“I Can’t Believe We Made It”: Romanticism and Afropresentism in Works of African-American Women Hip Hop and R’n’B Artists

Another problematic of Romanticism for rock (and therefore North American pop music in general) is Romanticism’s pernicious racism, which I will show instigated the very origins of rock and roll. Romantic ideologies of racial categories and hierarchies fed into the mythologies of white artists drawing from supposedly vulgar, primitive Black music for sexuality, physicality, and authenticity… As the intention of this book was to ensure that women rockers had representation in the discourse around Romanticism and rock music, this chapter was conceived with the objective to make sure that African-American women’s performances and voices were not overlooked in this “elite” space.

Kirsten Zemke, Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism, p. 190

Kirsten Zemke’s contribution closes out Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism with a discussion of the work of Missy Elliott, Erykah Badu, and Beyoncé in the light of Romanticism and Afropresentism. Zemke focuses on these artists’ videos, incorporating discussion of their visual aesthetics in addition to their music, particularly Missy Elliott’s “Lose Control,” Erykah Badu’s “On & On,” and Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Rock music has long been associated with Romanticism, at least since the 1960s, as a predecessor of rock music or as an inspiration. But this legacy is deeply fraught with both Romantic-era racist thought, specifically in Gobineau for Zemke’s purposes. These rock and Romanticism studies, including Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism, extend the argument by claiming that rock and roll is a continuation of Romanticism into the present: not just influenced by Romanticism, rock music is a contemporary Romantic musical form and perhaps the most important incarnation of Romanticism since World War II.

Check out the iTunes playlist for the book.

I would add the concept of authenticity adds to Romanticism’s tarnished legacy. It arises in part from Wordsworth’s drawing inspiration from “Humble and rustic life… because, in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak plainer and more emphatic language” (Preface to Lyrical Ballads) as well as from a longstanding, pre-Romantic concept of the “noble savage,” a concept Zemke cites as presented by Rousseau, which is a deeply ambivalent formulation in itself. It positively ascribes to the “uncivilized” the best features of essential humanity, nobility, but requires them to be savages to begin with, denying to the “savages” civilization or sophistication.

The legacy of Romanticism and race is not entirely tarnished, of course. The Romantics were anti-slavery and overwhelmingly pro-democracy. Blake engaged the psychological legacy of slavery in poems such as “The Little Black Boy” and the social consequences of slavery in his illuminated book Visions of the Daughters of Albion. So Romanticism’s legacy on race is tarnished and ambivalent, rather than exclusively racist or exclusively emancipatory.

Rock music extends the ambivalence of Romanticism’s legacy: Zemke relies on Robert S. Pattison’s The Triumph of Vulgarity and other sources to draw a line from the Black roots of rock and roll to the concept of the noble savage, describing how rock imagined itself to be a “musical return to the primitive” (p. 193). This discursive history is well-documented as part of the history of rock; church youth groups across the country have been warned for decades how the rhythms of rock are used in African ceremonies to summon demons.

Zemke sees in Afropresentism a Romantic response to Romanticism’s racist legacy. She sees in Missy Elliott’s video for “Lose Control” a nostalgic barn dance — nostalgia being a primary characteristic of Romanticism — combined with “‘New World’ Black music” that enables “Black communal solidarity” (p. 195). Erykah Badu’s “On & On” is placed in “rural Georgia in the early 1900s” and features a “pastoral setting” that draws from The Color Purple to affirm “a pre-existing Edenic norm that must be restored” (pp. 195, 196). Beyoncé’s Lemonade, an ambitious, well-received project that “incorporates and displays multiple layers of history, Black history — the Gullah people of 1902, the 1991 woman-axis film, the slave souls of film locations,” does so not to present utopian pasts or better futures, but to reinvent the present (p. 198).

Afropresentism in Zemke’s chapter is the antidote to nostalgia and Afrofuturism that affirms “cross-culturalism and unity between Afro-descendents” (p. 198). It emphasizes Black “diasporic representation, elevating hybrid identities, people and cultures ‘forged over time'” (p. 198). All three of the videos Zemke discusses are set in the twentieth century rather than ancient Egypt or outer space: the present is being recovered in a way that incorporates the past while also projecting itself into a better future.

As Zemke mentioned, my goal with this collection was to ensure that women were well-represented in this discourse about rock and Romanticism. In the preface to my first Rock and Romanticism collection I express regret that only about 25% of the material is about women, either as contemporary musicians or as Romantic-era authors. I sought to correct that imbalance with this collection. But just as rock has been overwhelmingly male, despite its Black roots it is also overwhelmingly white, and for that reason I can’t express enough gratitude for Zemke’s contribution.

Kirsten Zemke is a Senior Lecturer in Ethnomusicology in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Her teaching and research explore hip hop, Pasifka popular musics, and popular music history, looking especially at issues of identity, race, gender, and sexuality.

Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism

Women in Rock. Women in Romanticism (Routledge, 2022) is the first book-length work exploring the interrelationships among contemporary women rock musicians and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art and literature, the literature of the Romantic era. LIMITED QUANTITIES ONLY available at a 37% discount.



Published by James Rovira

Dr. James Rovira is higher education professional with twenty years experience in the field in teaching, administration, and advising roles. He is also an interdisciplinary scholar and writer whose works include fiction, poetry, and scholarship exploring the intersections of literature and philosophy, literature and psychology, literary theory, and music and literature.. His books include Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism (Routledge, 2023); David Bowie and Romanticism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022); Writing for College and Beyond (a first-year composition textbook (Lulu 2019)); Reading as Democracy in Crisis: Interpretation, Theory, History (Lexington Books 2019); Rock and Romanticism: Blake, Wordsworth, and Rock from Dylan to U2 (Lexington Books, 2018); Rock and Romanticism: Post-Punk, Goth, and Metal as Dark Romanticisms (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018); and Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety (Continuum/Bloomsbury, 2010). See his website at jamesrovira.com for details.

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