"Ghetto Woman" by Janelle Monae Is Everyday Womanism
"Ghetto Woman" by Janelle Monae on her epic 2013 album, The Electric Lady is an incredible womanist anthem. (Listen here. Lyrics here.) It speaks to Black women’s experiences and philosophies where race, gender and class oppression are factors. And while the Black feminism articulated within the academe matters too, songs like this add to the notion of music as a source of womanist scholarship for Black women without access to such spaces, and all Black women, in general.
This song is a tale of intersectionality and one about freedom, love, admiration, respect. She reclaims the word “ghetto” and rejects its use as a misogynoiristic (and classist) slur against poor Black women but instead as a recognition of both Black women’s strength (and not as the societally abusive Strong Black Woman stereotype) and vulnerability (i.e. "and when you cry don’t you know that ‘I’ am crying with you?" and "when you cry, don’t you know ‘we’re’ right there crying with you?").
In this song, Black women are subjects, not objects, and not relegated to any one stereotype but are full human beings. When she sings that the Ghetto Woman "came to change the face of every room" and it’s mentioned right after "who said the ghetto’s just a place where queens dance naked on the moon?" I see an acknowledgment of all of the types of power of Black women, not only sexual and spiritual, but emotional, intellectual, creative, familial/communal, cultural, maternal/parental etc. Thus, as with all of her songs, there is no sexual shaming and respectability politics in place of actual feminist politics; hers is encompassing and intersectional. (I mean, think of the fact that her song “Q.U.E.E.N" is an acronym that stands for Queer, Untouchables, Emigrants, Excommunicated, Negroid. So incredible!)
The themes of emotional support (which are conveyed as mother/daughter, sisterhood, and community; ahem, womanism), challenging how the media and greater popular culture exploit the image of Black women and the respect for motherhood are present. Further, she presents two senses of the “spirit” that speak to more than one articulation of womanism, which is great. She mentions that her mother prayed. That specifically connects to theism. But she also mentions love itself as a powerful force, a “spirit” that can “lead” this Ghetto Woman, and that doesn’t need a theistic attachment to be womanist.
In Alice Walker’s original definition of womanism in In Search Of Our Mothers’ Gardens, she mentioned a Black woman as womanist: "Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit." I believe this allusion is purposeful on Janelle’s part. While I’ve not seen her use the word “womanist” (though she speaks out on sexism, for example) almost everything she sings—almost word for word at times—references womanist politics and ideas. The moon theme, as a concept of escape, peace and evolution exists in this song and very very strongly in another song on the album, “Sally Ride,” as a sense of womanism and afrofuturism can be found in her work. Even in “Ghetto Woman” she mentions "oh Ghetto Woman hold on to your dreams, and all your great philosophies…" This is acknowledgement of the epistemology from lived experience and intersectional perspectives that shapes very organic Black feminism and womanism, often outside of the academe.
The best part is that this song is actually about Janelle’s own mother. Yet it speaks to the lives of many Black women. My late mother, though Jamaican, lived in America for most of her adulthood and though people deemed her “respectable” was a poor Black woman who worked hard, didn’t have a college degree and fits into the narrative of this song. My mother had some beliefs that were very traditional and some that were incredibly not. I remember at church (not a theist now, but as a child I had to attend church) when I was 12, several adults complained to her that I was “too smart” which basically meant a Black girl who has confidence should be suppressed at an early age. When I attended the adult bible study class (the kids’ class was too easy for me) and got questions correct or challenged adult Black men on incorrect interpretations, they wanted me silenced. My mother did not reprimand me though. I definitely credit my late mother for that incredible womanist act. That tiny incident plus early exposure to The Color Purple by Alice Walker, “U.N.I.T.Y." by Queen Latifah and "Keep Ya Head Up" by Tupac were defining moments in shaping my politics at an early age—living intersectionality before I knew the term.
If my pathway to feminism had started in college with that White supremacist, Eurocentric, hideous, anti-interesectional drivel type of feminism that is a repellant to many Black women, I would be like some Black women today who think that feminism is for White women and that we only have racial issues, not gender and a bunch of other intersectional ones. I am so thankful for my mother and these other early womanist influences. Because…wow; I feel like I dodged a bullet. So when I listen to “Ghetto Woman” I think of my late mom at times and how her very organic, non-academic actions, not so concerned with labels, was everyday womanism. In fact, the phrase “everyday womanism” is redundant. Alice Walker herself said that a womanist is feminist, only more common. The word “common” is double entendre there. “Common” as in the everyday philosophies of the Black women outside of the academe are more abundant in number (of course, since everyone can’t be in the academe) and “common” in that they are “everyday” not “elite” in terms of accessibility. Womanism is about and for the everyday Black woman.
Janelle sings truths about Black women’s lives so I resent people trying to strip that away from her music. I believe one can truly enjoy someone’s music and still accept that the context does not speak to one’s own life in totality or even at all. I mean, people praise cishet White men (like Macklemore) for singing about LGBTQ experiences that these men don’t know shit about, yet at the same time want Black women’s music to be “universal” before they are willing to try to enjoy it. Janelle wants everyone on Earth to experience her music, she said so herself. But that enjoyment does not have to occur through erasure.
Black women are regularly critiqued via binaries based on the politics of respectability (which speak to White supremacy, patriarchy, sexism, racism, misogynoir, colourism etc.) and people try to use Janelle as a “respectable” example in order to shame other Black women. Yet, here is “Ghetto Woman,” a song praising the very Black women regularly shamed, both interracially and intraracially. Janelle is not here for the politics of respectability. Further, she wears tuxes/black and white as an ode to the working class, as a uniform, not because she thinks women who show skin are “bad.” (I mean, in “Q.U.E.E.N.” she does rap "they keep us underground working hard for the greedy, but when it’s time pay they turn around and call us needy." Ode to the working class.) Did she not work with the legendary Erykah Badu who previously walked down a street completely naked for almost an entire video and regularly embraces her sexuality? (Although Erykah also gets the “respectable” cloak of protection over other Black women.) People need to actually pay attention to the creativity and power conveyed in Black women’s music. A start would be by not using some Black women—ones who are directly challenging respectability politics anyway—as tools to shame other Black women, via patriarchal binaries. Further, I promise that sexuality is more than who shows skin and who does not. It is not that simple. Janelle makes that clear in “Primetime" on her album. And in her song, "Givin’ Em What They Love" the line "she followed me back to the lobby, she was lookin’ at me for some undercover love" is pretty suggestive. She does not seem to have shame regarding sexuality.
The track for this song is so upbeat and amazing. The lead in to the song (stellar drums at the end of “It’s Code” on the album; you’d need to have the album to hear it) is so powerful and let’s me know that she’s about to tell a story about Blackness. The fact that the sound changes from what sounds like hands beating a drum to a more modern, somewhat more computerized sound makes me think of the physical journey through time of both music and Black womanhood. And being that her music easily has the sound of the past and present as well as futuristic vibes, I remember once again that her perspectives are not linear.
"Ghetto Woman" is a great song in every way. This song is just another one of the amazing songs of this beautiful work The Electric Lady that I’ve called a womanist epistle many times. It really is. I feel inspired, loved, valued, listened to, connected with and respected by her music.
*edit after the fact: I made an error on the “U” when I wrote the “Q.U.E.E.N.” acronym; corrected with a source link.