Hell Hath No FuryThe Importance of Black Women’s Rage in Music

From left to right: Solange, Nina Simone, and Kelis (Photo credit: Flickr/Wikimedia Commons/Bitch Media Illustration)

Women’s anger has fueled every political movement in the United States, from suffrage to Civil Rights to #MeToo. Women’s anger is a powerful, unshakeable force that sends people from marginalized communities into the streets, the courtrooms, the classrooms, and beyond to fight for the more just world that our ancestors fought for and our descendants will fight for long after we’re gone.

“The Future is Furious” is a weeklong series about women’s anger—and, more specifically, about how that anger is policed, dismissed, and overlooked because its potent, transformative social and political power terrifies people. We get to decide how we wield our anger, and this series is a mere entry point for a canon of work about women’s rage. It is our hope that by the end of it, you’re revved up and ready to rage in a time when it’s more important than ever to put women’s anger to work.

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned—and Black women know plenty about that. At Ronald Stokes’s funeral in 1962, Malcolm X famously discussed the treatment of Black women in America. “The most disrespected woman in America, is the Black woman,” he said. “The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.”

Nearly 60 years later, Black women are still so misunderstood and feared that our emotional validity and anger is often questioned. The “Angry Black Woman” stereotype turns Black women into unrealistic versions of ourselves that diminish our complexity and caricaturize our emotions. “Such is the gaslighting of Black women in the colony, that Black women are not allowed to be angry, yet at the same time we can never be cast as anything but the “angry Black woman,” writes Chelsea Bond in a January Guardian article. Black women are forced to bottle up their emotions about crimes against them and smile. Smile as one of our sisters is found dead in jail after a minor traffic infraction. Smile as men violate us. Smile as we are paid less for the same work. Our jaws are aching.

Our bubbling cauldron of passion is rarely allowed to exist, and when it does boil over, it has to look and sound a certain way to be received. It has to be polite. Our voices and eyes need to be low as we politely explain the problem. In music, however, Black women have long expressed their anger through screams and perfectly placed harmonies. “If you think about punk and how it existed to rage against hegemonic aesthetics and politics, you also know that Black people invented it out of necessity,” says writer Najma Sharif. “It is necessary to parse through the art we consume, that is also political, in a manner that accounts for certain trends like this before it gets lost in the mix of cultural production.”

The Brooklyn Museum’s 2014 exhibition Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties, featured a striking black-and-white projection of an electrifying, focused Nina Simone performing “Mississippi Goddam.” Influenced by the Ku Klux Klan killing four Black girls in a Birmingham church bombing and a white supremacist shooting Medgar Evers, “Mississippi Goddam” starts by getting straight to the outrage (“Alabama’s got me so upset”). The use of the word “goddam” in the title made the song blasphemous to many white people and therefore unfit for listening. Her rage was made to be the problem, not the murders of innocent Black people by hateful individuals. When her records were sent to radio stations to be included in their rotation, they were cracked in half and returned.

“[V]enues hesitated to book her,” writes writer Chika Dunga in “Mississippi Goddam! — The Song that made Nina Simone into a Revolutionary.” “Nina was blacklisted by the very same people that used to support her.” The all-white audiences who had thoroughly enjoyed Simone’s earlier hits like “I Loves You Porgy” could not stomach her outspokenness. “Mississippi Goddam” was the beginning of Simone’s role as an artist-activist, which shaped the rest of her career—and eventually crushed her spirit. Nearly 40 years later, Kelis aired out her grievances on a Neptunes-produced track titled “Caught Out There.” The song was full of disdain for a cheating partner and made yelling “I hate you so much right now!” an acceptable way to express the pain of experiencing infidelity. The track wasn’t autobiographical; Kelis was emoting for women everywhere. “Caught Out There” was my first conscious exposure to Black female aggression in music—and I loved it.

As a kid, I wasn’t given access to anger. Instead, I was scolded for “having a bad attitude” and made to feel as if there was something wrong with me, though I was rightfully angry about being both bullied and poor. Letting those intense feelings out in the presence of adults wasn’t an option, so I began writing songs and scattered thoughts in diaries. “Caught Out There” helped me validate my aggression, and Kelis taught me that music can be a safe place for expressive Black women. Black women’s screams are often purposefully ignored, but channeling that anger in music forces people to pay attention.

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In the past, there was a belief that women weren’t able to do much about being cheated on. They were expected to be overly kind and understanding because for a long time men served as financial support systems and sources of status. If you called out infidelity or left the marriage, where could you go? But Kelis dropped her bomb of a song at the turn of the 21st century and ushered in a new type of woman: cool, talented, and successful, and able to ditch a liar in a New York minute. Her openness with her anger gave a generation of women the strength to be upset, speak on it, and move forward. She taught us that rage is control, and now Black women are able to capitalize on a once-forbidden emotion.

Rapper Junglepussy embodies this rebuke of civility: She types in all caps on Twitter, and her music sounds like it’s in all caps, too. Her digital presence is shocking and in your face, and she claps back at those who cross her. In her 2015 song, “Fuck Texting,” she proclaims “God damned if I’m gon’ let any dude screw me over/ I’ma key ya car, bleach ya kicks before the night is over/ Douse your weed in baking soda, take your stashed cash and blow it all playing poker.” Daring to elaborate on the things that make her mad is a healthy release for those whose feelings are heavily policed.

Solange’s magnum opus, A Seat at the Table, is just as radically honest, poignant, and empowering now as it was when it was released two years ago. “Mad” affirms Black women’s right to be angry. Before A Seat at the Table, Azealia Banks’s 2013 thunderclap “Yung Rapunxel” brought fast flows, a megaphone, and a feminine force to rap. In the video, Banks snarls while hitting police officers over the head with bottles of champagne, making a relevant artistic remark about police brutality.

Kelis - Caught Out There

In a 2013 MTV interview, Banks’s collaborator, Lil’ Internet, said, “The real intention was for [“Yung Rapunxel”] to be something chaotic, something kinda to stir shit up and burn shit down and make room for a new start. I think this was the song that really embodies the pinnacle of all the chaos and angst and anger at just the injustices and just how difficult it is to really exist in this world right now.” 

“Yung Rapunxel” certainly paved the way for another rager, 21-year-old Rico Nasty. Her raspy, pissy raps come from a place of sincere anger. As someone who has endured trauma and gotten into her share of scuffles during her rise to the top, Rico Nasty’s demeanor is understandable and welcomed. Her track “Rage” is unfiltered wrath, with lyrics such as “My bitches ragin’ and blackin’ out/ Keep my name out your fucking mouth/ Before you find out what we about.” Other songs of hers, such as “Trust Issues” and “Smack A Bitch,” are rooted in punk music and culture and carry an undeniable angst. Rico Nasty doubled as a singer earlier in her career, but in an interview with The Fader, she discussed why she prefers rapping these days. “I’m fighting for my name and to be a part of this,” she explained. “It’s hard to be dainty and la la la when you’re also supposed to be strong.”

The late June Jordan wrote, “The purpose of polite behavior is never virtuous.” Anger is read as disrespectful, especially when it radiates from Black women. It makes people squirm as they anticipate our next word and deed. There are some who cannot stand under the weight of their own emotion and are incapable of dealing with the potential their anger provides. Luckily, there are Black female artists who are just waiting for someone to press play. May their rage be with you and guide you toward embracing your own.

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by Brooklyn White
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Brooklyn White is a groovy writer who currently shares commentary on society, beauty, and wellness. She enjoys sour gummy worms and art.