Celebrating Black History Month

The recent success of the critically acclaimed motion picture “Dreamgirls,” along with the 2007 Grammy Award victories by artists such as Mary J. Blige and Beyonc? Knowles, has catapulted the female R&B genre back to the forefront of popular music. It is virtually impossible to turn on a Top 40 or Hip-Hop radio station and not hear a song performed by these talented musicians.

However, while female R&B music has been celebrated for its entertainment value recently, there seems to be a significantly more important message behind the production and success of this musical style.

Recently, the School of Culture and Society, along with the Black Student Union and the Student Finance Board, sponsored an event titled “All That You Can’t Leave Behind: Black Female Soul Singing and the Politics of Surrogation in the Age of Catastrophe” in conjunction with the College’s celebration of Black History Month. Delivered by Daphne Brooks, associate professor of English and African-American Studies at Princeton University, in the New Library auditorium, the presentation focused on “the socio-political utility of black women’s popular performances.”

Brooks used the recent success of female R&B music and its integration into mainstream popular music culture to explain the significant effects that songs and artists from this genre have on American society. She analyzed a number of popular songs and music videos to place these ideas into context for her audience.

“And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” which Brooks said is “brilliantly performed” by actress/singer Jennifer Hudson in “Dreamgirls,” has received a great deal of airplay on the radio recently because of its deeply personal message regarding female strength during and after a failed relationship. However, Brooks was quick to point out that while this song may seem to focus on the ideas of female strength in the wake of a lost love, it also “resonates with personal and political overtones.”

The song “invokes civil rights imagery,” according to Brooks, and “challenges audiences in the most subtle ways” to realize the significance behind what can initially be seen as a simple love song.

While this performance by Hudson is an example of the social and political impact of female R&B music, Brooks said, the lives and works of artists such as Blige and Beyonc? have had an even more profound impact on both popular music and society.

Blige’s recent success and cultural relevance can be partially attributed to her recent collaboration with rock group U2 on the song “One.” First performed as part of a television benefit for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, this single “brought to light the idea of black female disenfranchisement” in the wake of the disaster, according to Brooks. It promoted the message of the “recovery of black female citizenship in modern culture” and served as part of a “soundtrack for Louisiana Gulf Coast women” in general, Brooks said.

Beyonc?’s latest album, entitled “B’Day,” provides a similar message for women affected by Hurricane Katrina, according to Brooks. Throughout the record, ideas such as hard work, spirituality and relationship discontent provide the emotional foundation for the artist’s message. Through her tales of resentment, Beyonc? is able to “avoid the ‘angry black woman’ stereotype and give a face to others not often heard,” such as hurricane survivors, according to Brooks.

Through a number of songs on this album, such as “Ring the Alarm” and “Resentment,” Beyonc? “attempts to transcend despair,” according to Brooks. She succeeds in “challenging myths about race, class and gender” by providing the emotional details surrounding not only the failure of a relationship, but also the loss of possessions attributed to this relationship.

While these songs seem simple on the exterior, they remain rife with symbolism. Also, Brooks said Beyonc?’s often “glamorous” persona strengthens her ability to provide a “pick-up-the-pieces resolve” for many female victims in the Gulf Coast region.

According to Danielle Sterling, freshman business major, the most important aspect of the presentation was “the full context of the way (Brooks) brought up things that originally wouldn’t have been seen.”

Maurisa Thomas, freshman secondary education/history major agreed: “I liked how (Brooks) compared artists and how she showed how their music is important to politics and not just entertainment.”

While the entertainment value of artists such as Blige and Beyonc? and movies such as “Dreamgirls” is undeniable, Brooks succeeded in showing how these musical performers tend to transcend popular music culture. By serving as a voice and a face for a number of underprivileged and victimized women, the works of these artists can be seen for their socio-economic – not simply their entertainment – value.

Black History Month Events

“Scientific Racism and
Physiological Fallacies: Heeding the Call of Hope in Medicine”
Presented by Derek H. Suite, M.D., M.S.
Thursday, Feb. 22
8 p.m.
Forcina Hall Room 134

Jazz Concert
Monday, Feb. 26
8 p.m.
Mildred & Ernest E. Mayo
Concert Hall (Music Building)

BSU Black History Month
Closing Ceremony
Wednesday, Feb. 28
7 p.m.
Brower Student Center Room 202