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Jazmine Sullivan's Street Folktales

‘Bitch, get it together, bitch/ You don’t know who you went home with, who you went home with again.’

When Jazmine Sullivan sings these lines in the opener from her latest EP, Heaux Tales, she slurs her words slightly, as if the memories of the previous night’s escapades have seeped into her character’s hungover soul, and effectively atomized her self-esteem.

Who was the protagonist with the previous night? Was he a four or a ten? Was he a friend of a friend? What exactly would her mama do if she found out?

As the psychodrama of serial rapist Bill Cosby’s recent release from prison played out like a stress dream on loop, I couldn’t help but think of all the black and brown women whom he had terrorized. I thought of these women as Sullivan sang her blues. I thought of these women and remembered a memorable paragraph from Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s essay ‘How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You.’

The essay, which is an excellent dissection of the BeyHive, Beyoncé’s devoted – some would say too devoted – fanbase, Kaadzi Ghansah discussed the ways in which Beyoncé was a black woman who had lived a highly protected life surrounded by an ecosystem of undiminished support from an early age; a privilege rarely afforded to black girls and women in any part of the world.

Kaadzi Ghansah then anatomized the treatment of Rihanna by some members of Beyoncé’s fanbase, who seemed to revel in Rihanna’s abuse at the hands of her ex-boyfriend, Chris Brown. Kaadzi Ghansah made this shrewd observation;

‘Pop music, like most things in America, has an especially hard time with black women and their bodies, from Miley Cyrus’ use of them in her tired Jump Jim Crow antics to the condemnation of Rihanna’s wonderful wild. Rihanna is a popular target for the BeyHive, a person they often humiliate, maybe just because she is another big-deal black girl in pop music. Almost daily they post pictures of her beaten, swollen bruised face after Chris Brown’s vicious attack. It is gross and unforgivable, and something that could be reined in if Beyoncé actually communicated with her Hive regularly (she does not). But of late I’ve come to think that it speaks to something important about the BeyHive: I’m not certain they really hate Rihanna, or find joy in her hurt — instead I think what they really hate is that Rihanna knows firsthand, like so many women and girls, and perhaps like so many of them, that being violently hit by a man doesn’t ever feel like a kiss. It feels the opposite. It is a humiliation that is impossible to forget. So what I think the Hive hates about Rihanna is that there is no fun, no fantasy in that kind of knowledge of womanhood, just a reflection of the real but all-too-often silent life they too must wade through as young women of color in America.’

These are the young women of color Jazmine Sullivan centers in her EP: black women who have been psychologically, socioeconomically and politically sidelined as damaged receptacles for the hellscape that is America’s fantasy of itself. Sullivan, who uses her pen as a polearm, makes these women the protagonists of her songs. Yes, they have been psychically and sexually immolated by fuckbois galore, but they are hyperdimensional beings with elastic imaginations, sexual hunger, and the kind of turbocharged ambition that feels as natural as mountain air.

In these songs, Sullivan is a folklorist in the tradition of Zora Neale Hurston, archiving the exhilarating highs and spirit-diminishing lows experienced by her community, in this case a group of sister-friends who share intimate testimonies of what it means to be black women in a country that occasionally treats them as totemic saviours (see Stacey Abrams, Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama) whilst working overtime to suppress their most basic rights. It is a system that has never been fit for purpose, and yet these sistas are doing the soulwork black women in every country have always done, which is to commune, share resources, and configure new realities.

These Heaux Tales are hymns composed to elevate the human spirit. Sullivan seems to be encouraging her listeners to get up, get out, and get something.

This is a sermon I’m happy to listen to every goddamn day.


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