“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.
This is a misperception echoed by Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s infamous 1965 report The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, which blamed the prevalence of female-headed households for many of the intractable problems in the black community.
Still, it is Betty Wright’s emasculating cameo that resonates most powerfully on the track. Walking in on her husband crooning in the shower about his predicament, Wright unleashes a barrage of putdowns: And what is this I hear when I walk up to my bathroom door … I made you what you are, I paid the house notes, I put you through school, I paid for the pretty car you driving your woman or women around in … that’s right, I got papers on you, and you do understand my dear that you must pay me to be free.
“She’s Got Papers on Me” effectively censured the so-called strong black woman for emasculating black men. The idea that black women needed to back off was further underscored with Mason’s “She’s Got Papers (I Got the Man).” Mason sings from the perspective of a woman who makes little demands on her man and is more than willing to acquiesce to his desires and needs, particularly in an environment when the sheer number of available women outnumbered available men.
This stunted view of black masculinity continued with Mason’s 1984 dance classic “Another Man.” With the AIDS virus as front-page news and gender-bender performances by black male artists such as Michael Jackson, Prince and Eddie Murphy defining black crossover, “Another Man” upped the ante by suggesting that black homosexuality was undermining the stability of black heterosexual relations. Mason’s music echoed community anxieties about homosexuality and fed existing suspicions about Fields’ original falsetto performance. Some R&B fans suspected that the original performance was just a little “too sweet” for belief, a notion echoed in Mason’s song.
Hip-hop culture in general also effectively feminized mainstream black popular music, as evidenced KRS-One’s cynical query at the time: “Are there any straight singers in R&B?” Similarly, Peggy Scott-Adams’ 1997 regional hit “Bill” tapped into the burgeoning cottage industry of down-low fiction and memoir. Musically, “Bill” became synonymous with the down-low homosexual who supposedly preyed on good family men and brought the scourge of disease into black households.
As the so-called hip-hop generation bore witness to the black family in flux, they might be less invested in the kinds of traditional structures that songs such as “Woman to Woman” and “She’s Got Papers on Me” tried to uphold. Of course, popular reality television series like Snoop Dogg’s Father Hood and Rev. Run’s Run’s House suggest that the hip-hop generation—at least the older guard—is troubled by many of the same concerns about the perceived erosion of the black family and dysfunctional gender relations.
Even today, as far as we have come in the political realm, the dysfunction at home continues. This makes the Hudson and Fantasia hit, “I’m His Only Woman,” a throwback of sorts. The song, written by Grammy Award-winning Missy Elliott, newcomer Jazmine Sullivan and uber-producer Jack Splash, can be seen as a litmus test for this historic moment, especially with a black first family in the White House.
The American Idol alumnae seem less wedded to the gender politics that preceded them in R&B. Given that both Hudson and Fantasia are richer and more famous than Brown and Mason at the peak of their careers—the song is hardly a reflection of on-the-ground black gender debates. Still, “I’m His Only Woman” sheds light on the difficulties of even black female celebrities to find lasting relationships, not so ironically, given the lack of available men who could be considered their legitimate peers.
Sadly, the tragic murders of Hudson’s mother, brother and nephew, allegedly at the hand of her sister’s estranged husband, suggest that the state of black love is, if all else, troubling.
Mark Anthony Neal is the author of several books including Songs in the Key of Black Life: A Rhythm and Blues Nation. Neal is a professor of black popular culture at Duke University.
Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University and a fellow at the Hiphop Archive and Research Institute at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is the author of several books, including Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities. Follow him on Twitter.