wash your soiled underwear to the women whose songs or achievements give us a few minutes of impassioned belief that we shall overcome.

It doesn’t matter which slice of life we receive, misogynoir — misogyny directed at black women — allows the double humiliation of race and sex to keep us underfoot,
invisible and at the mercy of others.

Black women, especially, are supposed to be impenetrable. We can withstand everything; we can take it. If we get cheated on, we make Lemonade. If we are sexually abused, we become cautionary tales about inviting our degradation. If we die at the hands of men, surely we stayed with them for the trappings of luxury? Violence against us goes unnoticed or can be justified. “I thought she was older.” “Itiye, she’s loose.” “You chose to be with a blesser.”

On the other hand, hip-hop’s fondness for the “ride or die” — a version of the Tammy Wynette woman who stands by her man — isn’t exempt from this thinking because it’s the contemporary version of the “strong black woman” archetype.

At first it may seem like an achievement to be a woman who fits this mould, but this characterisation has its consequences. This allows people like R Kelly or Arthur Mafokate to harm black women in unimaginable ways. Yet nothing happens. If anything, their stars shine brighter, their victims’ lives dissected and weighed against Anubis’s feather to elicit sympathy or belief. For each of these men, their success and ability to evade consequences lies in the invisibility of their victims.

All women are subjected to this kind of symbolic violence, where people judge their looks and lifestyles to decide whether they are deserving of protection. But for black women and girls, misogynoir treatment further distorts their humanity.

Recently, a Georgetown law report found that black girls are subjected to “adultification”, meaning they’re perceived as older and less innocent than their white counterparts. This corroborates what black women have long known. Because they are considered “mature”, and are saddled with the stereotype of being aggressive, loud, defiant and sexually aware, they’re easily exploited by men.

The passionate defence of R Kelly, Brickz, OkMalumKoolKat, Chris Brown or men we know personally has little to do with who they are and what they’ve achieved, and everything to do with how black women and girls are an afterthought.

Abantu bazothini (what will people say)? For many black women, those words are a death knell to whatever they have to say. Familial loyalty and honour trumps your pain.

Black women, you only have each other. The world’s unattainable ideal of black womanhood does not honour the richness, colour and beauty that black womanhood truly is.

Kiri Rupiah is the social media editor of the Mail & Guardian