Commentary | The politics of shade: J. Cole, hip-hop, and the hue complex

Delving into the perpetuation of gendered shadeism as displayed in J. Cole’s videos

I am probably one of the biggest hip-hop heads you will ever meet and I secretly want to be a rapper. But since having put the production of my (non-existent) mixtape on a momentary pause, I’ve found myself archiving the semi-commercial, underground, new school hip-hop artistry scene. While for the past three years I have come across some greats, there’s always been only one has always stood as the top played artist on my iTunes: J Cole. I can still talk about his music for days, months, years even, especially when discussing it from a feminist lens.

I want to consider two specific videos from J. Cole’s hip-hop repertoire, exploring the existence of (get ready for it…) shadeism. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, it refers to a form of oppression that, according to an excellent documentary entitled Shadeism directed by Nayani Thiyagarajah, can be defined as “the discrimination that exists between the lighter-skinned and darker-skinned members of the same community.”

I want to look at the perpetuation of shadeism within the black community as maintained through hip-hop, exploring how the women of darker shades featured in Cole’s videos are hypersexualized compared to the lighter-skinned women he features. I chose to explore “In The Morning” and “Can’t Get Enough” because both songs, lyrically, are essentially giving the same message: the sexual attractiveness of females in general, and of the ones present in the video. The songs are arguably on equal footing, and thus I will highlight the differences in the way the women in “Can’t Get Enough” were portrayed versus the woman in “In The Morning.”

First, I’ll take up J. Cole’s “In The Morning.” While I don’t deny that the main female love/sex interest is sexualized – and some may argue even hypersexualized – her role as the sole and focal female of the video, I argue, de-hypersexualises her, especially in relation to the women in the other video. In this video, we see that the central female, who is clearly of lighter skin, is depicted as Cole’s potential “girlfriend” or specific “love interest.” This depiction is affirmed several times: first, when she’s given special entrance backstage after watching Cole’s performance, and is later seen seated under J. Cole’s arm; second, when Cole exclusively introduces her to Drake.

This personalized, interactive and heightened status as his sole potential love interest is paramount to understanding how shadeism is at work here. Her potential for girlfriend status de-hypersexualizes her. Rather than being merely a “hit in the morning,” her girlfriend potential allows for a “hypersexualized transcendence,” of sorts. It transforms her from a state of immobile sexual objectivity to one of mobile potential girlfriend subjectivity – a mobility evident in the physical movements of the varying females in both videos. The lighter-skinned woman literally moves throughout the entire video: she walks with Cole, she dances to Cole, et cetera. The darker-skinned women in “Can’t Get Enough,” however, are seen dancing in one position, and only experience movement when they’re relocated from the yacht to the beach, and back. Thus, the women of this video, who are predominantly of darker skin, do not experience this same hypersexualized, active transcendence.

I’ll now explore “Can’t Get Enough.” Both this video, and J. Cole, have received great praise for the significant use of darker-skinned women throughout the video, something that has become more and more absent in the rap video of today.

We are introduced to the women of this video in very impersonal shots in which they are shown dripping in water, wearing swimsuits. Mere visual objects of stimulation, these women, unlike the main female in the former video, receive no personal interaction with Cole – no introductions, no arm on the shoulder, nothing. Rather, they are positioned dancing on a yacht while Trey Songz blurts terms like, “mistress” and “hoe” during their shots. There is even a point where Songz, when saying “hoe,” opens his arms to indicate he’s referring to the women – predominantly dark-skinned women – at his back. No joke.

Thus, unlike the prior video, the women of “Can’t Get Enough” do not experience a personalized, interactive element, such as the one the lighter-skinned woman in “In The Morning” experiences by being characterised as the “potential girlfriend.” These darker-skinned women experience no “hypersexualized transcendence.” Rather, they become increasingly hypersexualized throughout the video, seen bouncing, wining and gyrating on the beach behind Cole.

While some may characterize this difference as coincidental, that it just so happens that “Can’t Get Enough” has darker-skinned women and “In The Morning” has a lighter-skinned woman, I’d like to refrain from such foolery. Not to say, however, that it was intentional. I simply wanted to show how a close read of hip-hip videos (even from, comparatively speaking, more enlightened and socially conscious rappers such as J. Cole) can, and still do, perpetuate and reassert shadeism. This trend is not only demonstrated by having lighter-skinned women portrayed in interactive and more personalized positions, but also by depicting darker-skinned women as impersonal, hypersexual objects of mere aesthetic validation.

Tyrone Speaks is a column written by Christiana Collison on the subject of black feminism. It appears every other Wednesday in commentary. You can email her at tyronespeaks@mcgilldaily.com.


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