In search of feminist reality
I was a 14-year-old living in Istanbul when Jennifer Lopez’s single “Jenny from the Block“ was released. And like all around the world, it was also a big hit at my school. My English wasn’t so good back then, so it was difficult for me to understand everything she said, but one sentence I remember hearing very good was the chorus: “I’m still, I’m still Jenny from the block”.
I had no idea who this Jenny from the block was, but one thing I knew for sure: the Jenny singing this song wasn’t living in one of the blocks I knew, but in a skyscraper in far distance. In the videoclip she was sitting next to her boyfriend, while he was driving the fancy car, keeping busy checking the jewelry in stores or posing for some fashion pictures. Jennifer Lopez’s intention was quite clear while she was exposing her fancy life: no matter how much she owns and whatever she does, she still is real. She used the word “real” six times and claimed twice that she was not “phony”. As my knowledge about capitalism and its derivatives was still in its infancy, it was quite difficult for me to make sense of it all
What did she mean by ‘being real’?
Did all of her friends from her (old) block also live this rich life like she did?
Was America really the land of milk and honey?
I was too ashamed to ask my older friends (who’d already started to dress up and talk like J-Lo) if they knew what she meant, as at this point of my coming of age I’d already had enough of getting criticised for my tasteless sneakers bought from the men’s department of the local store.
It took me some years to finally understand what she meant with this song: a bunch of nothing. She was simply claiming that “You get back what you put out”. For real? I mean, is the guy working 12 hours washing the dishes at the restaurant in her old hometown block in Bronx, New York, getting back what he put in? I don’t think so! Maybe he should have tried stealing as her fellow singer The Lox is saying in the intro of “Jenny from the Block“: “Everyone’s got to make a livin’”.
It was when the DJ played “Tomboy” at a cozy feminist-queer home party in Neukölln, Berlin on very low quality speakers, I got my first contact with the world of Princess Nokia. So I only got a glimpse of her amazing beats and could barely hear anything more than “Tomboy, fat belly…” I checked on her immediately when I went back home and experienced one of those rare moments where you feel surrounded with the sweetest warmth of being understood. This was real shit! Her videos captured a world of a self-appropriation: in the videos for “Tomboy” and “Kitana” in one moment a bad ass urban girl gang were claiming their rights to play basketball, skate, maybe even do boxing if they feel like, or they were doing their witchy rituals like in the “Brujas” video. Unlike Jennifer Lopez, Destiny Frasqueri is a ghetto witch, who had taken the effort to show us where she was coming from either very directly with her beautifully pictured Orisha rituals and lyrics. They provide a detailed family history (in “Brujas”) or a bit indirectly, like in “Tomboy”, sharing her pictures on the wall of her grandmother’s house where we could see this specific Tomboy in a wedding dress as a young girl. Moreover, unlike Jenny, Destiny didn’t need to use the word “real” so often in her songs, but she and her friends seemed quite real with their different size bodies, quite unlike Jenny’s friends sunbathing on a yacht. And finally, there in the video clips to “Tomboy” and “Kitana” were those actual blocks that Jenny only talked about in her song. What a relief it was to finally have a concrete picture of these blocks! As I have never been to the States, I could not picture them in my head and Jenny was sure not helping showing yachts and expensive cars in her video.
Another big difference between the works of these two artists is the way they choose to show their body to the audience. We would almost see Jenny’s ass when she was dancing in her skyscraper flat, but the black line on the window was arranged perfectly for providing the usual, fetishized view of women. And that time, when her boyfriend (Ben Affleck) was untying her bikini, again we were left with our own imagination. At the end of the video, we more or less did it! We saw the blurred breasts of Jenny. But in the video for “Tomboy”, Princess Nokia was herself taking her sweater off with her girlfriends and showing her little titties to the driving cars (and us). She was also proudly showing her superwoman panties to her friends. In the music video of “Apple Pie”, she was eating an ice cream with all her body and she invited us to look at her, not only with the sweetest smile, but very directly asking the camera to get closer to her. This was unlike Jenny who seemed to be attempting to avoid the paparazzi’s lenses while she was taking an elegant bite from her pink ice cream after shopping.
Last April Princess Nokia performed live on Festsaal Kreuzberg’s stage in Berlin. I was a bit sceptical about the venue, as it felt too big to experience the community feeling her songs are intended to create. But then she took to the stage and brought us all into the same time shared zone. The whole place jumped up and landed together. She was touching our souls so tenderly with indelicate words and moves. Making us shake our bones while singing the story of our lives with a very in-your-face attitude. Seeing her success in transforming all the anger coming from our shared trauma into lyrics and beats that are relieving our hurt souls felt quite REAL. I could finally let go all the anxiety of my high school years back when I was a lonely tomboy without my song being sung.