Girl Power: Rihanna vs. Beyonce

On the surface, I’ve not given much thought to Rihanna’s “Man Down” and Beyonce’s Global Girl Power crusade. But as I gear up to start another summer of the Daughters of Anacaona Writing Project, I better spruce up on my pop culture to be of some relevance to these girls who will be spending a whole summer under my tutelage. Last year, during a brief exercise of “Women I Admire” (cliché, but very much needed considering the responses given), one lovely 12 year-old claimed, “I like Beyonce ‘cause she works hard.” Okay. Yes, this is true. I didn’t want to take this away from her. Nor the other girls’ Bella from Twilight and her hard choices.

I’m careful not to jump on the Beyonce/Rihanna hateration (yes, at the risk of sounding corny I’m working on the lingo too) bandwagon. After all, when I walk into a room full of tween and teen girls with my floor-length skirts, short natural, and earth mother vibe, they’ve already formed an opinion about me. They’ve decided what and how much they’ll share. But in order to create a safe space where they feel comfortable to be themselves, write, and create authentically, I feel that I must, at first, be totally cool with the Beyonce and Rihanna love fest. For the sake of validating their tastes and opinions, diplomacy trumps truth.

And the truth is, they see these women as empowering and admirable because that is the extent of what they’re exposed to. Sure, there’s the occasional Michele Obama, but even she’s a fan of all things hip, sexy, and cool, right? Right. Who am I to stifle the images of beauty, sexual prowess, and all around badassness that are being served to these girls?

Enter my 6 and 8 year-old daughters. Sure they know some of the Bey and Ri Ri songs. But if they’re going to have me as their mother, I better throw in some Angelique Kidjo, Janelle Monae, Jill, Erykah, Zap Mama, Les Nubians, Adele, Nora Jones and all the other “neo-soul”, bluesy, outside-the-box women singers out there. My girls are fine. They will be alright. So Beyonce and Rihanna can do whatever they want.

And black girls who find themselves within a few feet of me, or any other feminist/womanist earth mother figure will be given the side-eye, the talk, the wag-of-finger, but ultimately, they can (and will) go on with the bad hair weaves and warped ideas of sexual prowess for as long as they want as well.

It’s zeitgeist. And racially ambiguous exotic beauty rules the day. That darn Psychology Today article drove that point home. There is a saying in Haitian culture, “Nou led, nou la”. We’re ugly, but we’re here. (What Celie in The Color Purple said. And who can forget Shug Avery’s “You sure is ugly!”) Whatever the labels placed on us, we are HERE. We exist.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up mythology. Of course, the whole Beyonce and Rihanna debate would be fruitless without an examination of what they really represent in our culture. Never mind the virgin/whore dichotomy. How about the Ezili Freda and Ezili Danto dichotomy.

See, that’s why I love mythology. Whatever complex thought we’ve conjured up in our evolved minds, some indigenous culture has already given it a name, a look, and a personality. And Beyonce with her hair flipping, booty shaking, and gyrating is nothing new under the sun, of course. She’s the Ezili, Oshun, Aphrodite, Venus of our day. Yes, lust and beauty are indeed powerful forces. And according to her music video, it can quite possibly bring an end to wars (i.e. Helen of Troy). No, Beyonce is not the quintessential African beauty that she depicted in her infamous blackface photo shoot. Though with her borrowed dance moves from the motherland, sistagirl attitude, and light-bright-and-almost-white looks, she can appeal to the masses—tantalize the loins of men from all corners of the world.

There’s no longer a need to birth new goddesses from our collective consciousness. The Haitians did so with Ezili—this foreign beauty who danced, carried a mirror, and wore pink and gold and jewels and expensive perfumes. She was this mix of black and white that was so new and awe inspiring to her people. Here we have Beyonce with her moves, her voice, and she’s such a f*cking lady! But she’s also Sasha Fierce, the S&M whore. And she can sing in French, all polished and poised. Who does that? Ezili Freda does.

But when shift happens, we see it in what Ezili wears, her expressions, her movements. She becomes Ezili Danto—the scorned beauty. The scars on her face are tell-tale signs of a woman who’s been in battle. Need I go on? Ahem, Rihanna. Ezili Danto carries around a dagger. She’s a fierce protector of women and will slice you like a birthday cake if you cross her. Man down. Man down. And that fiery red hair on Rihanna is so appropriate for Ezili Danto.

So. This is good, right? Bey and Ri Ri and Weezy and Gucci Mane and Waka Flocka Flame can all be represented by some figure in the mythological pantheon. Well, yes. I think so. But deities and rock stars alike emerge out of our collective desires and ideas of beauty and chaos and stupidity. And what’s celebrated, whatever deities are given the most offerings, are the ones who survive and continue to thrive. In Vodou, some lwas have made it across the ocean with the Middle Passage and still exist today. Ezili is alive and well because the mulatto, the mixed race phenomenon, is still embedded in our idea of beauty. And Ezili Danto will continue to exist as long as there is violence against women.

They’re beautiful, and they’re here. They’re doing the damn thing. They exist. And no, it’s not girl power because they offer nothing new to shift the paradigm that was born out of slavery, colonization, and war.

And as a side note, what’s with the lusty licking of guns? Hey, Ezili and Oshun’s lover is the warrior machete wielding Ogun (Oh sh!t, I just noticed gun…Ogun. There’s so much of this in the English language). In ceremonies, I’ve seen how Papa Ogu slices through a layer cake with his machete. It’s where sweetness and bitterness, love and war converge. It is what it’s always been. Nothing new under the golden sun.

My battle is not with the girls and their tastes. It’s with the stories and the culture that comes out of the stories.

Culture, Ezili, Mythology, teen girls, Vodou

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