Woman to Woman
How R&B singers have used soul music to vent about troubles in the black family.
“I’m His Only Woman,” Jennifer Hudson’s duet with her fellow American Idol alumna Fantasia, is enjoying heavy rotation on black radio. On the extended version on Hudson’s self-titled debut album, the song opens with Fantasia phoning Jennifer to talk “woman to woman” about the man whom they share.
Fantasia: … I’m calling right now to formally introduce myself. My name is Fantasia …
JHud: Did you just say introduce yourself?
JHud: Well, I don’t need no introduction. I am his woman, and I am Jennifer Hudson. If this was 10 years ago, I’d be at your front door ready to whoop your ass. But you know what? I’m too grown for that. I ain’t got nothing else to say.
What looks like a classic catfight on wax is actually another example of how soul music continues to tell the social temperature of black America. Just as black women’s fiction in the late 1990s in the Terry McMillan vein gave voice to a post-civil rights era of the successful black professional woman, soul music continues to express our anxieties about the state of the black family. In recent years, songs such as Destiny Child’s “Independent Woman” and “Bills, Bills, Bills,” and Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” have only heightened tensions.
With large numbers of black men continuing to drop out of mainstream life due to drug addiction, incarceration and the general feeling that they couldn’t be the “man of the household” without a job, it shouldn’t be surprising that the pressures black women feel to share available black men would show up in pop culture. These could be real-life issues for Fantasia—the single mom who against all odds became an American Idol—and Hudson—whose hardscrabble come-up from Chicago’s South Side took a tragic turn late last year.
The black women’s blues tradition of the early 20th century is filled with examples of women openly challenging each other about the men in their lives, and you really don’t have to look that far back in time for recent examples of female R&B singers drawing battle lines in song over some man, with Monica and Brandy’s “The Boy is Mine” perhaps being the most popular. But “I’m His Only Woman” is really a throwback to an earlier time.
One early great series of the “response records” in the soul tradition was Shirley Brown’s 1974 Stax classic “Woman to Woman,” which earned the Arkansas-born singer a Grammy Award nomination in 1975. When Barbara Mason recorded a biting “From His Woman to You” shortly thereafter, there began one of the great series of response records in the soul tradition.
Neither Brown, the oft-mentioned heir-apparent to Aretha Franklin, or Barbara Mason, who was 10 years into a stellar career that began with the 1963 recording “Yes, I’m Ready,” were fleeting talents. The songs were not pitched to a pop audience; both songs were emblematic of the deep soul of the mid-1970s and took on a level of seriousness, as opposed to the pop soul of, say, The Spinners. To listen to the music of this period is to hear the public debate raging in black America about black sexual politics during the so-called sexual revolution of the 1970s. This was the period notable for swinging, streaking, Erica Jong’s sexually charged novel, Fear of Flying, and Marvin Gaye’s ode to spiritual sex, Let’s Get it On.
These tensions still existed several years later when Richard “Dimples” Fields recorded his classic “She’s Got Papers on Me” in 1981. In the early ‘80s, a generation of black folk was coming out of the proverbial closet as the nation began to grapple with the AIDS crisis. Fields’ sweet, lilting falsetto voice, crooning about a domineering woman who was in control of his life, voiced the perception that black women were to blame for the crisis of black men.