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What We Are Missing When We Discuss “Bow Down” & Why it Matters (Digital x Black Studies x Slavery)

Beyonce Ruts

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.

Beyonce's Penis

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.[1]

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.


[1] 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.

Image Credit: Brittney [Cooper] can’t believe the words coming out of Regina [Bradley]’s mouth, posted with permission.

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  1. Herbert Herbert March 26, 2013

    What are we missing? How much does Bey pay her servants? What are their conditions of employment? I assume that many of them are women. Maybe women of African descent? Immigrant women? With children? Does she provide employer provided childcare and medical insurance for employees and paid parental leave? Pensions? Or does she hide behind the convenience of the law and outsource? What does her investment portfolio look like? Where are those companies and funds invested? What kind of policies do those firms pursue? Are those firms where her funds are safely ensconced friendly to women of color in any meaningful way? “Vindicating her southern black womanhood” my foot. Bey the insurgent. Who is she defying?

  2. Jessica Marie Johnson Jessica Marie Johnson March 26, 2013

    Now Herbert, you’re just going to make my imagination run wild. Women of African descent as her servants? Please. Not good enough for Bey. Personally, I think Bey has small, green leprechaun she keeps in a box and pulls out whenever she needs her glitter leotards polished (meanwhile, Blue Ivy drinks formula made from ground unicorn horns and fairy dust)…

    I will assume by invoking ‘defiance’ you mean you mean who is she flying in the face of. I think the plethora of angry and offended commentators on the internet (to say the least) give you your answer. But I’m also less concerned with Beyonce and her subjectivity. In fact, not concerned at all. I don’t think she was doing anything anymore defiant than she has in the past–her song will not distribute health care to the masses and it will not offer reparations. We already know this.

    What I want to suggest is not that those things you mention aren’t important–things like the economic and material backdrop of women’s real lives, past and present. They are, all the time and in all ways.

    In this post, what I am interested in is our response to her public performance and what it says about how black women in general are still policed to uphold certain standards of black female respectability and appropriate public performance. I’m also concerned with how those standards end up looking liberal-conservative, heteronormative, modest, passive, and prudish. We can’t even get to the discussion about how a song like this comes on the heels of her Superbowl performance, a documentary, and as a prelude to a world tour–and therefore is capitalized in obvious ways, leprechauns and unicorn servants or not. We can’t get there because we are preoccupied with whether the word ‘bitch’ is a good word for black women to use in the 21st century. We can’t get into a discussion about technology and digital cultures of black music (in other words, black expressive culture) because we are busy questioning her so-called feminism.

    And it matters because performance is, in fact, tied to economic and material concerns, especially in a U.S. context where images of black women as performing or not performing obeisance are written into public welfare law, rape laws and status, rape culture, the rising numbers of women incarcerated (many for defending themselves against their abusers)–the list goes on and on. And performance meets policy through media, which makes the conversation around her catalog, and our conversation here, important too.

    I’ll add that porting one read onto the song and by extension onto Beyonce is as problematic as porting one definition of revolt and insurgency onto any public performance. Sukie still got sold–does that mean her vagina didn’t have teeth? Beyonce makes more money than God–does that mean she can’t perform songs that are defiant? Is there only one model of resistance–open revolt or none? These are real questions we–you, I, scholars of slavery–have been asking for some time….let’s discuss…..

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