Last Friday I woke up to a message from a friend. In the message the friend raved about a new song from Wondaland. Being that I’m a huge fan of Janelle Monae, I immediately opened SoundCloud and was unprepared for what Hell You Talmbout was. From the very first drum beat the song is so beautifully Black. Harkening back to message songs from the 60s and 70s, Janelle and the rest of the Wondaland crew recite the names of so many Black people who have lost their lives because of police brutality and lynching. The song is equal parts a demand for justice as it is an expression of mourning for lives lost. By the end of the song I found myself crying, not from the weight of the subject, but as a release, because with every passing of the chorus I was reminded I am not alone in this feeling of danger in my own home.
But with everything that is beautiful, powerful and moving about the song it wasn’t until a friend of mine on twitter expressed her concerns that I realized that it gets one important detail wrong. Behind each name, the Wondaland crew demands that the listener Say His/Her Name, but loses track of where Say Her Name actually comes from. The hashtag was started to highlight the nearly forgotten Black women who were also killed due to Police and Vigilante violence. These names often don’t get as much attention as their Black male counterparts because of the false belief that Black women are not harassed by the Police like men are.
It isn’t until the third verse in the song that a woman’s name is even mentioned, and oddly enough the female victims are only mentioned by female members of Wondaland. In fact, of the 18 names that are chanted in the song, only 4 of them are women. This runs counter to the point of the hashtag, and unknowingly does what the tag was trying to prevent. It drowns out the names of Black women and does so using a phrase/hashtag/space that was meant to be specifically for acknowledging Black women’s deaths.
I don’t want to take away from the beauty of the song, nor do I want to call out Janelle or the rest of Wondaland as being careless when they clearly were trying to do good with a song. However I also believe that an offense is an offense no matter the intent. The song is flawed, but I think it’s a flaw that the song’s creators can fix and learn from. Unfortunately there is a long list of both cis and trans women who have been murdered by police and vigilantes in just the past year. The song can be rewritten, the names spoken and Black women can still be honored and the song would still be just as powerful.