Writing

Your Down Ass Bitch: On Loyalty and Expectation

It was August 2015 and ‘Where Are Ü Now’, Justin Bieber’s collaboration with Diplo and Skrillex, was one of the tracks proclaimed to be the sound of the summer by commercial radio.

“See, I gave you faith, turned your doubt into hoping
Now I’m all alone and my joy’s turned to moping
[…]
When you broke down I didn’t leave ya, I was by your side
So where are you now that I need ya?
Where are you now that I need ya?”

As the desperate piano chords gave way to the thumping bass, I jabbed my finger at the car’s stereo controls, tears snaking down my face from behind my sunglasses. The line “Where are you now that I need ya?” rang angrily in my head as I thought about my impending due date. In a few short weeks I would be giving birth to my first child, alone. But I knew exactly where my husband was. He was in HMP Wandsworth, Britain’s largest and most notorious prison, and that was where I was heading to on that beautiful summer’s day.

After drying my eyes at a traffic light, I switched the radio back on. Another of Summer 2015’s anthems filled the speakers and I turned the volume up until I could feel the bassline massaging my thighs. I sang the lyrics to Fetty Wap’s ‘Trap Queen’ at the top of my lungs, psyching myself up for the visit, but as I pulled into the prison car park and the song tailed off, a horrifying thought struck me: “Sh-t! Does this mean that I’m a “trap queen” now?!”

I considered my situation. I was nine months pregnant and about to go and visit my husband who had started a seven year sentence the previous month. I had been in bed next to him when police battered down our door, and had stayed next to him during the two and half years he lived under bail conditions while they investigated. I had even acquired a suspended sentence as a reward for my loyalty, a consequence of not divulging information about a crime that I still don’t know anything about, but as warned, my proximity to him didn’t help.

Weighing up my current circumstances as I waddled over to the visit centre, I concluded that this was perhaps what Ja Rule meant when he rapped about his “down ass bitch”: “Baby say yeah/If you’d lie for me, like you lovin’ me…/…If you’d die for me, like you cry for me…/…If you’d kill for me, like you come for me…/…Girl I’m convinced, you’re my down ass bitch.” Cue the anguished soul-searching, wondering if my love for hip hop had introduced me to a type of loyalty that had proven to be my downfall.

In hip hop, much of the landscape surrounding intimate relationships is related to crime. “All I need in this life of sin, is me and my girlfriend/Down to ride to the very end, it’s me and my boyfriend,” Jay Z and Beyonce dueted over ‘Bonnie and Clyde ‘03’, resurrecting their ride-or-die vision of true love with their ‘On The Run’ tour in recent years. Even the term “co-d” – a slang word for your close friend given to us by hip hop – is simply a shortened version of “co-defendant”, the idea being that you and this other person are so close that if you got charged in criminal proceedings, they would be the other defendant sat next to you in the dock.

The criminal justice system disproportionately affects black communities both here and in the US so it makes some sort of twisted sense that stories of incarceration, symbolical or otherwise, wind their way around ideas of loyalty and romance. The music video for one of noughties hip hop’s most quintessential love songs, ‘21 Questions’ by 50 Cent, solely revolves around the arrest and imprisonment of 50 Cent and his relationship with his girlfriend, played by Meagan Good, under those circumstances.

The line of questioning in ‘21 Questions’ mirrors the hook of Ja Rule’s ‘Down Ass Bitch’, but it also mirrors the endless questioning of black women’s loyalties by black men time and again. Our loyalty is expected, but still questioned and tested, whether it’s hypothetical “what-would-you-do?” cheating scenarios posed on Twitter, or the assertion that as black women we must choose between white women’s feminism and the black family – i.e. black men.

But we’ve already answered the proverbial 21 questions a million times over, and our actions have always proved our loyalty. Anytime a black man dies at the hands of the state, you can set your watch to the response of black women, who will march, petition, write, sing and scream about police brutality and all the other black men who have died before. In these protests black women are often the organisers and catalysts, leading the surge of black men and women gathering in the streets and online to mobilise. But when a black woman dies at the hands of the state, we cannot expect reciprocity. Furthermore when it comes to black women as victims of violence and brutality in general there is no reciprocity. How many black female rape victims have been publicly doubted, taunted and mocked by black men who simultaneously cape for the accused?

Black women have been told that Black Feminism is tearing the black family apart. We’re told it is a Western invention that it is selfish, self-serving and undermines the strength of our community, keeping us oppressed. Not only are these statements completely unfounded, but we still need to ask the question: what have black women gained by being unquestionably loyal, consistently available, and the living and breathing homes for black men to rest their weary heads and endless burdens? We still earn less than black men and white women, in the US at the hands of a black man is the second most common way that young black women die, and over half of black children living in the UK are growing up in single parent homes with 90% of those households lead by mothers. I don’t say this to shame single mothers or the children of single mothers, but if black women should drop Black Feminism in favour of black patriarchy, well, black patriarchy has not proven itself competent nor worthy.

In the early days of my feminist awakening, my husband – at the time, my boyfriend – viewed this new ideology as a threat. He was suspicious of my new feminist friends and wondered what impact my new consciousness would have on our relationship. Six years on and our endless conversations about equality, rape culture, the male gaze and sexual objectification has brought him to a new sense of understanding. And while I’d be quick to correct any suggestion that we are any kind of feminist-convert relationship goals, ultimately he trusts and respects me as an intelligent autonomous being, and so he can recognise feminism as a positive force in my life, even though he doesn’t always understand where I’m coming from.

In realising this, I think I see what the problem is: generally speaking, black men do not trust black women. They do not trust us and that is why they want to control us. That is why any notion of self-determination and being anything other than subordinate to them is seen as an act of supreme selfishness or trying to “undermine the black family”. They do not trust us and that is why they question us over seductive rap melodies, the playful tease in their voice a mask for deeply held insecurities about themselves and the way that relationships work. And when our taste for liberation will no longer stand for their “f-cksh-t” ways, they accuse us of being bitter and angry and label us crabs in the bucket, refusing enlightenment if it comes in the shape of a black woman.

When Satia, one half of the Melanin Millennials podcast, claimed in an episode that black men will be the downfall of black women, I swallowed an uncomfortable laugh, but there is truth in that statement. As long as black women have to divert energy to justifying, pacifying and convincing stubbornly fearful black men of our loyalty and worthiness, we will get no further. Thankfully, this is where we can say this is #notallblackmen, as we have brothers, lovers, friends, and fathers who are extricating themselves from the shackles of fragile patriarchal black masculinity, and are ready to champion, support, but most importantly work alongside us.

The obligation to carry an entire community on our back is a trait common amongst black women. Perhaps we’re following in the footsteps of our foremothers, as a lot of communities across Africa, the Caribbean and the wider diaspora are historically and contemporarily matriarchal. But we can not carry those who do not want to be taken, and we can no longer compensate for black men who value their privilege over our lives. We will never cross the distances we were meant to if we are forever kow-towing to fickle egos and short-sighted pride. In this new chapter of the fight for equality for all, black women are rightly leading in many aspects. If there are any black men still questioning our loyalty, then they are a liability to the cause. We do have questions for them though, in fact there is only one: it’s time to put in work, but are you down to ride?


This essay was written especially for No Fly on the Wall‘s ‘Re-imagining Black Love As Revolutionary’ event, that took place as part of their Re-imagining series of talks and events.

Images featured taken from music videos for Ja Rule feat. Christina Milian – ‘Every Little Thing’, and Ja Rule feat. Ashanti – ‘Mesmerize’.

You Might Also Like

2 Comments

  • Reply Daniellè DASH (@DanielleDASH) 18 February 2017 at 9:23 am

    Stunning 💕

    • Reply Jendella 12 March 2017 at 8:47 am

      Thank you Daniellè! xx

    Leave a Comment