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Black Music Month, Day #10

Rape is an assaulting, horrible act of violence against females and males, compelling a non-consenting victim into sexual acts against their will for which there is no excuse or reasonable explanation.

Rihanna Gets Serious

So here’s how I’ve been spending my time in these lazy, hazy days of summer: editing a book on pianist Bud Powell, writing liner notes for Ramsey Lewis’s new project, trying to finish my own CD project, luxuriating over every single page of Robin Kelley’s Monk and Marable’s Malcom, pushing out a marathon piece-a-day for my Musiqology blog to celebrate Black Music Month, (fill hole in head), scoring a Kickstarter pitch film for a friend, and working on a groovy new change in my golf grip.  For some reason I just happened to miss the huge “controversy” over the pop supernova star Rihanna’s new Man Down video, which dropped a couple of weeks ago.

When Duke professor Mark Anthony Neal posted to my facebook wall his essay on the video and musicologist Sandra Graham sent me Akiba Solomon’s commentary, I read with interest.  (I often joke that I wait to see what Neal and a few other public intellectual types like Marc Lamont Hill, James Peterson, and Farah J. Griffin are chopping up, and then I know what’s hot—what I should at least know is happening).  I’m usually content to read their views, consider myself informed, and then go back to the 1940s, a time that I’m beginning to understand (and love).

Rape is an assaulting, horrible act of violence against females and males, compelling a non-consenting victim into sexual acts against their will for which there is no excuse or reasonable explanation.

And she cleans a good house, too! A Stepford Man's Dream

Boy, oh boy, do I like Rihanna videos.  Not quite as much as a good ole crazy-in-love-all-the-single-ladies-just-show-up-at-the-middle-school-in-skin-tight-white-pants-and-high-heels-scratching-up-the-gym-floor-big-shock-of-hair-flying-Beyonce joint.  But I always find much to appreciate in Rihanna’s video output, even if I don’t deliberately seek it out or come across them in my everyday.  Funny, out the clear blue and at the height of end-of-the-semester-Jesus-help-me-make-it-to-the-end, a local newspaper thought it would be fun to ask the egghead musicologist (presumably non-dancing-#wrong) to respond and rate on a scale of 1-5 Rihanna’s club banger, “S&M.”  I hadn’t heard it until I wrote about it after which I started hearing it everywhere—umm, singing it, too.   Here’s what I said, tongue firmly in cheek:

// Welcome to my world: a weekend of Mozart, Berlioz, Bernstein, and Cole Porter at my daughter’s senior recital in Atlanta, Fela-styled West African pop in the car, and Philly-based jazz pianist Luke O’Reilly on the computer.  It all makes Rihanna’s club banger “S&M” sound like good clean fun—the cheesy ostinato synth pattern in E-flat minor, the auto-tuned nasal grain of her voice, the inviting lyrics (“I may be bad, but I’m very good at it”), verse-chorus structure with, wait, do I hear an actually bridge, some harmonic relief, as she invites me, the listener, to give it to her strong? This song is perfect for me, the middle-aged, half-hip, music historian, to feel great in the moment when the dance floor is filled with ingénues, but a little guilty the morning after.  I give it a “2” for teasing with no modulation.//

Rape is an assaulting, horrible act of violence against females and males, compelling a non-consenting victim into sexual acts against their will for which there is no excuse or reasonable explanation.

I wrote that missive without having seen the S&M video—so old school, I know.  Then some undergraduates who had read the piece implored me to tube it up during my African American Music History class. Why, sure. (Nerd professor thought bubble): Gosh, I just love it when the students are engaged in the subject matter of theSHHREEEEERCHHHHHFOR THE LOVE OF HOLY…YIKES!!!!  Remember the days when music videos were celebrated and criticized for not portraying a one-to-one homology with the truth claim of the song lyrics?  Well, this video is pretty didactic. Presumably pitched as a kind of anthem for young women requiring the okay, yea and amen, to “step out of line,” participate in bondage, to publicly declare their love for the smell of sex, to kick it with guys who dry hump blow-up dolls, get tied up—curvy brown booty hiked provocatively in the air—to give seductive lap dances to a group of bound up guys, to plant a kiss on a bound and taped older woman who doesn’t appear to be in consent(the guys seem cool with it). And her celebration waxes on for four riveting minutes.  This video is not exactly coquettish. If she were topless, it could literally qualify for viewing in the HBO—Specials—Late Night—Section. (I know my kind readers know nothing about such things).

This is not a wardrobe malfunction. It's a pose, and don't forget ti

Rape is an assaulting, horrible act of violence against females and males, compelling a non-consenting victim into sexual acts against their will for which there is no excuse or reasonable explanation.

In my very humble and quite subjective opinion, Rihanna has been blessed with all the “right” physical charms for a female cult-of-celebrity music figure: lovely facial features, (oh, those eyes, that smile); long shapely legs and curvy hips; ample breasts, which are usually more exposed that not and accentuated by a stylist who apparently shops for her in the junior miss department.  The camera knows how to love her, and trust me, I’m not hating.  So when I read about how much hawkish criticism she had attracted for Man Down and the subsequent push back from certain sectors, I watched with anticipation the latest trigger for our culture’s ritualistic collapsing of artistic invention and real life experience.

Rape is an assaulting, horrible act of violence against females and males, compelling a non-consenting victim into sexual acts against their will for which there is no excuse or reasonable explanation.

I was expecting a powerful aesthetic statement, both musically, thematically, and cinematically with all the fuss that was fanned up.  Hmmm, colorized film noir opening, no musical score, just diegetic sounds of a crowd.  A distressed, be-wigged Rhianna shoots a single bullet from a second-floor window into a pedestrian-filled street—kids, shoppers, milling about.  Direct hit.  Man down. Not a bad shot—not to mention a risky one—for an innocent girl about town.  Is she some kind of undercover cop on a SWAT team with those skills?

Anthony Mandler directed "Man Down"

Cue music: a digital sounding reggae –lite rhythm track with the requisite “happiness” counter melody so ubiquitous in today’s pop.  The vocals feature Rihanna at her most typical, delivering a repetitive melody, throaty, emotionally stiff, and clearly within her ability span.  (I believe she can do better, but why bother, she’s rich, famous, and successful.  It’s working).  The director, Anthony Mandler, languishes over every curve her mama gave her, which for the most part, relieves some of the burden of this presentation from songwriter’s Shontelle’s straight-forward, industry constrained, choices.  A big point not to be missed here is that the kind of money it took to produce this video in a month allows a team of people to create collaboratively.  This is not solely “Rihanna’s video.”

Singer/Songwriter Shontelle writes hits while studying law

Rape is an assaulting, horrible act of violence against females and males, compelling a non-consenting victim into sexual acts against their will for which there is no excuse or reasonable explanation.

Throughout the video and beautiful B-roll, she portrays a woman at ease in very high heels, whether riding a bike in them, shopping, kissing old ladies, or inhabiting spaces with gun-toting guys making transactions that require them.  Singing at the beach in gorgeous see-through beachwear, she seems unaware that the water-soccer game played by a group of young teenage boys (hope they were paid well) has screeched to a halt to stare her down with randy, adolescent wonder.  Or, so it is suggested here.  At the club that night, the young folks are partying, group in-sync dancing suggests a community, coupling convenes, and the protagonist, our round-the-way girl, pairs with a man that we don’t know is her partner or someone she’s just met.  Bump, grind, caress. NO, she clearly gestures, pushing him away, and leaves the club.  He follows her down the dark street and violates.

Conspicuous by design

Rape is an assaulting, horrible act of violence against females and males, compelling a non-consenting victim into sexual acts against their will for which there is no excuse or reasonable explanation.

The musical address in the piece never heightens or shifts emotional gears during these scenes.  Semiotically, the viewer’s experience is, therefore, flattened and naturalizes everything that has occurred—bike rides, sunshine, beach, rape—because in a narrative sense, the only aspect of the video that is bracketed is the non-scored opening sequence.

Rape is an assaulting, horrible act of violence against females and males, compelling a non-consenting victim into sexual acts against their will for which there is no excuse or reasonable explanation.

Responding to the criticism of this video—the implicit message that raping someone might just get your ass shot or that she somehow was advocating vigilante justice—Rihanna reportedly had these words to say:

“I’ve been abused in the past, and you don’t see me running around killing people in my spare time. I just really want girls to be careful. Have fun, be sassy, be innocent, be sweet, be everything that you are. But just try not to be naive. That’s not coming from a parent but from a peer.”

I can better appreciate a more direct message on such a very, very important topic, particularly one that she claims is directed at girls.  How about: I have a lot of handlers and am offered for my consideration lots of songs and video scripts, so me and my creative/business team decide what I’ll do and won’t do based on what will generate the most interest in a highly competitive industry in which younger up-and-comers are working very hard to usurp my position in this rough-and-tumble business in which I make quite a nice living.  Ergo, my choice to do a S&M video and a video about rape this year.  Look, everyone’s talking. Right?

Clearly, I am not leveling the same critique toward the act of making videos about S&M and the horrific act of RAPE.  I know that rape is an assaulting, horrible act of violence against females and males, compelling a non-consenting victim into sexual acts against their will for which there is no excuse or reasonable explanation.  But with a multi-million dollar bully pulpit, maybe one can spend a little more time encouraging folk to talk about the “for real.”  A LONG WALK HOME is “a survivor-led non profit organization that uses art therapy and the visual and performing arts to educate the public about ending violence against girls and women.”  They teach us that rape is more likely to occur from someone you know. They do a much better job of presenting a clear message to men and women, boys and girls about non-consensual sexual violence.

If you disagree with my positions here please consider giving to A Long Walk Home, which is in the middle of a campaign to raise money to send girls to their summer camp.  If you agree with what I’ve said consider doing the same because Rape is an assaulting, horrible act of violence against females and males, compelling a non-consenting victim into sexual acts against their will for which there is no excuse or reasonable explanation.  They need $5000 by July 1.

As a son, nephew, brother, father, husband, and grandfather of females, this was a tough topic to engage.  But I had to do it because, face it, the music industry is not primarily in the business of educating young people.  Beautiful skin sells a lot more than information.  I hope I did it some justice.  Excuse the edits, I gotta get to the golf course…

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