1. It’s been two years since Trayvon Martin was murdered. A couple weeks since a jury let Jordan Davis’ killer off the hook for murder. Eight months since I watched Fruitvale Station. These and other notable stories about the tenuousness of Black male life have dominated (and will likely continue to dominate) our conversations about what it means to be present in America. Black males are both endangered and dangerous. Threats and targets. Feared and scared. Policed and…privileged.
This (obviously) does not apply to all Black males. But, for many who’ve, by the grace of God, managed to make it to their 20s, managed to be employable, and managed to stay out of the system, the tides change. People will support and root for you just because you’re a living Black man with a job and a driver’s licence. Someone might even create a job for you. You have social capital. If you brush your teeth, tie your shoes, and can put two sentences together, you’ll likely have romantic options. You will always be included.
This privilege is also tenuous. You’re still a Black man in America, which means it can be lost forever at a traffic light. Or at a movie theater. But it exists. And the mental juxtaposition of possessing this micro-level privilege while existing in a hostile country can be jarring, comforting, and humbling. Sometimes all at the same time. It can also make you a prick.
I thought about this yesterday when reading some of the reactions to Pharrell’s GIRL album cover. More specifically, I thought about how, when I first saw it, I didn’t think anything of it at all. I clicked on a link, said “Oh, I guess Pharrell has a new album” and went about my day. The “Black male artist surrounding himself with racially ambiguous women…again” thing didn’t even register with me.
A small part of this is due to the fact that I don’t pay much attention to Pharrell. I like his music, but I like it the same way I like grapes and pillowcases. The bigger part is due to me just not being as sensitive to the context making that cover upsetting to (many) Black women. I looked at it and saw an artist trying to convey a sexy type of “fun.” Others saw another example of a prominent Black man shunning his sizable Black female fan base and promoting “other” women as some sort of feminine ideal.
Just as I didn’t intentionally overlook how potentially troublesome that image could be, I’m sure Pharrell didn’t consciously want to insult Black women. He’s probably laying in some hyperbaric chamber below a lake right now, shocked at the pushback it’s received. And both my lack of awareness and Pharrell’s lack of consideration is a result of privilege. It didn’t immediately register to me because I’m not as sensitive to those types of images, and I’m not as sensitive to those types of images because I’ve never had to be. Sure, when someone points it out, I recognize it. And, I’ll even join the “yeah..that’s effed up” chorus. But, despite whichever challenges I face as a Black man, having my sexual/physical/aesthetic value and desirability constantly dismissed (or even ignored) — often by the same people I love and support — is something I’ve never really had to deal with.
2. This conversation brings up another point; a point that makes you wonder if a person like Pharrell or Kanye is caught in a perpetual catch-22.
GIRL’s cover features Pharrell and three women in bathrobes. It looks like they’re in a hotel room. Maybe a private home or resort. It’s (somewhat) implied that they’ve either just finished a foursome, or they’re about to go have a foursome. (8:20 am edit: So, according to some comments here and on Facebook, the cover may also suggest they’re just headed to some type of spa. Which doesn’t negate my main point, but does prove I was raised on Cinemax After Dark.) If this is true, they’re his sexual props, and it would qualify as objectification. Maybe it’s not as explicit as “Tip Drill”, but the idea is the same: “I’m a cool motherfucker. So cool that all these beautiful women want to have sex with me.”
With videos like “Tip Drill”, the objectification was the problem. With the GIRL cover, though, the problem seems to be that Black women aren’t considered attractive enough to be objectified. But, sexual objectification is a bad thing. As is using women as sexual props. Right? Or is it only a bad thing when it’s not done tastefully by someone as cool as Pharrell?
I’d try to answer those questions, but I think I just gave myself a nosebleed. Where’s a hyperbaric chamber when you need one?
—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)