Rihanna’s ‘BBHMM’ is a fight song for the timid.
1. Quolisha hit me during jumping jacks. I felt her fist connect with the small of my back as my feet left the ground. My arms flailed over my head, and as they made their way back down in snow-angelic arcs, I just kept moving, didn’t turn. The other girls in her row snickered, having seen both the hit and my decision to ignore it. I think the laughter made her even bolder. She tried again, but her second hit was mostly air, a glancing blow.
I kept up the rhythmic of swinging of hands over head, taking small leaps and shallow breaths, all the while trying to envision how this could play out. Quolisha was smaller than I was, but she was wiry. I was tall for seventh grade but decidedly unathletic. I’d never been in a fight. As a bully, Quolisha had honed a decent cache of experience in hand-to-hand combat. I’d lose. And if I fought her right there, during warm-up exercises in Gym, we might both be suspended. Already a piss-poor student — in “gifted” classes, no less — I didn’t need a disciplinary record shoved into my permanent file.
She stopped and class went on as usual. I thought maybe ignoring her the way out-of-touch adults always advised might’ve worked. Maybe it was over. But bullies are rarely bored enough by their targets’ ambivalence to leave them alone for long. Within a few days, Quolisha moved onto psychological warfare. Just as we were starting our square-dancing unit, having to choose class partners with whom to do-si-do (a skill I’m still fairly miffed I ever had to learn as a black girl in predominately black, country-music-culture-eschewing Baltimore neighborhoods), Quolisha told the other girls I was a lesbian, banking, I suppose, on mid-’90s, middle-school homophobia to make me a pariah. It worked. When partner-picking time rolled around, I was chosen last and paired with a white girl who touched my hands as limply as she would’ve if I were a rumored leper. Her cheeks pinkened miserably every time the teacher called, “Grab your partner!” She never looked me in the eye. I never bothered contesting the rumor, uncertain it would matter to girls who couldn’t even manage eye contact because they believed it.
I didn’t tell my mother about any of this right away. But when I did, tears welled. Mom fixed me with a piercing glare and frowned. Pubescence had rendered me as foreign to her as the fact of her grown-womanhood had always made her foreign to me. She didn’t know how to console me anymore, and I no longer knew what to expect from her.
She told me that sometimes girls bullied other girls because they were jealous. There was little getting around it; you just had to keep shoving your way toward the finish line. But fighting was another matter entirely.
“If a girl hits you, you’ve gotta hit her back. And if you don’t think you can win, pick up whatever is nearby — a stick, a brick, whatever. Hit her with that.” You have to know how to back people up off of you, she insisted.
The lesson stuck with me, if not the execution. I never stepped to Quolisha and she didn’t get another opportunity to test me. She was expelled within a month for fighting someone else. I never saw her again. And at 35, I’ve still never been in a fight. But even worse, I’ve never mastered the art of backing someone up off me.
Back then, the triumvirate of teen black-girl sirens was Brandy, Monica and Aaliyah. Brandy was the self-marketed “good girl.” Aaliyah, with her black bandanas, visible boxers and sagging pants, was a good girl with a “Detroit twist,” capable of talking smack if need be, but ultimately soft-spoken, sweet, and notoriously discreet. Monica’s image was the least affected; nothing in the way she presented to the world suggested that she cared much if she were perceived as “good.” But she still came across that way, sweet but mercurial, as is expected of most teen girls.
They were the last three chart-topping bubblegum R&B singers to be burdened with an obligation to present as “good,” and they did it to varying effect. By her 20s, Brandy battled hidden eating disorders and “fake-married” the father of her child, the disingenuity of the latter a misstep fans were loath to forget. Aaliyah’s scandal came much earlier, just as her star was rising, when she allegedly wed famed Chicago crooner and pedophile R. Kelly at the age of 15. Monica, as the least famous of the three — and the least aggressively clean-scrubbed — weathered a string of personal tragedies that led to a long, severe depression in her late teens and early 20s.
Perhaps because of their fates, managers and publicists began to heed the foolhardiness of creating impossible “public princess” standards for black girls in music. A similar changing of the ride was happening on the “mainstream pop” (read: white) side of the not-at-all greener grass: attempts to make Britney Spears a coquettish virgin also backfired by the time she was of legal age. Spears had a horrifying years-long, highly public emotional breakdown.
In many ways the trajectory of my own adolescence mirrored these girls’, the burden of public goodness suppressing my actual curiosities, instincts, and aspirations. I thought there was some merit to being unobtrusive, quiet, and compliant. I believed in obedience, in my ability to succeed where every generation before mine failed: at living up to a moral standard I didn’t understand well enough to deeply invest myself.
I just followed the letter of my religion’s law. I didn’t buy my own secular albums until my early 20s and even then, nothing with a parental advisory sticker. I didn’t curse until my late 20s, remained abstinent till I was nearly 25, and sipped my first beer at 24. Even though I was old enough to make those choices safely, legally, and healthily, I didn’t feel comfortable discussing them. If pressed, I’d cop to any vice, but I’d never volunteer information about myself that would leave me feeling too exposed, too susceptible to disdain or scolding. I didn’t want to hear the tinge of disappointment whenever someone said, “I thought you were different.”
I feared the backlash Brandy faced, the judgment Aaliyah had to endure, the troubled obscurity ever lapping at the edge of a promising future.
My writing was similarly chaste; even when a character entered my imagination as lewd or brazen or… uncomfortably authentic, I sanitized her. It’s part of the reason I’ve never published a novel. I haven’t quite figured out how to write realistic characters. I’m still figuring out how to be real myself.
The first two years I wrote for high-profile publications, I didn’t invoice any of them. I didn’t have a pressing need for the money — though, in retrospect, I cringe at balance of payments I forfeited; they’d be quite useful now — and the big bylines themselves were reward enough. Or maybe this was just what I told myself. On its face, it felt nobler than trading pounds of flesh or flecks of broken heart for legal tender. I know now I was just being lazy. For one, keeping meticulous freelance records triggers my math anxiety. In invoicing, as in all things, I am never as disciplined as I’d like to be. But that’s the most superficial of the layers. Peel it away and there will lie a metastasized fear of fighting for myself.
By the time I was writing for the likes of “Salon” and “The Atlantic,” I knew all about having to chase a company down for payment. It was a prospect that didn’t appeal to me. Begging for small checks invited too much self-doubt. Maybe I hadn’t been paid as promised because the writing wasn’t worth the effort. Maybe the thing I do best in this life will never pay me a livable wage all on its own, and I shouldn’t bother chasing down a hundred dollars here and there when I know that by the time I receive it, I still won’t be able to cover the phone shutoffs or car insurance cancellations I’ve narrowly avoided by begging folks in collections offices nationwide to accept lesser or late payments. It was difficult to muster the invoicing effort.
But burrow down another layer. As much as I dislike rubbing nickels together and willing them to regenerate, I loathe having to convince someone I deserve those nickels in the first place even more. I never sound certain enough.
By the time Beyonce went solo, I was just beginning to own my desires, to allow myself public performances of sexiness, to feel less guilty about whispering the word, “shit.” Aside from the public sexiness which she’d been performing as part of Destiny’s Child for years then, Beyonce was undergoing the same transformation. Last year, that journey culminated with the singer’s secret opus, track after track unapologetically sloughing the shackles of sweet, chaste expectation.
Beyonce is 33 and it’s taken her this long not to sound a little silly cursing on wax. It’s taken her this long to be candid about her marriage and read as convincing when does all that writhing around on stages. After over 15 years in the public eye, she’s only recently seemed to be acting of her own volition; all through her 20s it remained unclear whether or not she was acting under an impetus other than her own. While never as tethered to a good girl image as the girl singers I grew up listening to, she still had to negotiate who she was, with the entire world watching, and it’s been obvious that the road was uneasy.
All the while, a girl was creeping up behind her, someone to whom I paid little attention, since her voice never jumped out at me, and early in her career, she seemed generically beauty-pageant beautiful. None of her music permeated my pop culture bubble until the ubiquitous “Umbrella” began to play everywhere. I still wasn’t entirely familiar with her (or Chris Brown, to be honest) when they found themselves at the center of the most hyper-public intimate partner violence case in recent memory. But I’ve been following her career, if not her music, since.
If Beyonce has graduated from post-pop princess to Queen Bey, Rihanna is slowly cementing herself as the Queen’s heir apparent — and having stared down one of the most mortifying, raw, achingly honest circumstances a star ever has to face in the public eye, Rihanna has been fresh out of fucks for at least four years. Without the self-consciousness of a young woman trying to preserve a semi-pristine, carefully cultivated public persona, she’s been able to show up at the CDFA Awards last year in a naked, crystal-encrusted gown and emerge from the experience looking more self-assured than attention-seeking. And only from a space of daily fear-shedding could she release a single like the one she dropped last week, “Bitch Better Have My Money.”
Immediately following its release, a cadre of my freelancing colleagues adopted the song as a rallying cry. And to be sure, it’s an ideal one for anyone with an outstanding invoice. But for me, Rihanna’s new song is more than a debt-collection anthem. It’s a reminder to fight for myself. It’s a reminder not to cringe when I curse or to apologize for liking what I like.
I downloaded the song after a single listen, the first Rihanna song I’ve ever owned. Sometimes, I play it on a loop in my car, aggressively changing lanes instead of passively waiting for large, generous openings in traffic. I am entitled to take up road space. I deserve compensation for my work, even if I have to chase it down and even when that effort makes me self-conscious.
I yell my favorite lyrics loud enough for seventh-grade me to hear them. I hope she’s still good at reading between the lines: Don’t worry. By the time we’re in our 30s, you’ll stop ignoring what upsets you. You’ll stare down your fears and grit, “You should know me well enough/Please don’t call me on my bluff.” And finally, finally, you’ll find the wherewithal to back that up.