Photo of Lil' Kim courtesy of Twitter.
Lil' Kim & Other Revolutions: A Meditation On Swizz Beats' #FamilyZone Photo
Lil' Kim & Other Revolutions: Meditations On Swizz Beats' #FamilyZone Photo
I missed the sexual revolutions sparked by Betty Davis and Grace Jones...but I was born just in time for Lil’ Kim. With my palms over my eyes, I’d look through the cracks of my fingers and witness this brown woman who appeared to be half wet dream and half machine gun. With her image and lyrics, Lil’ Kim re-imagined sexuality and confidence for women in hip-hop. Tits out, legs open and flow tough — Lil’ Kim was seemingly the lovechild of Vanity 6 and Enedina Arellano Felix. Lil’ Kim was confidence underneath an ever-changing parade of colored wigs and avant-garde designer outfits. Lil’ Kim was the Queen Bee, evolving from a regular girl from Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn; from around the way.
Years later, music—like everything else—has evolved and Lil’ Kim isn’t the commercial giant I knew in childhood, but still a legend. She still personified confidence… until I opened up a magazine where she talked candidly about her appearance and dating experiences:
“Guys always cheated on me with women who were European-looking.” - Lil' Kim
In that moment, I remembered Lil’ Kim was not just a sexual revolution put to beats; she was a regular, beautiful black girl before her stardom, living inside of the same dominating systems as you and I. “You know, the long-hair type,” Lil’ Kim continued. “Really beautiful women that left me thinking, ‘How can I compete with that?’ Being a regular Black girl was not good enough.”
Lil’ Kim was a regular, beautiful black girl—who was told the master narrative, and believed it. And she was surrounded by men that were told the master narrative, and believed it. White supremacy wasn’t a burning cross in her history book or a distant concept only made real when a white person chose to dominate her. White supremacy was a candlelight dinner with the man that loved her—but not quite as much as he would if she was lighter, blonder and with a thinner nose. Often it is easy to understand how white supremacy dominates us globally, but it is harder to understand how it might appear intimately. It is the reason why we discover there was misogyny and colorism located inside the pro-black revolutionary organization, The Black Panther Party. Relief from white supremacy and other dominating systems does not always exist where you think it might. It does not always vanish at our churches, schools, bedrooms or in the media content we consume, even when it is marketed as black excellence...
On Twitter this week, I saw a joyous photo of some of the entertainment industry’s most powerful players enjoying drinks after the MTV’s Video Music Awards [originally shared by Swizz Beats on his Instagram account]. Amongst the men, were P. Diddy, Jay Z, Steve Stoute and Kanye West. Amongst the women, were Beyoncé, Alicia Keys and Kim Kardashian-West. After marveling at the warmth and excellence expressed in the candid photo of the couples, my mind ventured to Lil’ Kim. Here was a type of photographic evidence of the platform of her insecurity. Jay Z and Diddy were her peers and they have wives with the aesthetic that one might venture to say Lil’ Kim is striving to arrive at through cosmetic enhancements, including surgery. Intimate relationships are much deeper than aesthetics. It would be ridiculous to think, for instance, that someone as powerful and talented as Beyoncé was only pursued romantically by Jay Z solely because of how she looks--or that she is solely a passive object of his pursuit. This is not the statement I am making about any of the couples. When critically engaging with media content, it is easy to conflate an observation of how something can function as the sum of what something is in reality, especially with such a personal photo.
What is hard to deny is that this picture adds another piece of evidence to the world of white supremacist domination that informs our media and content, and has haunted Lil’ Kim. You don’t have to be conscious of your collusion with white supremacy in order to be used by it. Some things that come natural to you, like skin color or hairstyle, but might still appease white supremacy. It is not my desire, nor place, to suggest anyone change how they best feel comfortable walking through the world. It is my desire to bring awareness to what privileges and dominates us underneath white supremacy, especially intimately since often that is where we most overlook it. It can be tiring to critically engage media when you’d like to relax or only find delight. It can be tiring and risky to the self to critically engage your desirability or your desires, and interrogate what makes you desirable. Or what makes you desire what you desire? Once we move past the lazy ideas that desires are only visceral preferences, we discover that our desires are informed by something. Who told you were ugly? Who you told you that were beautiful? What about you is ugly or beautiful? Why? What was the purpose of you believing this and what might you be uplifting by never agitating these beliefs?
I think about growing up watching Martin and The Cosby Show, and how the wives were dynamic, revered and had light skin and with looks that did not jar America’s white supremacist aesthetics. I wonder how that informs those who grew up with these images in our choice of partner and who they might need to be to be partnered. I remember that it is only recently that we have stars that transgress what White supremacy has told us was beautiful. For generations, the Billie Holidays and Lena Hornes acquired a certain type of stardom that was not possible for the Sarah Vaughns or Ella Fitzgeralds. The sum of the beauty and excellence you locate in your blackness should not be validated by media content, but if you do consume this media, it is useful to engage with it critically or you might form (or excuse) a belief unconsciously. I remember reading Eartha Kitt’s answer when she was asked about dating white men and the rejection she experienced from famous black men. She expressed that she was not desired, relating that she was told as a black woman by stars such as Harry Belafonte that she could not help these famous black men arrive at the successful spaces they desired to arrive at the same way that a white woman could. I wonder how much of Belafonte’s sentiments as relayed to Eartha Kitt were true, versus what he consumed and believed to be true. Was intimate white supremacy jailing his imagination of what was possible for him and his possibility for romantic futures with black women?
I expressed these sentiments on Twitter, and beyond the negative and positive responses, the most interesting responses were the people who didn’t think of it. Often as black people when consuming media, even the personal media that becomes public as did the behind-the-scenes VMAs photo, we become intoxicated by the symbolism. We find such delight in consuming black content that engaging with it critically feels like an attack. But we should also recognize this intoxication as a function of capitalism. We can often become so enchanted with the vision of black people acquiring fame, power and fortune precisely because we’re living through them vicariously. Any critique on something you cherish intimately as the symbol of your own possibility can leave a critique feeling personal when it is simply a harmless idea, no matter how much it agitates your capitalistic dreams of “money, power and respect.” There is space to both consume something and critique a thing.
In 1996 Lil’ Kim rapped, “I am a diamond cluster hustler/ Queen Bitch, supreme bitch.” In 2016, this is still true. Black greatness should not be degraded simply because we fall victim to what we are dominated or privileged by. However, because we are a people living in these interlocking dominations, it is essential we push forward by critically engaging the content we consume on both an intimate and a global level.
There will be all types of revolutions we will miss, but through critical thought even with the most mundane things, you can ensure that you won’t miss the most important revolution there is, which is the revolution of the self.