Facing the Faces of the Music Industry; Facing the Expectations of Society
When you think about your favorite artist, what's the first thing that comes to mind? One might answer this question by describing the ease with which an artist tells his or her story with effortless rhyme schemes and word play, or the intricately layered beats behind his or her words, sometimes engrained deeper within the listener's temporal lobe. There is undoubtedly some substantive quality about the musician’s work itself that resonates with us. Another question, this time about "discovering" a new artist, let's say online: What is it that entices you to click on that link, the link that displays a new artist who you’ve never before heard of? Have you ever put thought into this?
More times than not, it's the physical, the external.
It’s the artists’ album art or the artists’ own look, perhaps even the name of the song, album or artist, but those two former attributes surely play a very large part in our mental process of deciphering whether or not an artist should be given a chance, whether or not they are worth our time.
Almost a year ago, I remember, one of my suite mates at SUNY Purchase had images printed from the internet plastered all over the walls; something to always lay your eyes upon, something to always make you laugh, smile or think. In our bathroom, one of the featured images was a photo of Lil Kim. Long, straight, bleached blonde hair hung over her beautiful cocoa complexion and ran down her body, past her pastel pink bikini covered breasts. I wondered, “What happened to Lil Kim, where is she now?”
Curiosity led me to the Internet and what I discovered actually brought me to tears and I wondered, “What made you think you weren’t good enough?"
As most of us already know, Lil Kim is a Brooklyn based rapper whose success started in 1995 after freestyling for, then, her soon to be mentor, the Notorious B.I.G. Soon after she joined the group Junior M.A.F.I.A and began her ascent into the limelight. No one had expected such a rough and rugged, booming voice and personality to escape from this petite girl, standing at a tiny 4-feet-11-inches. But on that day, almost a year ago, I finally happened upon an up to date photo of Lil Kim -- a change that had overcome Lil Kim’s being, a change that I could have never even imagined.
“I think I’m beautiful because of my heart. But like, Halle Berry, Salli Richardson, Stacey Dash, Jada Pinkett Smith? I used to wish I looked like them motherfuckers!” —Lil’ Kim, VIBE 1997 (SOURCE: Diary of Kimberly Jones, 2011)
The aggressive energy with which she spews her lyrics makes it seem as if she’s extremely confident and self-assured. She raps about money, her clothes, all of the things she owns and, of course, sex, sex, sex. However, after examining the content of her lyrics, it utterly lacks any semblance of acknowledged happiness with herself -- just "happiness" with her financial status and the sex she has. I don’t know, but someone who spits that much confidence about sex, I assumed, would be confident and content in herself. She does say she’s the Queen Bee.
From her third album the Notorious K.I.M (2000), to her fourth album La Bella Mafia (2003), we see that something has changed about Lil Kim’s appearance, or her face that is -- subtle, but the change is still evident.
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Compare that Lil Kim to Lil Kim just three years prior, in one of her hits from, Notorious K.I.M, "How Many Licks".
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There is a noticeable difference between the two faces, but she is still our Lil Kim without a doubt; just a smaller nosed, and slightly lighter skinned Lil Kim. The reason for her nose job, as Lil Kim says, was due to broken nose from being physically abused by her boyfriend at the time, Damion "World" Hardy, in 2002. The results of said surgery just happened to make her look more like the “black Barbie” that she claims to be; sparking the beginning of a face that would gradually continue to experience change, alterations, and "improvements" over the years.
“Black Barbie dressed in Bvlgari // I’m tryna leave in somebodies Ferrari.” -- "The Jump Off"
In 2005, the same year that Lil Kim went to jail for a year, she released her last studio album, The Naked Truth, featuring the hit “Lighters Up”, which she also released a video for. The video begins with different groups of people talking different shit about her; the last group, before the song starts, is comprised of two women wondering, “Why did she get her nosed fixed?” and “Why she got bigger tits?”, to which Kim responds, “Why is y’all on my shit?”
By 2012 there is news of Lil Kim appearing at BET Rip the Runway with a face looking more changed then ever, almost completely unrecognizable. Without her name, and fame, she wouldn’t be Lil Kim; walking down the street alone would probably warrant no worry of a fans approach.
But it seems that even from the very beginning she has personified a beauty that is not her own, one shaped by blonde wigs and blue contacts.
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In an interview with Howard Stern in 2000 she responds to a comment about her blonde locks saying, “This is my trademark look” (known as the “black Madonna”).
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen an artist make an attempt a racial swap in an effort to fit in, feel beautiful, and stay relevant. In an article in the DailyMail in 2011 news was announced of Jamaican dancehall artist Vybez Kartel launching a new beauty skin care product, a line of men’s cosmetics called “skin brightener.” As some may remember, Vybez himself resurfaced into the public with a much lighter complexion in 2010, which he received much criticism for.
But it is not solely the music industry to blame; it is Western culture as a whole, which has imprinted itself on the music industry, seeing as the music industry must serve society. These artists play along with the game because, at the end of the day, a lot of artists’ main concern is making sales and with some artists, that translates into selling themselves.
As sad as it is to say, we are a country that is extremely vain, extremely materialistic, money hungry and segregated. And by segregated I not only mean by color, but also by class, by gender, and by the expectations and moral values that go along with each. Woman are either seen as sex symbols or innocent, fragile dolls while men are seen as powerful aggressors. And as hard as is this to write, and to stomach, the lighter your skin is, the better (by Western culture's prevailing standards). As explained in the aforementioned DailyMail article:
“Pale skin is seen by bleaching advocates as desirable as it is thought to imply wealth. As historian Elsa Goveia puts it, the structuring principle of Caribbean societies is 'the belief that the blacker you are the more inferior you are and the whiter you are the more superior you are.’”
There seems to be a huge imbalance between external and internal quality, and an overpowering desire to be beautiful and physically attainable; a desire that has sadly overshadowed the importance of one's character and art.
In the beginning of William C. Chittick's, The Sufi Path of Love, The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi, Chittick talks about Rumi’s concept of Form vs. Meaning under the section “The Illusion of Dichotomy”, which I felt was very relevant for this article.
“Form and meaning are inextricably connected: form derives from meaning, and meaning manifests itself from form. Since the two are the outward and inward aspects of a single reality, each is important in it’s own way. But for most people, the danger lies in giving too more importance to form and not understanding that it derives its existence and significance from meaning.” (24, Chitticks)
The values of society have sadly made artists care more about their form than their meaning, the objectification of themselves rather than the quality of their work and their messages. It is these pressures of society that sometimes seem to take away this connection between the artists’ meaning and their form. Instead the artists’ form becomes a manifestation of societal expectations. This danger, of giving too much importance to the form than to the meaning, is something that both artists and their audience have to make sure they make an effort to become aware of.
In an effort to take this article full circle, let’s go back to Lil Kim. I truly believe that though Lil Kim tampered with her physical appearance, she has always held onto her talent. Her lyrical skills have never lacked in the face of changing face; never falling victim to the same inadequate feelings as her beauty did. Lil Kim will never be forgotten for that beautiful, boisterous, bold black female that she is, even if she’s changed her shell to live up to the expectations of what she thinks this fucked up country wants her to be. I believe we’re all struggling with belonging and feeling, and remaining, relevant, in some way or another. I just hope Lil Kim still believes that her heart is beautiful like she did in 1997.