In years past, Black women have had to settle for mere invites to the table. Some lead roles, a couple of important yet not-so-crazy political victories, you know, enough to keep people from rioting about the severe lack of representation Black women, and really any women of color, have in the most important roles of every field imaginable.
While momentum has been on their side, 2017 saw some extraordinary displays of strength, vulnerability, mastery, and influence from Black women. From singular voices of brave social commentary, to overwhelming screen and air time, to the collective wave of one of the greatest social media movements ever, Black women have been diverse yet unified in their winning of 2017.
Black women in music
It’s rare that Black hip-hop and R&B artists are nationally recognized for their grandest accomplishments. Rap Album of the Year hit a low point in the Grammys when Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city was infamously shoved aside for White Boy of the Year Macklemore’s The Heist in 2014. And while Adele is much more deserving of Grammy hardware than Macklemore, seeing Lemonade not win AOTY over 25 was just wrong. While those snubs are forever, fans of both genres can find some solace in the accomplishments of 2017’s finest artists.
First of all, I would have roasted the fuck out of you if you told me Cardi B would be Grammy-nominated by the end of the year. But here we are, our favorite Love & Hip-Hop character has a #1 single to her name and a legitimate shot at winning Best Rap Song and Best Rap Performance.
As much as we love Cardi, the acknowledgement of Rapsody’s longevity and unbelievable talent is an even greater victory for women in hip-hop. For years now, Rapsody has featured alongside Kendrick Lamar, Mac Miller, Jay Electronica, and other notable male rappers, sometimes outperforming them. Many consider Rapsody’s verse on ‘Complexion’ in Kendrick’s instant classic To Pimp a Butterfly one of the best verses in the album.
For someone like Rapsody to get Best Rap Song (‘Sassy’) and Best Rap Album (Laila’s Wisdom) nominations for the 2018 Grammy’s along with a shoutout from legendary producer 9th Wonder is monumental in forcing the male-dominated realm of hip-hop to acknowledge the staying power of women in the game.
Then we have a millennial Black woman’s deep, compassionate reflection on her pain actually taken seriously in the form of SZA’s Control. The abuse, suffering, and resilience of Black women in love has never been seen in such candid ways. Nor has it been as prominent in the music scene as it has been this year, thanks in large part to the rise of Black women gracing our television screens. 5 Grammy nominations for SZA is no joke, and leaves us all hopeful that talents like hers, Syd’s, and H.E.R’s can continue making waves with their music.
Black women on and behind the screen
First, a shoutout to some of our favorite veterans. Viola Davis (Fences, How To Get Away With Murder), Taraji P. Henson (Hidden Figures, Empire), Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures, cast in A Wrinkle In Time), Ava Duvernay (Queen Sugar, director of A Wrinkle In Time), and Shonda Rhimes (all ya girlfriend’s favorite shows) are just a good handful of the women responsible for some of the most exciting tv and film productions of 2017.
Hidden Figures slew the box office, and any frustration you may have had with the crazy-ass Black telenovela that is Empire was put on hold with Taraji’s performance as NASA’s unsung math wiz Katherine Johnson. Viola Davis doesn’t know how to be anything else but incredible, Shonda shows continue to drag us by our baby hairs, and Ava Duvernay keeps getting put in charge of wildly fascinating film projects, finally taking her talents to Disney!
As far as fresh-faced Black ladies taking Hollywood by storm, how do you not start with Tiffany Haddish? The Last Black Unicorn won a New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC) award in a role where she talked about sucking dick with a grapefruit.
The game has changed, and this woman is everything right about it. On top of her genuine outlandishness, Tiffany Haddish brings her entire self to work and into our homes. There’s no hiding from her South Central, multiethnic-foster-home-jumping, poverty-stricken background because she embodies it and makes us realize how beautiful it is.
In the same way Haddish brought all of her Blackness and womahood to Hollywood, we’ve seen other extremely unique and culture-shifting stars emerge. Issa Rae, Yvonne Orji and the Insecure gang has given us arguably the most socially relevant show of 2017 (Donald Glover might have something to say about that), and Master of None‘s Lena Waithe became the first Black woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series. She has since followed up the feat with the production of a film for Netflix (Step Sisters) and a show for Showtime (The Chi).
Black women saying some real shit about society
If you follow Jemele Hill on Twitter, you know she entertains her critics daily. But she never tussles in the digital mud with them. Rather, with a hint of attitude and a whole lotta class and intelligence, she makes people look absolutely silly for suggesting that her social commentary is not part of her job hosting The 6 on ESPN with Michael Scott (I’m especially a fan of her “Your dad” clapbacks).
Her sharp-witted, incisive commentary on The 6 also tends to continue into her Twitter feed. And ESPN had no problem with it, that is, until she went after the owner of an organization the network does big business with:
Don’t ask Dak, Dez & other Cowboys players to protest. A more powerful statement is if you stop watching and buying their merchandise.
— Jemele Hill (@jemelehill) October 9, 2017
An articulate tweet encouraging disgruntled NFL fans to boycott Cowboys advertisers if they disagreed with his threat to bench players who “disrespected the flag” got her suspended for two weeks. She was punished for exposing her employer’s conflict of interest. She was punished for doing her job.
As shitty as that is, the weight of her voice on social matters has only grown from the debacle. She certainly hasn’t stopped tweeting like the incisive smart-ass she is, and her stock as a tv personality and social critic will certainly be higher leaving ESPN than when she first joined.
Black female voices are rarely acknowledged for their value before the voices of others. For instance, it’s no secret that great American social movements overlook the pioneering roles Black women play in them. We don’t talk about Fannie Lou Hamer as much as MLK or Malcolm, nor do we talk about Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, or Opal Tometi as much as we talk about prominent male Black Lives Matter figures such as Deray McKesson or Shaun King. But Time got it right with their Persons of the Year selection.
As much as notable White women had to do with the propulsion of the #metoo campaign, Tarana Burke, the founder of #metoo, was doing the work of the movement long before it blew up on Twitter. She founded Just Be Inc.—a nonprofit that supports women and girls of color who lived through sexual abuse and offers educational programming to combat sexual assault—and has been the director of it for its entire 11-year existence.
The phrase #metoo was coined during a particularly difficult experience Burke had working with a little girl at Just Be Inc. And despite the popularity of the movement being driven by people much more powerful and safe than those Just Be Inc. serves, Burke was nothing but supportive of the movement’s growth.
Many Black women won big in 2017, and they all did it with grace and style. Even more importantly, the year’s big winners prevailed by being their genuine selves. For as divisive as 2017 has been, the year has been kind to Black women brave enough to unleash their full personalities onto us. As much as they needed to shine, we need to learn from their shine that success stories of all kinds can exist simultaneously on the global stage. Acknowledging Rapsody doesn’t take away from Kendrick Lamar’s applause. Loving Tiffany Haddish doesn’t mean Key and Peele or Jerrod Carmichael are cancelled. Glowing Black women help us all glow.
Thank you, ladies.