In November, a striking 94 percent of black women cast their vote for Hillary Clinton, but it wasn’t enough. In the end, it could be many of those same women who suffer the most in Trump’s U.S.A.
“The wisdom of black women is rarely seen beyond pancake boxes and white-girl coming-of-age novels,” Melissa Harris Perry wrote in an Elle column regarding the election results, noting the lack of attention paid to the black female voters who have long been the Democratic party’s strongest ally in spite of their lack of utilization. “It is not taken seriously as political information that might guide our understanding of election outcomes.”
Black women tried to save America this year, and their work began long before the election. Some of our most visible, vocal activists when it came to feminism, Black Lives Matter and the push for representation in media were creatives like Beyoncé, Issa Rae, Amandla Stenberg, Zendaya and Ava DuVernay, public figures who used their platforms to bring attention to the country’s silenced communities and sorely overlooked players. In music, via three of the year’s most potent, powerful and honest albums, Beyoncé, Rihanna and Solange shifted what it meant to be a pop star, shrugging off accusations of vapidity and inauthenticity to tell tales of black womanhood both personal and universal.
After a year of teasing her eighth LP, Rihanna daringly revamped her sound on Anti, abandoning the turnt-up trap of promotional single “Bitch Better Have My Money” in favor of blues, psychedelic rock, classic soul and reggae. Having moved past the pop ploys of being the object of affection, she asserted her desires and her power in relationships. The album is a startlingly direct statement from a black female pop star, one that many are not afforded the opportunity to express. In the media, black women are often cast as either jezebels or mammies – oversexed or undersexed with no choice as to how they are received. Rihanna’s resistance to typecasting and her positive affirmation of her sexual agency made her the year’s slyest rebel, a maverick living life as she pleases. “I got to do things my own way, darling,” she sings on opening track “Consideration,” a funky, fluttering manifesto of the album’s purpose. “Will you ever let me? Will you ever respect me? No.”
Respect is at the center of Lemonade, the year’s most widely beloved album, and a radically intimate statement that proves even someone as mysterious, untouchable and iconic as Beyoncé can bleed too. While she considers black legacy – like on the bluesy “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and the Americana romp “Daddy Lessons,” inexplicably rejected from Grammy consideration in country categories – as well as Black Lives Matter (“Freedom”), the center of her exploration is black love and the pain of a scored woman still willing to forgive. She reimagines tropes of the “angry black woman” to offer a perspective barely heard in the mainstream before, expressing black female insecurities of losing to “Becky with the good hair” or looking “jealous or crazy” when reeling from heartbreak and pain. She works through her process, making sense of her feelings and not forgiving without knowing first that the other half bears witness to her struggle.
In the end, it was Beyoncé’s younger sister who unleashed 2016’s most scathing, cathartic statement of black womanhood. Where Beyoncé left off in Lemonade‘s accompanying film – a gorgeous piece that further explored the larger societal issues and pains of black women in America, even giving prominent screen time to the mothers of young black men who were fatal victims of racial violence – is where Solange picks up on the tenderly unsettling A Seat at the Table. Between tales of depression (“Cranes in the Sky”) and commodification (“Don’t Touch My Hair”), she lets her dad, mom and hip-hop mogul Master P speak on issues of black pride and success. Solange is unapologetic in her willingness to alienate the white mainstream in order to make room for stories that rarely got the chance to shine the way they did this year. She explains her purpose directly on “F.U.B.U.” (“For Us, by Us”), singing, “All my niggas got the whole wide world/Play this song and sing it on your terms, for us/This shit is for us.”
Elsewhere in pop, black men showed their love and appreciation for the black female community. Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book celebrates family life, specifically his newborn daughter and her mother while offering spaces for independent female musicians like Noname (“Finish Line / Drown”) to shine. On Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound, Dev Hynes opens his work with a sample of slam poet Ashlee Haze’s tribute to Missy Elliott and later samples dialogue from Paris Is Burning at the beginning of a track about a trans woman’s strength (“Desirée”), sparking dialogues on masculinity, femininity and queerness across his album.
At the heart of many of the works released by major black creatives in 2016 is a clear-eyed vision of the future, unflinchingly honest yet ultimately hopeful. Forgoing the camp and fantasy associated with the aesthetics of Afrofuturism, the artists who shone brightest this year – even as the political climate attempted to dull their luster – released epic-scale commentaries on a painful past and ominous present. In a year when one of our lifetime’s biggest elections was won by someone who cannot fathom or understand progress, these artists transformed harsh truth into hard-won optimism for the trying days ahead.
With this trio of powerful albums, Beyoncé, Rihanna and Solange infiltrated the mainstream, demonstrating that supposedly niche narratives of black femininity carry urgent messages for all of America. In the face of what looks to be a dismal four years for many communities, the songs on Lemonade, Anti and A Seat at the Table feel like rays of light, signifiers of a hopeful resistance and a uniquely personal revolution.