A ´diva´ hand for black women digi-activism in the Global South

The above picture of  pop-diva Beyoncé showing an advanced baby bump quickly became the most shared image in Instagram’s history last week. With all spotlight on Bey´s twin pregnancy, however, few noticed that she was not only promoting her own image but also expressing a political position once more, since the photo was published in the first day of the #blackhistorymonth 2017. Moreover, the story behind the buzz revealed that the pic – for many of rather dubious taste – was produced by Awol Erizku a multi-media Ethiopian artist whose work “´mines´ mainstream culture to critique it”[1] by appropriating and subverting elements of the hegemonic white-European aesthetic in order to render black people – especially black women – a dignified representation.

As the networked society[2] experience shows, activism streaming from pop culture has repeatedly crossed western borders with the help of both traditional and new media (and its related movements, like #blacktwitter), and gained new meaning on a transnational level. In Brazil, my native country, it has generated an urgent debate on black representativeness in society. There, where black people are still far from experiencing social justice and equality, black and white feminists are often making use of the “quintessential feature of the new media”[3] to question why there are “acceptable” and “unacceptable” beauties, and whom this might interest.

Vamos falar sobre a foto da Beyoncé grávida? Tudo bem você não gostar e achar cafona. A questão é PORQUE VOCÊ ACHA…

Publicerat av Carol Patrocinio den 3 februari 2017

 

“It is okay not to like the pic… the question is WHY don´t you like it?” asks a Brazilian feminist about Beyoncé´s picture

What does this tell us? First, that we might be experiencing great feminist activism activity through the connection between self-representation on social media (or self-branding, in the clear case or pop-artists) and the impetus to “foster connections with others”[4]. In order words, we should look closer at the role of contemporary black women influencers on inspiring and activating synapses in the blogosphere level, and especially in the Global South, where western pop culture is constantly re-signified and delivered in more local garments. Examples of it are everywhere, but still staying in Beyoncé´s domain, Lemonade is a very emblematic case. The album, which has been pointed as a revolutionary work for black feminism, fired in 2016 a flow of hashtags of black girls stating their pride to have African features, and boosted Beyoncé´s reputation as the godmother of feminist popularization around the globe.

The second thing we can learn, and once more, is that activism (of any kind) cannot be transformative unless it is “rooted in the lived experience of the communities it sought to reshape”[5]. Disconnection with the community reality and top-down naïve solutions for saving the world “with a click” has led many times to nothing but emblematic ludicrous campaigns like #kony2012. On the other hand, the re-signification of pop-culture messages by grass-root groups in terms of self-expression, identity affirmation and resistance has been producing social change in many ways.

In the Global South, debates on racism and representativeness in series such as the controversial Dear White People directly dialogues with cases such as the students barred from bearing Afro hair in South Africa. Another recent example of this cross-cultural dialogue is the huge responce to the movie Hidden Figures. Back in Brazil, the film symbolizes local black women’s fight for visibility – at the moment embodied by youtuber Luka Franca, whose campaign #foipretaquemfez[6] is bringing up a weekly list of relevant pretas in arts, sciences and politics. The fight by black feminists in Brazil, which in 2015 gained strength with the country’s first Black Women March, seems to be benefiting from this pop culture “wave” in a very fruitful way; even producing its own ‘Beyoncés’. By the end of 2016, Brazil saw an explosion of black bloggers, hip-hop and funk youth stars and digital influencers[7] talking about everything from cultural appropriation to self-love and esteem.

In the academic world, there are many discussions about the importance of fiction and popular art for development. As Coser (1963:3) argues, “fiction provides (…) a wealth of sociologically relevant material.”[8] So what if we go from looking at sales phenomena of pop-music stars or Hollywood movies to seeing them as triggers for debates on racial and gender equality across new media global “resistance clusters”? Somehow, the idea of ​​a saturated and self-selling image of Bey is way more valuable when we realize its power to help black women “out there” recreate their systems of meaning and, especially, strengthen them in their fight for the right to exist.

References:

[1] Lievrouw, L. (2014). Alternative and Activist New Media. [electronic resource]. Hoboken: Wiley, 2014. p. 22

[2] Castells, M. (2015) Networks of outrage and hope: Social movements in the Internet age. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Polity Press.

[3] According to Lievrouw (2013:10), the power of networked architecture is illustrated by the hyperlink, which “not only connects one location, document, or resource to another, but also opens a wide and higly contigent path of subsequent linking where users may move among sites, resources and people…”

[4] Rettberg, J.W. 2017: Self-­Representation in Social Media, in: Burgess, J., Marwick, A. & Poell, T. (eds): SAGE Handbook of Social Media[electronic resource]. London: Sage, forthcoming. p. 11

[5] Menefe-Libey, S. (2012) Beyond Kony2012: Reasserting the Transformative Power of Youth Activism. In Taub, A. Beyond #Kony2012[electronic resource]: Atrocity, Awareness, & Activism in the Internet Age (p.145).Leonpub

[6] ”Made by a black woman”, in free translation.

[7] Abidin, C. (2015) Communicative <3 intimacies: Influencers and Perceived Interconnectedness. Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, No.8. doi:10.7264/N3MW2FFG

[8] In Lewis, D., Rodgers, D., & Woolcock, M. (2014). Popular Representations of Development: Insights from Novels, Films, Television and Social Media. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis, 2014.

 

2 Comments

  1. In the spirit of the international woman’s day and the international women’s strike taking place today on the 8th of MArch, I feel very inspired to comment your post. I Think it’s a very intresting contribution to the debate on how social media and digital activism can serve as a important tools to promote social change, in this case through Beyoncés call for attention to the #blackhistorymonth. I totally agree with you about the huge impact the fact that she takes position for a political or social cause. Altough it’s not a news that artists promotes e.g. human rights or social inequalities, I belive the development of social media platforms and with that, the increse of new media – will take this kind activism of famous pop artists to Another level. In the case of Beyonce it is of particular interest for the black femenist movement and also for women’s rights and femenist movements worldwide. The imapact she can contribute to by just posting a Picture which get’s more than 10 million likes is striking. And she is a woman!
    As I discussed in my previous post about the role of new media for social movements, e.g. the Women’s march movement and other feminist movements like the Black Feminists, can really take advantage of this; “Where women’s voices are constrained, the internet has given them a voice, that is, an online voice where internet-based platforms are used to freely ‘explore contemporary feminism and articulate their own perspectives” (Keller2012,p.430, in  Mutsvairo, B. 2016, p.279). I ask my self if Beyonce have had this impact without new media or ICTs existing? I Believe not. Hopefully more artists will continue to follow her encouraging example.

  2. Elena Poletti

    At first, I didn’t connect Beyonce’s iconic pregnancy image with a political message, but all the rich and interesting background you gave us made me see the bigger picture. The photo per se could appear just another self-selling image, but I understand that there is a complex concept behind the whole pregnancy photo album by Awol Erizku, playing with archetypes of western art and representation aesthetics.
    As a white European, I didn’t perceive immediately the pic’s political impact, maybe because the nation I live in does not deal with such a strong polarisation among two main ‘racial’ identities as it is, I guess, in the case of Brazil or Usa. Beyonce’s brown skin is not the first element that captures my attention in the photo; instead, what I see is an intentionally kitsch, Madonna (as in the Virgin Mary)-style representation of a pregnant woman, with an interesting mix of ‘sexy’ and ‘chaste’ elements (the red lipstick,the veil, the panty texture which evokes the garments of some Saints’ iconography). This image alone doesn’t communicate a feminist or antiracist message to me. But I realise that images like these, together with other messages that the popstar spread through her musical production and public appearances, do have a meaning for millions of black or brown young women who someway struggle with identity issues in a white-prevalent country and who can appreciate Beyonce’s positive representation/’validation’ of (female) blackness. I do not belong to a racial minority, but I do belong to another minority group, and as a teenager I craved for a bright, positive representation of that part of my identity on the mainstream media I consumed/was exposed to, so I think I get the importance of finding diverse representations in the media scenario. It really can enhance a positive awareness of one’s identity.
    Social media platforms nowadays allow a fast and widespread diffusion of visual messages like this, enabling them to reach a wide and heterogeneous public and to stimulate reactions at different levels.
    Yesterday I watched “Hidden Figures” and I loved it. Of course, a film like that may sound a bit “didactic”, while Beyonce’s photo album may not look as a socio-political statement , but I believe we need many kinds of cultural product to diffuse messages about identities and equality. Some will articulate clearly a message, while others will contribute conveying and diffusing a pluralistic, empowering representation of women.

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