Girls in Cars

Aside from the cheerful candy-colored queer eroticism of Janelle Monae’s video for “Pynk,” one of the things that strikes me is the way Monae flips the trope of women in a car into a narrative of black female pride and empowerment.

Women in cars are, of course, a well-worn visual feature of many rap music videos. In general, both the lyrics and the visuals suggest that women are, like cars, accessories, functional objects to be used, and less valuable than the cars they ride around in.

A couple of examples:

Dr. Dre, “Still D.R.E.”:

Wyclef Jean’s semi-tongue-in-cheek “Young Thug”:

In “J.D.’s Gafflin’,” Ice Cube talks about

[jacking] them motherf*ckers for them Nissan trucks.

So, while for male rappers, cars are a symbol of sexual dominance, credibility, and hypermasculinity, for Janelle Monae, cars are vehicles for freedom, independence, and irreverent fun.

Sort of like a combination of this:

Not unlike this:

Interracial buddy road movies have a long history in Hollywood, beginning with the 1958 prison-escape movie The Defiant Ones, featuring Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier.

Perhaps it’s time for an interracial girl-buddy road film — or, for that matter, any girl-buddy road film in which the heroines don’t need to be destroyed in the end.

And, lest anyone imagine Janelle Monae is the first gender-bending black woman in popular music, read this belated obituary of Gladys Bentley (1907-1960).

Bentley’s lyric “What made you men folk treat us women like you do?/I don’t want no man that I got to give my money to,” are a far cry from blues portrayals of women as emotionally dependent upon men, like Bessie Smith’s in her only known film appearance:

Fight the Power: From Message Rap to Hardcore

Sylvia Robinson (above), CEO of Sugar Hill Records and the so-called “Mother of Hip Hop,” released “It’s Good to Be The Queen” in 1982. Robinson, in the tradition of MC boasts, raps about her success and the material comfort it conveys. But she samples the “Black national anthem,” “Lift Ev’ry Voice,” which suggests something deeper than boasts about conspicuous consumption. Why do you think she does this?

The pioneering “message rap” song, “The Message” (1981), credited to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five:

Melle Mel and his colleagues suggest that the personal tragedies that Kurtis Blow rapped about in his 1980 “The Breaks” have social causes and social consequences.

Run-DMC’s 1981 “Sucker MC’s” is a classic of the MC boast genre:

In 1984, Schoolly D riffed on this genre, adding lyrics that pointed in the direction of gangsta rap, with “Gangsta Boogie”:

A Tribe Called Quest’s 1990 “We the People” uses irony to argue for unity:

And “U.N.I.T.Y.” is the name of Queen Latifah’s 1993 song schooling men on how to treat women:

Lauryn Hill’s 1998 “Doo Woo,” encouraging men to respect women and women to respect themselves:

Sister Souljah’s 1992 “African Scaredy Katz in a One Exit Maze”:

Souljah’s disturbing album cover evokes the Soweto student uprising of 1976, one of the events that opened the eyes of the world to South African apartheid:

Public Enemy’s “911 Is A Joke,” in which MC Flava Flav invokes images of blackface minstrelsy to blast the lack of basic services in Black neighborhoods:

The song that led journalists to coin the term “gangsta rap” (NWA called it “reality rap”):