Sexy female-centric R&B had a banner year in 1995. Mary J. Blige released My Life, Mariah Carey put out Daydream, and the soundtrack for Waiting To Exhale—packed with R&B greats like Chaka Khan, Whitney Houston—spent five solid weeks as the number one album in America. In the first month of 1995, 21-year-old newcomer Adina Howard burst onto the scene with her brazenly sexual anthem “Freak Like Me.” On the track, Howard boldly and unapologetically sung about needing “a freak in the morning and a freak in the evening just like me.” This year, the song turns 20 and a new documentary explores the impact Adina Howard had on discussions of sex in pop culture.
I was young when “Freak Like Me” was released, but I do distinctly remember seeing the video on BET a lot. Hearing the song now as an adult, I realize how truly empowering this song is. “I got a freaky secret, and everybody sing cause we don’t give a damn about a thang” right before the chorus really stands out to me because it embodies a version of the carefree young Black women that is celebrated today in artists like Solange and FKA Twigs. Freak Like Me was a frank expression of empowered female sexuality and it resonated with listeners. The song hit number two on the Billboard chart in May 1995—“Freak Like Me” was a bonafied hit. The song gave young Black women the courage to express their sexuality without shame and be open about what they want from their partners. It helped pave the way for female R&B and Hip Hop artists to confidently express themselves sexually in their music, including Lil Kim, Beyonce, and Ciara.
The musical and social impact of Adina Howard’s classic is the center of a new documentary, Adina Howard 20: A Story of Sexual Liberation, which is now available to view on Vimeo. Filmed and narrated by Gezus Zaire of Rebel Life Media, Gezus conducts one-on-one interviews with Adina Howard, her sister London Howard, Dr. Treva Lindsey, Assistant Professor in Women & Gender Studies at The Ohio State University, radio DJs Tropikana and Heather Tapia, Dave Tolliver, member of 90s R&B group Men At Large, and female fans who are also artists. What I really appreciate about the film is that Gezus gave Adina the space to tell her own story. A clip is played of Adina being interviewed by BET Soul host Donnie Simpson, and he asked her what she wanted be remembered as, and she answers, Adina Howard. Gezus comments on the immense sureness of herself that Adina had as a 21 year old, and he asks her where did that come from; Adina answers: “I think it came from my family, my mom just really instilling us to be comfortable. She never shamed us about anything, she always supported us. She always really pushed me to be confident, just do me. “
Another great aspect of the documentary was seeing and hearing from women who were either adolescents or just coming into their young adulthood when “Freak Like Me” was released, about the impact the song had on their confidence as they discovered who they were and explored their sexuality. In one scene with two friends, Brandi Wallace, an actress and model, and Yolanda McCall, a singer and actress, Brandi explains:
“We knew we had sex, but it was so secretive, everything about sex was so secretive. When you had sex, you were doing it for the man, and it was like that’s what boys wanted to do, but when she (Adina) came out, it was like no, that’s what we wanted to do and it’s okay to say it now, before that it was not acceptable.”
The sexual R&B of the early ‘90s was subversive in the way it challenged respectability politics. Instead of squeezing themselves into the mold of traditional, demure femininity, artists like Howard shouted from the rooftops about their lustful desires and proudly proclaimed how sexy they found themselves. Although she never using the term respectability politics, Howard explores this dynamic in discussing how criticism of her song and image stemmed from Black women judging each other more harshly when it comes to us publicly expressing ourselves sexually. Gezus narrates how some Black critics at the time felt that Adina’s music and image were a part of a history of Black artists being sexually exploited, and in particular, then Washington Post columnist Donna Britt blamed Adina for immorality in the Black community.
The documentary includes crucial commentary from Dr. Treva Lindsey, who explains:
“Black women in particular have been historically consumed as objects, but I don’t think that nullifies the possibilities that Black women can self-articulate, define spaces of autonomy, even if those moments resemble what we think of as exploitation and objectification.”
At another point in the film, she also discusses how Adina refused the idea that women could only be sexy when men wanted them to be; perfectly summed up at the end of the bridge of “Freak Like Me”: “Everybody sing cause we don’t give a damn about a thing.” As Dr. Lindsey details, Adina descends from a history of Black women artists talking about sex in their music, from Blues women like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith in the 1920s, to Southern Soul singer Millie Jackson in the 1970s. But by the 90s, it was mainly male R&B singers singing about all the sexual things they wanted to do to women; Adina made space for women to sing about the same things.
Early in the film, we see a clip of an interview Adina conducted with Donnie Simpson on BET’s Video Soul. He asks her if she worries about being known more as a sex symbol than a singer, and Adina answers, “I can be both” Adina’s answer really sums up the overall message of the documentary; women are sexual, intelligent, and talented all at the same. When I asked filmmaker Gezus Zaire about his decision to create this documentary about Adina Howard, he said, “ Adina Howard is the perfect example of someone who made a lasting mark in a small period of time. She made us dance, while impacting a generation.”