Quite a bit of discussion of late on singer Beyonce’s latest single, “Bow Down/I Been On.”
“Bow Down” is a Diaspora Hypertext matter for a whole host of reasons. For one, as Guthrie Ramsey (at New Black Man) notes, songs are compositions and they are not meaningless:
“I define a song as a collision of structure, circumstance, and experience. They are incredibly powerful things, particularly when they are mass mediated. They do meaningful cultural work, and that’s why we care. The musicologist Carolyn Abbate wrote that “musical sounds are very bad at contradicting or resisting what is ascribed to them . . . . they shed associations and hence connotations so very easily, and absorb them, too.” In Race Music: Black Culture from Bebop to Hip-Hop I wrote that musical styles and social identities are a lot alike in that they are both processes that signify in the social world. And further, social identities share an important attribute ascribed to musical sounds: connotations and associations about identities are “very easily absorbed.” It’s part of the magic…”
Regina Bradley’s post on “sonic ratchet” breaks it down even further, highlighting the technological innovation of the song and its relevance for (black) cultural studies. I find Bradley’s intense focus on the wired nature of Beyonce’s vocals extremely satisfying. In a post that reminds me how badly we must continue to situate black cultural studies against and within region, history, black nerdom, and digital blackness itself, Bradley notes:
“An oppositional parallel for black women excluded from this niche of finer womanhood is the highly visible and commodified form of expression that we have come to recognize as (the) ratchet. As scholars like Treva Lindsey, Heidi Lewis, and Brittney Cooper point out, ratchetness is an intervention of sliding contemporary politics of respectability currently in place against women (of color). And, for the sake of this essay, I’d like to hone in on the understanding of ratchet as a southern export, one which frequents popular expression like hip hop. It in this regard that I posit Beyonce broaches a type of “sonic” ratchet in “Bow Down,” using sound to signify not only her southern “ruts” (roots) but utilize an aesthetic that allows her to vindicate her southern black womanhood while sustaining her (visual) global image….
…The track opens with a video game sample (I’m thinking Donkey Kong. Nintendo scholars help me out here!) and an autotuned voice declaring “I’m from the H-town/Coming (coming) down/ dripping candy on the ground.” The video game sample signifies not only the ‘game’ of hip hop/popular music but possibly alludes to a similar use of video game sampling seen in Houston rapper Lil Flip’s break through single “Game Over.” Beyonce’s declarations of being from Houston and the allusion to “dripping candy” on the ground hint at the prominent car culture (“candy paint”) associated with Houston (hip hop) culture. A digression away from Beyonce’s usual declaration of the finer things in life like high priced labels and global jet setting, her declaration of returning to H-town and its cultural “essentials” re-situates her within not only Houston’s but a southern narrative…..
…If nothing else, “Bow Down” provides insight into the clever ways Beyonce uses instrumentation and sound production to fragment her persona limited by investments in her visual image. It blurs clean-cut negotiations of black women’s identity and respectability as literal discourse by introducing the concept of sound as an alternative form of black (feminist?) expression and its analysis…”
Shifting gears, I’d also like to point to the ways this song–particularly the second segment with its guttural ‘screwed’ tonality and hypermasculine lyrics dripping with bravado–puts me in mind of conversations generated in person and on social media by Kai Azania Small’s presentation, “The Specter of Sasha Fierce and the Scopic: Freighting of Beyonce’s Trans/ Genderqueer Body” at the “Queerness of Hip Hop/The Hip Hop of Queerness” conference.
I’m patiently awaiting a critique of the song rooted in the intellectual community around that conference, and work generated by those working in the fields of queer, performance, and hip hop studies.
In other words, there may be more interesting things to discuss about this song than the offensiveness of the word “bitch,” Beyonce’s expressed or unexpressed feminism, and whether her celebrity is legitimate or unearned. More interesting things like the the nuts and bolts of the track. Or Beyonce’s trans/queer gender presentation in it.
Why is this relevant to a scholar of slavery and the Atlantic African diaspora?
Because words like ‘bitch’ and ‘wench‘ drip with legacies of bonded violence and black female insurgence. They are fused with a painful history but we often forget to also unpack them for their defiance and pleasure.
In 1939, Mrs. Fanny Berry explained how a Virginia slave named Sukie was sold for defending herself against her owner’s attempted rape. She’d pushed him into a boiling vat of soap. And while he did not complete the sexual act, choosing quite wisely to run away, he did arrange for her to be sold a few days later. When traders came to examine her, poking and pinching, they asked her to show them her teeth. Sukie reacted by pulling her dress up and showed her genitals instead, challenging them to see if they couldn’t find any teeth down there.
In the late 1850s, Mary Boykin Chestnut, writing about slavery the South, felt faint after watching a slave sold at auction. She described witnessing a woman on the block who “seemed delighted with it all, sometimes ogling the bidders, sometimes looking quiet, coy, and modest, but her mouth never relaxed from its expanded grin of excitement.” Was it the auction itself which left Mary faint? Or was it imagining the intransigence of a woman, enslaved, who may have dared to ‘be on?’
There is something flagrant and entirely relevant here and we miss it when we dismiss (or ignore) moments like these, moments where vaginas have teeth and Beyonce has a penis. Which is not to defend Beyonce’s discography or to suggest there is nothing there to critique. But the critique need not be along the lines of “Bitch Bad, Woman Good.”
We might instead take this opportunity–in a 21st century world of raced networks and coded interfaces–to say something much more provocative about the willful public performance(s) of women of African descent and their engagement with technology. Something that doesn’t demand we also relinquish our right to nurture our own egos.
 Claire Robertson, “Africa Into the Americas? Slavery and Women, the Family, and the Gender Division of Labor,” in More Than Chattel: Black Women and Slavery in the Americas, eds. David Barry Gaspar and Darlene Clark Hine (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 10 as cited in “Mrs. Fanny Berry, 1939,” in Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews With Virginia Ex-Slaves, eds. Jr. Charles L. Perdue, Thomas E. Barden, and Robert K. Phillips (Charlottesville: University of Press of Virginia, 1976), 48-49.