Guest Post: “An Open Letter to Nelly”
At the urging of others, I am taking a hesitant trip down memory lane. I was a 19 year old junior and president of the feminist group at Spelman College when you decided to hold a bone marrow registration drive on our campus on behalf of your sister, who needed a transplant. Your now-infamous video “Tip Drill” had started airing on shows like BET’s Uncut. It features, most memorably, a scene where you slide a credit card down the crack of a black woman’s butt. My group raised questions about the misogynoir in the video and lyrics, and when we heard that you were invited to campus by our Student Government Association, it seemed fair to us that we could ask you about the dehumanizing treatment of black women while you were asking us for our help. You declined our offer to talk about your music and lyrics. Instead, you chose to go to the press, which made our alleged threat of a protest an international news story. In the time since, whenever asked about the situation, you both mischaracterize what happened and lament not using violence, something you repeated most recently during a Huffpost Live interview earlier this week. Let’s be clear: No student or faculty member of Spelman College canceled your bone marrow registration drive. In fact, we held our own drive after you and your people chose to cancel the bone marrow registration drive for fear that there might have been a protest.
Had you decided to come, to just talk with us, you would have seen fewer than ten “protesters,” all of whom were planning to register to donate bone marrow, despite your refusal to hear us. I say “protesters” because we didn’t actually get to have a conversation. What started as a simple request that you speak with a small group of concerned students about representations of women in your lyrics and videos turned into a national conversation about misogyny, race, and class in hip hop culture. But the dialog our actions started stalled because people remained hung up on the same concerns. People railed against censorship as if our efforts were an attempt to get you banned from the airwaves, when all we really wanted was to have a conversation about the representations you produce and their potential impact on our communities.
Often Black feminists are represented as advocates for censorship. People often portray us as sex-hating, stick-in-the-mud conservatives concerned with respectability. That couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, we like sex so much (NSFW) we dare to think that women should enjoy it and not be subjugated to images that define our sexuality in limited ways. Music videos and lyrics, including yours, often portray women as silent partners and objects of male attention. This silence, Nelly, is not unlike the silence you expected from us regarding your visit. Women are instructed in many songs about what to do, wear, drink, how to dance and behave to make themselves appealing to men.
The heterosexist and cissexist nature of these images reinforces the idea that women’s sexuality, our bodies, are not our own and are ultimately in the service of men’s needs. “It must be ya ass cause it ain’t your face,” literally reduces women’s value to the attractiveness of their body parts.
As much as we’d like to rid the world, particularly our safe spaces like Spelman College, of misogyny, we know that censoring music and images is not the solution. We also know that at a private institution devoted to the well-being of women of the African Diaspora we can and should cultivate an environment that doesn’t assault our very humanity. These are two entirely different projects and the later is often confused with the former. We have and had the right to ask questions of you, especially when you are asking something so important of us.
It has been ten years and yet here we are. You continue to say that we canceled the drive when your organization decided to stop it. You continue to not so subtly blame us for the transition of your sister even though Spelman still had a bone marrow registration drive–one that actually had more attendees than were initially signed up for your event. All of the “protesters” made the decision to register to ensure that the goals of the drive were honored. A few of us were already on the registry. If after all this we are still to blame for your sister’s passing, can we blame you then for the misogynoir that we face daily?
The timing of your interview and the release of Lilly Allen’s video that borrows so heavily from “Tip Drill” just hurts my head. Solidarity is indeed for white women and Black Power is indeed for Black men. I guess you have a new album to promote so you were willing to be used for clicks and page views through the dredging up of this long passed controversy. All in a day’s work, I guess.
I will say that I did find something compelling in your interview. You are right: We should protest strip clubs, but not for the reasons you think. Any strip club or business that doesn’t provide benefits, unions, safe working conditions, paid sick leave, child care, etc., deserves our collective outrage. We should all be really mad about a lot of people’s places of employment–and what their employers often demand of them. We all deserve better. Women who work on music video sets, at strip clubs in Atlanta, our Spelman sisters and not, Nelly, even your sister deserves better than to serve as the scapegoat for your lack of accountability and refusal to recognize black women as more than bodies to be used as you see fit.
Glad to know if you had it do over again you would have “kicked some ass.”
Just name the time and place, sir. I’m ready.
Moya Bailey is an African American Studies postdoctoral fellow at Penn State University. Her current work focuses on constructs of health and normativity within a US context. She is interested in how race, gender, and sexuality are represented in media and medicine. She is the co-conspirator of Quirky Black Girls, a digital collective of strange and different Black girls. She also co-curates the #transformdh initiative in Digital Humanities.