The Struggle Over R&B Singers' Images

Is it fair that Mary, Erykah and Lauryn have been criticized for trying to control their bodies?

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Mary J. Blige (Ferdaus Shamim/Getty); Erykah Badu (Dimitrios Kambouris/USA/Getty);
Lauryn Hill (Ilya S. Savenok/Getty)

(The Root) -- In recent months, three of the most admired contemporary black female musical artists have come under fire. "The queen of hip-hop soul," Mary J. Blige; the artiste commonly known as Erykah Badu; and perhaps the most celebrated female rapper of all time, Lauryn Hill, have been taken to task in the media for a number of reasons.

Blige was skewered for singing about crispy chicken wraps in a Burger King commercial and for having financial-mismanagement issues at her nonprofit charity, the Foundation for the Advancement of Women Now. Blige released a statement apologizing for the kitschy ad, stating that she had not approved the final edit; she also apologized for and admitted wrongdoing about the money issues at FFAWN and said that those involved in the siphoning of $250,000 from TD Bank would be dealt with accordingly.

Badu teamed up with the Flaming Lips to film a video for their collaboration "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." In the video, a nude Badu writhes around in a bathtub. Badu hit the roof after the video was released, declaring via Twitter that she had not given approval for that release and blaming Flaming Lips lead singer Wayne Coyne for the mishap.

Coyne's initial statement of contrition acknowledged the miscommunication. But then he engaged in a Twitter beef, at turns chastising Badu for feigning shock and awe over the controversial video, thanking her for helping to make it a hit by fanning the flames of controversy and also claiming that Badu should essentially be grateful to the band for keeping her relevant.

Then there's Lauryn Hill, who is attempting a musical comeback after years as a semirecluse. Federal prosecutors have targeted her for racking up a bill of $1.5 million in unpaid taxes. Hill acknowledged that she hadn't forked over the money, explaining that she placed the health, safety and freedom of her family over material concerns.

Although these three women have had different career paths and personal lives, one thing they share is a backlash when they attempt to control their images in the public sphere. Historically, black female bodies have been policed in society and in media, so when black female performers fight back against the misuse of their images -- which are inextricably linked to their politicized bodies -- and attempt to reclaim control over said bodies, they are often met with ridicule and rejection instead of support.

For example, Blige has been pretty much an open book about her demons during her highly scrutinized career. In response to the Burger King commercial, publication after publication criticized her for selling out and making black people look bad. Really? Out of all the insulting images of black women in TV commercials (Pine Sol or State Farm, anyone?), folks want to write open letters to Blige and reprimand her for her actions? Give me a break. I suppose it would be unreasonable to give Blige, who has no recent history of a major mishap, the benefit of the doubt. She has the right to make a mistake, own it and correct it by pulling the ad, which she did.

Badu went one step further than Blige in her attempt to reclaim control over her image and body by lambasting Coyne for disrespecting the artistic process and common decency and for exploiting Badu's body and image to court controversy. Even though Badu can be a controversial figure (see her "Window Seat" clip), that does not mean she should not have the right to demand creative control over how her body and image are used in a music video, and to raise hell when she is dismissed from the process. Badu is simply saying that Coyne does not get to decide what to do with her body, regardless of what she may choose to do with it.

Hill is not immune to the phenomena affecting Blige and Badu. Hill decided to reclaim her body and image and withdraw from the media, which was her choice. Critics, industry folk and fans alike could not understand how someone at the top of her game could walk away from fame and fortune. She left the spotlight and was called everything but a child of God for her trouble.

Hill, who was brave enough to admit that she isn't a superwoman and to say that she didn't have the emotional capacity to handle all that was happening in her life, pulled away and focused on her children. Most women would be applauded for this, but not Hill. How dare she take back her life and live in seclusion?

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Sept. 19 2014 8:34 AM