Rihanna’s video for “Man Down” dropped last week and set the web on fire. The way justice and rape, innocence and violence work in the video–and the non-sensical responses to it–have already been outlined by better writers than me.
I’m writing this post to take the video to its logical conclusion:
In the future, do we kill our attackers?
This description of the plot is by Akiba Solomon, writing for Colorlines:
“The video begins with a tense Rihanna perched in the upper balcony of a crowded train station. When she spots a tall man with a “buck 50” scar on his cheek (in this context, visual code for “badman” or gangsta) she shoots him in the back of the head then winces. Toward the end of the clip, we learn why the tearful singer “shot a man down, in Central Station, in front of a big old crowd”: Because the night before, at a sweaty dancehall, she sets physical limits with him and he retaliates by following her home and raping her.”
Solomon’s description is the best I’ve seen for all it doesn’t take for granted and for all it explains. The video was shot in Jamaica but the signifiers of “place” are actually quite unclear (even less so to an African-Americanized audience). There are no Jamaican flags waving. The name of the train station in the beginning is not shown. Ads for things like Vita Coco proliferate but globalization has made such things international staples from Miami to Accra. English decorates signs and insignia, distinguishing this as a particular diasporic space but there are few other markers of Anglo-ness.
Instead, the “place” of the video is steeped in symbols from across the global African diaspora. It is ambiguous but familiar, universal but distinctly (global) Southern. Warm sun. Linen hanging on the line. Young boys hanging out at the corner store. Young women throwing themselves into the wide, swinging grind of a dancehall beat. Children running around in backyards. Elder women shopping or fanning themselves in the canopies of shops. Elder men on bikes.
Black bodies, all ages, all genders, going about their work and their lives. Black bodies everywhere.
Rihanna like a blazing yellow light, fierce-skinned, flame-haired, drifting between. Happy. Innocent. Spirited, sensual and laughing in their midst.
This isn’t heaven. The young boys at the corner store have guns. And this isn’t some primitive past. The music, the clothing, the technology don’t point us back to another time. But this also isn’t any one place. It is Dakar and Lagos and Cape Town. It is Paris and Marseille and Liverpool. It is New York and Miami and parts of Chicago.
It is Port-au-Prince, B.t.E. (Before the Earthquake).
It is New Orleans, B.K. (Before Katrina).
The press of dancehall, which, like hip hop, is more global than local, only adds to the meta-africana setting presented. Even Rihanna, a Bajan born, internationally known superstar, shooting a video bound to be a mega-hit on a neighboring island, and writing a song whose lyrics are set in New York is a part of this diasporic narrative.
This is now. And…this is the future.
In the May/June issue of the Boston Review, Junot Diaz wrote:
“I suspect that once we have finished ransacking our planet’s resources, once we have pushed a couple thousand more species into extinction and exhausted the water table and poisoned everything in sight and exacerbated the atmospheric warming that will finish off the icecaps and drown out our coastlines, once our market operations have parsed the world into the extremes of ultra-rich and not-quite-dead, once the famished billions that our economic systems left behind have in their insatiable hunger finished stripping the biosphere clean, what we will be left with will be a stricken, forlorn desolation, a future out of a sci-fi fever dream where the super-rich will live in walled-up plantations of impossible privilege and the rest of us will wallow in unimaginable extremity, staggering around the waste and being picked off by the hundreds of thousands by “natural disasters”—by “acts of god.”“
He was speaking of Haiti. And of tipping points. And of can’t-turn-back-nows.
But he was also speaking of everywhere.
This is now. And this is the future.
And in the future, we kill our attackers.
“In the future, we kill our attackers”
“Even in the future, black girls who own their sexuality, who demand justice, who are in process, who are not walking vaginas to be touched, fondled, kissed without permission, street harassed, followed, honked at, beaten or raped are aliens?”
From some quarters, it would seem that black girls owning their sexuality is still alien, foreign, dangerous, toxic behavior and gawd forbid it spread to your daughter.
Otherwise known as, gawd forbid she not spread, for the next man/boy/child/uncle/adult who decides she is too uppity for her own good. God forbid she own the place between her legs.
“‘Man Down’ is an inexcusable, shock-only, shoot-and-kill theme song. In my 30 years of viewing BET, I have never witnessed such a cold, calculated execution of murder in primetime. Viacom’s standards and practices department has reached another new low.”
In the future, apparently, to walk through the world at peace with yourself, secure, loved and loving, kissing grandmas, hugging little sisters, teasing the boys, wearing clothes that let the sun touch your skin, let the wind rush past the skin of inside your thighs–all of this will still mark you as a being from outer space and out of bounds, subject to immediate discipline. A sentencing and a silencing.
“Once again BET has chosen the low road over the high road. Violence is a pervasive problem in all corners of our society and today’s youth need more positive strategies for dealing with conﬂict than those portrayed in the Rihanna video. This video is one among several frequently played on Viacom music video networks that lyrically or graphically gloriﬁes violence and other behavior inappropriate for teens and youth….”
Because the only positive role for black girls is quiet, is cornered, is clothed, is virginal and vaginal and covered.
And this sun-kissed, pink-haired alien, just dropped right from outer space, just all wrong and inappropriate, just all incorrect because–
she let her heels ride high above the ground (extra-terrestrial) walking tall and taller and didn’t walk with her arms hidden,
she didn’t hang her head when HE passed,
she didn’t divert her eyes when THEY looked (and she winked back),
her head is lifted and unafraid,
her #HairFlips smoke and smoulder and glitter,
and she shook HIM off when HE tried to bend her back.
Good lord! We need to bottle up that kind of incorrect, parcel it out and SELL it on the streets, on the shelves of Black Girl Power shops EVERYWHERE. That kind of incorrect could forever tilt the world on its axis.
The violence she did to the fabric of respectable behavior was complete BEFORE SHE PUT A GUN IN HER HAND.
But on top of that, she is incorrect because she ran for the gun (instead…what?) and then cried when she used it (cold, you say?).
Because in the future, we are still raped.
In fact, rape plays such a central role in the speculative fiction imaginary, that campaigns have been started to raise awareness of the phenomenon. Not because rape should not be used as a literary device, per se, but because it is often used without critique and without analysis, particularly by (older) (white) (straight) male authors in the same way murder is. SQT wrote:
“Whenever this topic comes up, it’s inevitable that someone will say something along the lines of murder is worse than rape and walk away from the subject as if that was some kind of conversational coup de grâce. End of discussion. I win. You lose. …
The thing with rape is that it is primarily a crime against women. There are still cultures that blame the woman if she is victimized. Even worse, there are societies that know women will be rejected by their family if they are raped, so it becomes a very effective tool of war. Women know that every man has the power to victimize her in a very particular way and that we cannot know when this threat will surface. We can’t walk to our cars at night free of worry and we have different standards for safety when it comes to our sons and daughters because of it–how many sons have to be told to guard their drinks when going to a bar against date-rape drugs? This is the bogeyman of a lot of women’s nightmares. “
This is more than a matter of how hard it is to imagine a future where women are safe, are whole, are healthy, wear pink and white, kiss boys, kiss girls and touch themselves without violence.
This is about the widespread, pervasive acceptance of a particular brand of gendered, sexual violence–so widespread, so pervasive, so accepted, that this violence is timeless, is automatic, does not require critical, is knee-jerk, does not need to be explained or justified, ISN’T EVEN SEEN when we are looking DEAD AT IT.
This violence is also ancient. Rihanna’s “Man Down” black girl isn’t alien or futuristic because she is assaulted. This already happened. The Magical Negro solved all of our problems before we knew they existed but the Magical Negress was raped with impunity and a new modernity built from the ruins of her broken womb. Society can wipe its hands off. This has already been done.
She is an alien because black girls who #comecorrect are still aliens. And aliens need to be probed. And quarantined–a desperate Now to contain the Future.
And she is walking through a black futurist dystopia, because in the future, black girls who #comecorrect are still aliens AND we kill our attackers.
Imagine that. Imagine that the abduction, doesn’t stop there. If instead, after the probing and the drugging, there wasn’t a quarantining and a silencing and the machinery of the press and courts and judges and a global prison industrial complex.
Imagine, instead that there was an alternative justice, there was an alternative court, and an alternative violence that could occur.
What would we do then?
What could we do?
If Darryl A. Smith’s elucidation of afrofuturist rage and pain and zombie apocalypse is the “Pit” to mainstream (read: white) science fiction’s “Tip” (read: final frontier, better pastures beyond, brave new world, Columbus-complex), then violence against women of color is the Pit’s rotting core. And we would do well to listen to the screams coming from the cellar instead of reacting to fantasies of invasion from above.
Because in the future, we RUN for our guns.
And we kill our attackers.
EDIT: Normally Zora Walker holds my footnotes. But this is Sable Fan Gyrl week. For a list of readings related to afrofuturism that helped inform this post, click here.