The Meaning of "Independent Woman" in Music

Article excerpt

Introduction

Rapper Roxanne Shante's 1989 rendition of "Independent Woman," explored relationships and admonished women not to dote on partners who do not reciprocate or to buy into the fairytale dream that a man would always take care of them. The definition of an "Independent Woman" in the Urban Dictionary, a predominantly African American written and defined Web site, is "A woman who pays her own bills, buys her own things, and does not allow a man to affect her stability or self-confidence. She supports herself on her own entirely and is proud to be able to do so."

Another depiction of independence is found in Tina Portis' video clip titled the "Deception of the Independent Woman" posted to YouTube in 2010. Portis, an entrepreneur and former single mother, offers her opinion on statistics showing 42% of U.S. black women have never been married and are "independent" because they focus on achievement, often waiting too long to compete for the small number of black men who are equal in status (Johnson, 2010). In the video, she asserts that independent women do not need a pat on the back for doing what grownups are supposed to do: pay their bills, buy houses and cars, etc. She adds that independence discourages relationships as people begin to believe they can do everything alone, so they do not need a mate.

Portis' depiction of independence is different from Shante's vision of independent women mentioned at the beginning of this essay. Both are distinct from those featured in popular music, which often describe the "independent woman" as someone who is wealthy, beautiful, and domestic. This variance in opinion underscores the importance of studying the phenomena of the "independent black woman" in the twenty-first century. I personally became interested in the topic at a concert during which an artist described his idea of an "independent woman." I looked at the women in the audience who were praising the song, and I wondered how many of them, like me, were overworked single mothers struggling to pay bills while raising children alone and trying to look appealing. That was when I decided the glamorous "independent black woman" depicted in popular music is a misnomer. After looking at the lyrics of other songs, I found that rap lyrics are particularly interesting because they often juxtapose positive portrayals of an "independent woman" with negative ones of a "gold-digger."

Historically, Wallace (1979) asserted that the myth of the black superwoman essentially consists of stereotypes deeply rooted in slavery, or the idea that although "lazy" black women are able to do more physical labor than the average woman, they consistently sacrifice themselves for others, have no emotion, and are really just "men." She asserts that the matriarchal structure of the black family led by a strong black woman during slavery is often credited for the emasculation of the black man and subsequently the dysfunctional nature of the black family. These myths of the black superwoman have helped shape the negative perceptions of them as a whole, which carries over to present day stereotypes found in imagery of the "independent" black woman.

Portrayals of women in music have increasingly gained the attention of rap music scholars. Some suggest they promote violence, sex, and materialism, while others have accused them of being overly sexist, colorist, and degrading toward women (Kubrin, 2005; Zillmann et al., 1995). However, previous studies neglect to look at depictions of "independence" in music. I hope to fill that gap with this analysis. Popular culture is an important source of ideas that can shape people's perceptions of themselves and other people (Collins, 2004). Additionally, content of popular music could have great effect on teenagers as they employ it for self-identity formation (North et al., 2000). Although people often belittle and represent rap music in a negative light, it is a large part of popular culture that scholars must continually analyze for new messages and meanings (Pough, 2002). …