Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images, Illustration by Kyra Jay

For Black Women In Peril When Representation Isn't Enough

Representation has become America’s cynical move.

Her Voice

In I Know Why a Caged Bird Sings, poet and author Maya Angelou details the five-year period of her childhood when she was mute – unable to speak – after the man who had raped her was murdered shortly after being released from jail. “My voice killed that man,” Angelou recounts in an interview with Oprah Winfrey on how her seven-year-old logic led to her years-long bout of self-imposed silence. It was only through her voracious love of the written word that she would eventually reclaim her voice.

I was reminded of that story while looking at the image of Angelou newly engraved onto the back of the quarter dollar. An image of the late poet is posed with her arms wide open, juxtaposed alongside a bird with its wings spread open as if they’re both about to take flight. But if her writing was the song that Angelou sang, then arresting her image as the newest face of American currency is just another cage.

In a press release, Secretary of Treasury Janet L. Yellen said that the decision to put Angelou on the quarter signals “what we value, and how we’ve progressed as a society.” But when you realize that enslaver George Washington still sits on the front of the quarter that Angelou – whose great-grandmother was born a slave – it begins to set in just how sinister it is that in a country that was founded on the use of Black people as capital, use a Black woman who grew up in poverty and experiencing the worst of this country’s evil as an emblem to reinforce the existence of the state.

In the midst of a global pandemic that has raged into its third year, Black women have experienced the brunt of the continued political failure in America. According to a recent Harvard study, Black women have died of COVID-19 at “more than three times the rate of white men and Asian men.” And though Angelou died in 2014, Black women like her – the elderly, those dealing with “comorbidities” like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (like Angelou did) – are at severe risk from COVID today.

So when Yellen speaks of how much America “values” Black women, we must contrast such statements against the millions who have died or been left disabled by COVID-19 due to this country’s deeply embedded medical racism as well as the government’s lack of preventative action in favor of preserving capitalism.

Had this country actually valued Black women, especially in the midst of a pandemic, we would have free healthcare, free childcare, and universal basic income along with a thriving wage. Instead, we are given symbols. Empty gestures. Like a placebo or a band-aid over a bullet hole. Mere objects meant to placate us out of demanding what we need.

Representation has become America’s cynical move, deployed with an alarming frequency in the past decade against marginalized people’s calls for material change.

Shortly before Angelou’s coin was released, the Mattel Brand Barbie announced that they would be making a doll in honor of journalist Ida B. Wells who is recognized for her work documenting the terror that was lynching. This isn’t the first time that Barbie has invited a historical figure into her Dreamhouse, but it’s a curious choice, nonetheless, for a brand known for making white supremacist beauty standards a fixture in homes across the world, to have chosen for their latest doll a Black woman who spent her career pushing back against whiteness.

That’s not to mention Kamala Harris, the mixed-race Black woman whose image as the first woman sworn into the vice presidency was intended to conjure in our minds the Obama-era feelings of racial progress and pride in America. But what does a Black woman in the second-highest office of the land mean, when her administration continues to let so many Black women suffer economically and physically for the benefit of empire? There’s violence in turning a Black woman’s legacy into a thing to be played with. And in suggesting that a Black woman being second in command of this country could possibly make this place any less evil.

Angelou was many things. She was a poet, an author, an actress, a director, and a sex worker. She was a woman who lived many lives. But most importantly she was a little girl whose voice returned to her through her poetry after years of silence and trauma. She lives in her words, not through symbols that render her inanimate, dull, and voiceless.

To settle for representation is to settle for the cage that Angelou wrote about. Looking to see ourselves advance inside of white power structures only ensnares us into white supremacy’s trap. Black women deserve more. Wells deserves more. Angelou deserves more.

Featured image by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images, Illustration by Kyra Jay

Before she was Amira Unplugged, rapper, singer, and a Becoming a Popstar contestant on MTV, she was Amira Daughtery, a twenty-five year-old Georgian, with aspirations of becoming a lawyer. “I thought my career path was going to lead me to law because that’s the way I thought I would help people,” Amira tells xoNecole. “[But] I always came back to music.”

A music lover since childhood, Amira grew up in an artistic household where passion for music was emphasized. “My dad has always been my huge inspiration for music because he’s a musician himself and is so passionate about the history of music.” Amira’s also dealt with deafness in one ear since she was a toddler, a condition which she says only makes her more “intentional” about the music she makes, to ensure that what she hears inside her head can translate the way she wants it to for audiences.

“The loss of hearing means a person can’t experience music in the conventional way,” she says. “I’ve always responded to bigger, bolder anthemic songs because I can feel them [the vibrations] in my body, and I want to be sure my music does this for deaf/HOH people and everyone.”

A Black woman wearing a black hijab and black and gold dress stands in between two men who are both wearing black pants and colorful jackets and necklaces

Amira Unplugged and other contestants on Becoming a Popstar

Amira Unplugged / MTV

In order to lift people’s spirits at the beginning of the pandemic, Amira began posting videos on TikTok of herself singing and using sign language so her music could reach her deaf fans as well. She was surprised by how quickly she was able to amass a large audience. It was through her videos that she caught the attention of a talent scout for MTV’s new music competition show for rising TikTok singers, Becoming a Popstar. After a three-month process, Amira was one of those picked to be a contestant on the show.

Becoming a Popstar, as Amira describes, is different from other music competition shows we’ve all come to know over the years. “Well, first of all, it’s all original music. There’s not a single cover,” she says. “We have to write these songs in like a day or two and then meet with our producers, meet with our directors. Every week, we are producing a full project for people to vote on and decide if they’d listen to it on the radio.”

To make sure her deaf/HOH audiences can feel her songs, she makes sure to “add more bass, guitar, and violin in unique patterns.” She also incorporates “higher pitch sounds with like chimes, bells, and piccolo,” because, she says, they’re easier to feel. “But it’s less about the kind of instrument and more about how I arrange the pattern of the song. Everything I do is to create an atmosphere, a sensation, to make my music a multi-sensory experience.”

She says that working alongside the judges–pop stars Joe Jonas and Becky G, and choreographer Sean Bankhead – has helped expand her artistry. “Joe was really more about the vocal quality and the timber and Becky was really about the passion of [the song] and being convinced this was something you believed in,” she says. “And what was really great about [our choreographer] Sean is that obviously he’s a choreographer to the stars – Lil Nas X, Normani – but he didn’t only focus on choreo, he focused on stage presence, he focused on the overall message of the song. And I think all those critiques week to week helped us hone in on what we wanted to be saying with our next song.”

As her star rises, it’s been both her Muslim faith and her friends, whom she calls “The Glasses Gang” (“because none of us can see!”), that continue to ground her. “The Muslim and the Muslima community have really gone hard [supporting me] and all these people have come together and I truly appreciate them,” Amira says. “I have just been flooded with DMs and emails and texts from [young muslim kids] people who have just been so inspired,” she says. “People who have said they have never seen anything like this, that I embody a lot of the style that they wanted to see and that the message hit them, which is really the most important thing to me.”

A Black woman wears a long, salmon pink hijab, black outfit and pink boots, smiling down at the camera with her arm outstretched to it.

Amira Unplugged

Amira Unplugged / MTV

Throughout the show’s production, she was able to continue to uphold her faith practices with the help of the crew, such as making sure her food was halal, having time to pray, dressing modestly, and working with female choreographers. “If people can accept this, can learn, and can grow, and bring more people into the fold of this industry, then I’m making a real difference,” she says.

Though she didn’t win the competition, this is only the beginning for Amira. Whether it’s on Becoming a Popstar or her videos online, Amira has made it clear she has no plans on going anywhere but up. “I’m so excited that I’ve gotten this opportunity because this is really, truly what I think I’m meant to do.”

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