My Feminist Card Is Snatched Again – Blame Lupe

So, hiphop artist, Lupe Fiasco was thrown off the stage at a pre-inauguration event following an  anti-Obama rant… and the Twitterverse exploded.

As to be expected, there were were a slew of staunch supporters, a bevy of vehement detractors and very few who fell in between the heated debated that ensued. My timeline alternated between those who viewed Lupe as the heroic, revolutionary, protagonist and those who dismissed him as an attention-seeking, “stunt-queen” only interested in advancing his own cult of personality.

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I have been, and continue to be, a fan of Lupe Fiasco – for a number of reasons. Following the inauguration debacle, I tweeted in support of his actions. In the barren and arid landscape known as modern, mainstream, hiphop – Lupe is the ONLY artist of his kind right now. And while it’s true that there are a number of extremely talented underground artists who make progressive and socially-conscious music, Lupe is the only artist with mainstream visibility even attempting to address social and/or political issues – and for that, I am grateful to have him on the scene.

But people were heated. How dare he dishonor the President? At his own inauguration? What arrogance! Without going into the many criticisms I have of Obama’s policies and the increasing frustration I experience when progressive liberals attempt to silence my criticism, I chimed in with my support of Lupe and insisted that he was doing exactly what I expected an artist/activist to do. He was using his talent and visibility to raise awareness and spark protest.

That’s when everything about my work, my being, and my commitment to social justice and feminism was thrown into question. Some of my followers were outraged. How could I, as a self-identified black feminist, support a man who had demonstrated his obvious patriarchy through songs such as the controversial “Bitch Bad”? How could I stand in support of a person who didn’t even vote? Surely, I was just another example of a sister was so full of internalized sexism and androcentrism that I was willing to put aside my own gender interests to support patriarchy. Surely, I could not take seriously the man who compared Obama to Bush and didn’t even take his ass to the polls! Perhaps, I wasn’t a real activist or feminist…just an internet poser armed with nothing more than fiery rhetoric and 140 characters.

Moments like this always remind me of why I am a feminist…and why I, some times, hate feminism.

Feminism is just like any other movement. People get into it. They get passionate. Then passion unchecked morphs into this hideous brand of self-righteousness. Pecking orders are established and fangs come out. Individual perspectives are held up as ultimate truths and people who reject the official narrative and challenge us to address the nuances become reduced to symbols of what’s wrong with the world. This type of gladiator-style, movement-building is not exclusive to the feminist movement. Far from it. It happens everywhere. And what I hate most about this paradigm is that it leaves no room for the abundant number of mistakes that it takes to thoroughly delve into anything significant. If you want to be considered a productive and valuable member of said movement, you have to have it all figured out…right now. Because if you don’t,  someone who has convinced themselves that they do have it all figured out is waiting to swoop down on you and snatch all those ill-gained titles and labels that you have falsely adorned yourself with.  At some point, these all-knowing arbiters have attempted to revoke my “woman/feminist”, “black” and “activist” card whenever I had the audacity to express my own opinion or stray from the approved, boiler-plate, bullet points of the movement.

This kind of kill or be killed, activist-death match, climate doesn’t leave room for all of the things I like about movements: collective support and inquiry. I want the kind of feminism that, when I stumble, falter, or am just genuinely searching for some clarity, there is someone there, ready to offer insight. I want to know that I am in a movement with comrades, not vultures. The notion that there are people who are waiting, at a moment’s notice, for me to fuck up so that they can use my apparent incompetence and ignorance as a testament to their own intellectual prowess and sheer awesomeness seems brutal. These movements (feminism included) that tout love and humanity as their foundation – acting in ways that speak largely of ego, competition, and fear is exactly what turns people off, leaving them disillusioned and disappointed.

With his song “Bitch Bad”, Lupe Fiasco attempted to spark dialogue  around issues of gender, culture, language and perception. Many feminists, myself included, took issue with Lupe’s problematic framing of accountability and womanhood in the song. A quick Google search of “Lupe/Bitch Bad/Feminist” will yield all kinds of goodies that can provide additional context for this post.

Despite my issues with Lupe’s approach, it was obvious to me from both his interview statements about the song and from the content of the video itself, that this was his attempt (misguided as it was) to bring a serious discussion to the table.  Criticism ensued as a result.  Then, what started off as valid, constructive, criticism took an all too familiar trajectory – it devolved into personal attack. The proverbial baby was thrown out with the bathwater, as we dismissed Lupe’s attempt at addressing gender issues wholesale.

What bothers me most about this whole “fiasco” (ha!) is that, in these instances, we feminists miss a wonderful opportunity. Here, we have a  black, male, hiphop artist attempting to address, through his music, the very complicated issues of gender, representation, sexism and language. When does that EVER happen? Given the nature of mainstream music today, one could argue that this conscious decision on his part to sacrifice radio airplay and mainstream popularity to address this topic demonstrates a commitment to the cause, no? Was his execution perfect? Absolutely not. Lupe operates under the same social conditioning that we all do and like all of us, he makes moves based on what he knows and where is at any given time. In the many years that I have spent dedicating myself to exploring and attempting to live my social justice principles, I identify more with Lupe in this instance than I do with the so-called enlightened experts.

I am always suspicious of any person who proclaims that they have completely thrown off the shackles of their social conditioning. I think that’s bullshit. Social justice is the kind of work that requires a constant internal and external adjusting. There is an ebb and flow to the information and messages that we receive from our cultural programming. Being committed to social justice means a constant questioning of your self and of your world. It means an on-going examination of what may have seeped into our unconscious mind  – a persistent commitment to looking for and rooting out the prejudices, biases, self-loathing, and assumptions that constantly slip under our radar. It requires a constant vigilance that never ends. It’s a work that, if it is authentic, is never done. There are always new levels of consciousness to be reached. Always new ways to be be better lovers, friends, neighbors, contributors, parents, messengers, healers, communities. Always.

I am no better than Lupe. I have not always had the answers before I embarked on the exploration of an issue that was important to me. Sometimes, I just set out with a heart full of good intention and a deep desire to be the change I wanted to see in the world….and little else. I have attempted to be allies to people who had to school me on what that actually meant. Lucky for me, they wanted me to succeed. Do Lupe’s intentions matter to us feminists? Was “Bitch Bad” really a conscious attempt to further oppress women? Or did he -with limited awareness, limited exposure, and embedded patriarchal ideas about womanhood –  attempt to address an issue that was much bigger than he realized? Isn’t this where us feminists (men and women alike) have an amazing opportunity to provide our brother with the tools that he needs to be an informed and, thus, effective ally?  Isn’t this time where we pull him aside and give him the education he will need to make his next foray into deconstructing sexism a successful one? Or do we get more satisfaction from having another victim – another opportunity to showcase our superiority and further isolate the feminist movement by demonstrating it to be a bitter and unforgiving space?

I have spoken about it in past blogs and I’ll speak to it again. but it was bell hooks who first introduced me to the concept of “loving critique.” Our criticisms are so much more powerful when they are rooted in a genuine desire to see all of us grow – individually and collectively.  How can we progress in a climate where people are afraid to take steps or take risks without fear of attack? How do we encourage a space where authentic inquiry and exploration and, yes, fucking up – are not only a part of the process…but encouraged as a means to find the answers? Fear creates paralysis. In order for feminism to remain relevant, we have to allow people to fall and we have to assure them that when they do…we won’t be there waiting to laugh or snatch their card.

Yes, we could summarily reject Lupe’s vision as lacking and myopic or we can  provide the kind of knowledge and resources necessary to help him see the panorama. Conflict provides us with opportunities to work through our entanglements around perspective and strategy, while still honoring the fundamental beliefs and shared values that attracted us to this work in the first place.

If supporting Lupe (in both his awkward, and ultimately, failed attempt at feminism and his not-so-awkward protest stunt at the Inauguration) means that I am somehow less of a feminist…I’ll take that. As I get older, labels matter less and less to me. If your movement only consists of the loudest and most assured voices, then it’s probably not the space for me either. I am always full of questions. I will get it wrong more often than I get it right. Strangely, I find peace in that.

What I do know is that while labels and categorizations come and go, I have been and will always be deeply committed to radical and transformative change. I will always attempt to love people by viewing them as the complex beings that they are. My commitment to seeing the many layers of a person allows me to disagree with a person’s specific actions while not losing sight of their humanity. I understand that I do myself and others a serious disservice when I love in ways that fractionalize and oversimplify.  We live in very polarized times where there are many incentives for taking shortcuts in our relationships with others, for reducing people to symbols that reflect our fears insecurities. I will continue to try to avoid that trap. But when I do make the inevitable mistake and fall in, I hope that my allies will be there to lift me up and remind me of who I am. What informs my work as an activist, as a feminist, as a human being has nothing to do with labels and everything to do with the very real emotional and spiritual connection that I have to the work of liberation – within myself and on this planet.

I will continue to support voices like Lupe’s. Voices that don’t waver when they ask us to live up to the rhetoric we so often espouse. Voices that are anti-war, anti-oppression, anti-imperialism. Voices that are persecuted for stepping out of line, straying from the script and acting out at inconvenient times.  When and if I ever have the opportunity to meet Lupe, I will thank him for his commitment to social justice, commend him for his lyrical genius, and then question him about his views about gender and women. Our discussion should be reflective of a healthy movement – one where there is enough room for love and challenge, support and accountability. We deserve that.