Erykah Badu — no stranger to controversy — has some fans clutching their pearls (again) with the release of her latest video. Accompanying the Flaming Lips, Badu offers a quirky take on Roberta Flack’s classic “The First Time (Ever I Saw Your Face).” It’s not the song, but rather what she — or, er, someone who looks like her — is doing while she’s singing.
In one scene, the soulstress is shown stark naked in a bathtub (you can’t see anything). In another, a woman — not Badu but her well-proportioned sister — appears covered in various substances: gold glitter, and what appears to be blood and, um… semen. Even the over-analytical former English major in me (i.e., I’m prone to overanalyze and read into everything) can’t completely wrap my head around Badu’s visual message, but I’m gathering it has something to do with the creation of life (semen, blood) and the celebration of it (gold glitter). I’m open to your interpretations.
Of course, the nudity depicted has brought Badu under fire and she’s faced accusations from viewers that the video is obscene and pornographic. It’s a little out there, no doubt, but I can’t fall in line with those outrageous claims because 1) there’s an artistic merit (even if I can’t yet figure out exactly what this art is trying to “say”); and 2) this charge is leveled at Black women by many other Black women every single time one of us decides to disrobe. It doesn’t matter whether it’s for a cause or to make a statement or just to celebrate the Black female form in all its sun-kissed, melanin-infused glory. Instances of Black female nudity always devolve into conversations about sex, slavery, strippers, shame… oh, and Venus Hottentot. It’s as if our unclothed forms can’t be somehow “just” artistic and beautiful like everyone else’s. We always add baggage and “stuff” and make it extra-complicated.
This happened the last time Erykah Badu got nude, strolling through the streets of Dallas for “Window Seat” and making a blatantly obvious statement about throwing off layers and getting free. But folks also flipped when Nia Long got naked for PETA, when Jada Pinkett-Smith popped up on the July cover of ESSENCE in her birthday suit, when Taraji P. Henson disrobed for Allure magazine’s annual “The Naked Truth” issue, and also when Serena Williams graced the cover of ESPN the Magazine’s “The Body Issue” wearing only lotion and a smile.
The too common reaction is a mixture of shock and outrage, with a command that the woman “put some clothes on!” And while I get that our community has strong religious undertones, and that there’s a long history of fetishizing Black women’s bodies, I wonder at what point we stop accepting how other people see us, break free from the narrowness of how we’ve been taught to view ourselves, and learn to view a body as just a body. Instead of something to hide and cover, I’d love to see us someday embrace nudity as a sign of comfort and liberation, as something worthy of celebration. (Gold glitter optional.)
Demetria L. Lucas is the author of “A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life” (Atria) in stores now. Follow her on Twitter @abelleinbk