Nowadays, when I see the phrase "the controversy over" connected to a black pop culture moment, I tend to tune it out. Too often, the outcry smacks of Christian morality, bougie* respectability politics ("See, now this is what's wrong with our community..."), and empty role model talk.
Plus, a lot of folks don't closely watch or listen to what they're critiquing.
Such is the case, I believe, with the video for Rihanna's latest Loud single, "Man Down." The video begins with a tense Rihanna perched in the upper balcony of a crowded train station. When she spots a tall man with a "buck 50" scar on his cheek (in this context, visual code for "badman" or gangsta) she shoots him in the back of the head then winces. Toward the end of the clip, we learn why the tearful singer "shot a man down, in Central Station, in front of a big old crowd": Because the night before, at a sweaty dancehall, she sets physical limits with him and he retaliates by following her home and raping her.
In a joint press release from three media watchdog groups, Pastor Delman Coates, founder of Enough is Enough condemns BET for premiering the provocative video on its teen-targeted video countdown, "106 and Park":
"Once again BET has chosen the low road over the high road. Violence is a pervasive problem in all corners of our society and today's youth need more positive strategies for dealing with conflict than those portrayed in the Rihanna video."
He's right. Youth do need positive strategies. But Rihanna's character isn't just "dealing with a conflict." Unless by "conflict" the pastor means "emotional and physical trauma, increased STD risk, shame, fear of retaliation, the specter of victim-blaming, and often unresponsive or even predatory law enforcement," I don't think his statement acknowledges the gendered violence in "Man Down."
Paul Porter, co-founder of Industry Ears and a former BET video programmer, takes things a step further:
"'Man Down' is an inexcusable, shock-only, shoot-and-kill theme song. In my 30 years of viewing BET, I have never witnessed such a cold, calculated execution of murder in primetime. ... If Chris Brown shot a woman in his new video and BET premiered it, the world would stop. Rihanna should not get a pass and BET should know better. The video is far from broadcast worthy."
I think it's dead wrong of Porter to equate "Man Down" with the exploitative, flagrantly sexist, colorist, classist strip club fantasies popularized on the now-defunct "BET Uncut." "Man Down" ain't "Tip Drill" and he knows it.
Porter's Chris Brown comparison is equally bonkers. If Rihanna's real-life ex, who brutally assaulted her, made a video in which he shot a woman who stalked him after a party and raped him, I'm positive BET wouldn't play it--because he wouldn't make that video. BET also wouldn't play a clip showing Chris Brown or any other man being raped by another man, even though, statistically speaking, that's the only real comparison to the Rihanna clip.
Yes, premeditated murder is a self-destructive, dangerous response to sexual victimization. But I wish these critics would pay attention to what Rihanna is actually telling us. It's a story of how predators use rape to disempower precocious, body confident young women.
For most of the video, Rihanna is prancing through her 'hood in her Saturday best. Her broad smile and knowing glances tell us that she feels safe enough to cuddle with the elders, play with the pretty little brown girls and boys, and flirt at a spot where local bad boys brandish pistols. Later, at the party, she--like everybody else--delights in the erotic glory of the wind and the everyday genius of dancehall group routines.
In other words, she's a cool girl in a poor-but-cool world--until someone rapes that sense of security out of her. Then she literally has to leave town. Her home.
I don't expect industry watchdogs--or most men--to catch all of this. Hell, to understand what I'm saying, maybe you have to sweat out your perm at a house party where everyone has silently agreed to suspend the usual, rigid lines of respectability in deference to the grind. Where you're not the nasty temptress but an equal participant and the enemy is the drunk/reckless/sick-in-the-head dude who doesn't know the difference between winding and sex.
Since I can't bring that experience to this space, read these reason-based columns:
There's "Why Defend Rapists" over at clutchmageonline.com.
"Woman Up: 5 Revenge Films to Watch and Discuss" at Black Artemis.
Also, there's Rihanna's own response:
"I've been abused in the past, and you don't see me running around killing people in my spare time. I just really want girls to be careful. Have fun, be sassy, be innocent, be sweet, be everything that you are. But just try not to be naive. That's not coming from a parent but from a peer."
I'm sad that she places the onus on the girls, but in her experience, that's where the fault traditionally lies. And that's the real message behind "Man Down."
*Important note: I abbreviate "bourgeois" without the "r." This is not a typo. It is Black English.