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Black Women Are Driving a New R&B Renaissance

Finally, our music icons don’t have to be larger than life to get attention

SZA performs onstage during the 60th Annual GRAMMY Awards. Credit: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

“I woke up like this — flawless.”

We all remember the iconic titular line of Beyoncé’s 2014 hit, “***Flawless.” The anthem, like other singles at the time such as “Run the World” and “Single Ladies,” encouraged women — and particularly Black women — to see and embrace their beauty, away from the validation of men. At the time, Beyoncé’s message was revolutionary; between the artist’s unapologetic declaration of self-love and Chimamanda Adichie’s beautiful feminist prose, the lyrics empowered Black girls to see their beauty and womanhood in an entirely new light. In 2014, we all felt flawless.

But did we feel whole? The “***Flawless” era was chock-full of songs — like Rihanna’s “Sex With Me” — that praised Black women’s beauty, sex appeal, and overall perfection. The music mirrored the times; in the early 2000s, terms like “goddess” and “queen” (and later, “Black girl magic”) were often used to describe Black women.

This language, on the one hand empowering, was also dehumanizing to Black women, who often felt the weight of these unrealistic and godlike societal expectations. In an attempt to erase centuries of rhetoric that characterized Black women as ugly or unworthy, we briefly went too far in the other direction, portraying Black women as beautiful, perfect goddesses rather than people — and the music industry at the time was evidence of that. Lately, however, things seem to be changing.

In 2017, SZA completely broke the mold by releasing “Normal Girl” off her debut album, Ctrl. The song is a beautifully honest portrayal of the artist’s struggle with self-love in her romantic relationship. The lyrics are captivating. You just don’t hear songs about Black women wishing to be normal. When SZA sings that she wants to be the type of girl her man can take home to his mama or someone her daddy can be proud of, she is radically aspiring for likability, rather than the ideals of beauty or sex appeal that the media taught Black women to desire for themselves at the time. And when she sings, “I wish I were a normal girl,” we hear a woman who does not want to be a goddess — she wants to be herself.

“Normal Girl” catapulted a movement in which Black female musicians were empowered to be true to themselves, and it showed in every aspect of their music. The last few years saw the rise of several Black women artists — like Tierra Whack, Noname, Ari Lennox, and H.E.R. — who have built successful careers based off of their talent, completely separate from their looks. Both H.E.R. and Noname made a conscious effort to build their platforms off anonymity, as evidenced in each artist’s stage name and H.E.R.’s intentional use of sunglasses when she is performing.

In an attempt to erase centuries of rhetoric that characterized Black women as ugly or unworthy, we briefly went too far in the other direction, portraying Black women as beautiful, perfect goddesses rather than people.

This in and of itself was radical: For centuries, the Black female body was so sexualized, fetishized, and politicized that it became difficult for one to extricate the woman from her physical form. In obscuring their bodies and identities, these two women refused to be defined by traditionally racialized standards of beauty, and instead insisted that the world recognize their talent first. What’s more, through lyrical masterpieces such as “Diddy Bop” and “Song 32,” Noname further broke the mold by using her poetry and sensitivity to display the ways that Black women can have value outside of sex appeal.

Black female artists today are not only empowered to be themselves, they’re allowed to be totally weird. Ari Lennox ends “Chicago Boy,” the opening number to her debut 2019 album Shea Butter Baby, with a wonky, Auto-Tuned warning, telling her listeners that “I need to know if you guys are really ready to be my friend because it gets weird, it gets gross, it gets terrifying.” In Whack World, Tierra Whack’s 2018 visual album, the artist mourns her dead dog through song while wearing funky costumes and parading around a montage of elaborate, kooky sets.

Lennox and Whack’s quirkiness is more than just entertaining — it represents an important cultural shift in which Black women are allowed to have quirks and flaws. Lennox’s admission of her difficulty finding real friends and Whack’s offbeat and colorful personality are not only a musical breath of fresh air — these musicians are using their art to radically reclaim Black women’s humanity.

It may seem like this era of honest, natural Black female singers is entirely revolutionary. However, artists like Lennox and Whack are merely bringing traditional neo-soul and R&B back to its roots. In the ’90s, artists like Missy Elliott and Erykah Badu similarly championed narratives about the Black community in a raw and personal way.

Let’s take Erykah Badu’s “On & On,” the second track off her groundbreaking 1997 album, Baduizm. The song is a take on the everyday trials of being a Black woman in America.

The accompanying music video follows Badu as she goes about her daily chores such as laundry, picking up after the children, and cleaning the house. In one iconic scene, Badu trips and falls into the mud, and then looks directly into the camera, smiles knowingly, and says, “Damn, y’all feel that?”

And we do.

“On & On” is a great representation of the traditional R&B cannon: The song is an honest recognition of the struggles Black people face with an underlying optimism and celebration of everyday triumph. At the end of the video, when Badu picks herself up from the mud and turns her tablecloth into a dress to perform at a nightclub, we feel that celebration. And when she sings, “I go on and on and on and on, my body keeps moving like a rolling stone,” we no longer feel tired or discouraged by our long days that seem to never end — we feel empowered because we know that we’ll live through them.

At its core, R&B is a celebration of Black culture and an honest representation of our stories, a movement that has historically been led by Black women. Artists like H.E.R. and Lennox are bringing this tradition back to the 21st century, reminding us that Black women are powerful in their multifacetedness, rather than their perfection. This is perhaps the greatest takeaway of “On & On”: Of course Badu is beautiful, but her beauty never overshadows her strength or her joy.

Today’s shift in R&B music stands as a reminder that Black women do not need to aspire to flawlessness — we are allowed to be flawed, kooky, and, most importantly, ourselves. Artists like H.E.R. and Whack stand as a reminder that Black women are strong, beautiful, talented, and, ultimately, human. And, if we so choose, we can be normal, too.

Mary writes about culture, wellness, politics, and identity. Her work is in Medium, Glamour, Teen Vogue, Vice, Allure, Bitch Media, Nylon, and more.

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