please, critique me.
my growth depends on it
There are many instances in our lives in which we allow space for critiques. Our grades at school, performance reviews at work, ratings on products and services if we run businesses, and if you're anyone who has gone to school for writing, design, or fine art, critiques are an essential part of your creative development and academic advancement. Certainly, there are instances in which we should leave our critiques to ourselves (and perhaps not even have them at all), specifically when we are critiquing things that disregard the humanity and worth of people. Critiques about bodies, sexuality, gender, race, skin tone, disabilities, and pretty much anything associated with an -ism seldom come from a space of wanting to participate in thoughtful discourse as much as they are byproducts of living and participating in a hierarchy that only values people who look, present, and behave a very specific way. In fact, I wouldn’t even consider them critiques so much as they are blatant criticism coming from a space of negativity.
While some may believe we're living in a time where we've become more socially aware than ever thanks to the internet and to a larger degree, social media, the concept of critiques (which can arguably lead to more awareness) having positive value seems to elude many of us. Whether it is calling in a prominent figure for making problematic comments, critiquing the work of a beloved musician who missed the mark on their latest single, or asking hard questions about how we may be complicit in things that cause other people harm, critiques are always met with someone ready to counter them without considering the validity of them.
I'll give you a personal example. An old friend of mine was a massive Nicki Minaj fan, or Barb as they like to be called for some reason. In the few times I hung out with her, either with friends or alone, Nicki always seemed to be brought up. If you know me, you know I'm pretty vocal about my stance on Nicki Minaj, and that stance has remained consistent: while I will never take away her impact and the level of talent she has, in terms of artistry and originality, I feel that she has not evolved nor done anything particularly cutting edge to warrant the title as "Queen of Rap". Queen of the charts? Perhaps, but even that is debatable as more women in hip hop are finding commercial success (and I won't deny that Nicki is a catalyst for the reemergence of female rap domination, but some could argue that Cardi B also plays a hand in this). If your era of domination existed in a time where the industry subscribed to the idea that there could only be one prominent woman rapper, if you can only maintain your success through inciting crazed stans to not just stream your music but also bully your perceived competitors, then how much of a Queen are you, really? Now, I know many people will disagree with this take but understand that I grew up in the 90s during the golden era of women in rap, and one thing I will not do is validate a revisionist history that suggests that Nicki Minaj is the most impactful, most talented and trailblazing woman MC when Missy Elliot, Lil' Kim, Queen Latifah and a host of others are right there. One could argue that without those women, Nicki Minaj would've never been a household name, especially when you consider how much of her work is derivative of that era.
Now, back to the Barb friend. I got to a point where I fully accepted we would never agree on our takes about Nicki, it wasn't until I had a gathering at my place with some other friends (ones who are far less outspoken and opinionated than I am), that I witnessed her going toe-to-toe with them about Nicki. For the most part, I just sat back and watched. I had already had these conversations with her and so, I was mostly just amused by the scenario. What could've been a pretty standard conversation discussing our musical opinions (something I've done with all of my friends without it becoming heated) turned into a contentious one-sided debate in which she not only invalidated every single point everyone was making but talked over everyone (which makes me wonder if she even heard what they said) and called anyone who doesn't like Nicki Minaj "a hater". This is what having valid critiques on social media feels like these days. Rarely do you find people who oppose your viewpoint who engage with you from a place of curiosity, it is often a defensive, contentious exchange in which one person can't believe you think what you think. That disbelief clouds the person's ability to fully process what is being said and it ends up being extremely unproductive as a result.
I will not sit on my high horse and pretend like I haven't been on the other end of this, it is something I've worked towards being more mindful of in recent years. I try to replace my opinions with questions--- "what informs this person's critique?", "what do I have to lose by not getting this person to agree with me?", "is this engagement helping me to have a deeper understanding?". Because I ask these questions, I find myself disengaging once I realize a conversation is not headed in a direction that will lead to meaningful engagement. Recently, I've found myself more fulfilled with the conversations I have in real life. Not just because those conversations are happening with people who respect me and do not talk at me, but because IRL engagement reminds us of the humanity in other people in a way that digital exchanges cannot. It's clear to me that many people who argue with others on the internet forget that they're talking to real people, they instead approach conversations like they are talking to ideas, abstractions. Having discourse in real life (hopefully) forces us to listen and think more before responding. You can't just go in on someone in a multi-tweet tirade, you have to present your thoughts and opinions in a way that is measured and lucid if you want someone to see your point of view (this is particularly and painfully true for Black women). I'm willing to bet that if most of the people who popped off on other people about their opinions and critiques in real life, they would look completely deranged, (they already do IMO).
Nicki Minaj is kind of an easy example to use because she is such a polarizing figure but in my mind, everyone should be subject to critique, ourselves included. Issa Rae, Beyoncé, Michelle Obama, AOC, even Mother Theresa have done or said things we could critique (I'm not using men as an example here because to me, it is obvious they should be critiqued). Critiques about Black artists and Black content specifically are important because they allow us to grow, and expand in spaces where we've been creatively stunted due to inauthentic representation and a lack of opportunities. To me, critiques about my faves come from a place of love, not hate. When we don't allow space for critique, we infantilize people in a way that suggests there is no more growing or evolving left for them to do which is literally never the case. I don't want that for myself or any of us.
Critiques have helped me grow as an artist, human, and partner in a way I certainly would not have if everyone around me just told me everything I was doing was perfect and great. In holding space for critiques, I've also learned that there is a way to receive and process them. Not every critique will be worth applying because oftentimes, critiques do not have the full context of what you are trying to do or convey (this is particularly true for art), but even if you don't apply them, it does not hurt you to consider them and more importantly, ask questions to fully understand them. In the early days of the pandemic, I was in a bi-weekly writer's group which was a safe space for women of color to have their work reviewed and critiqued. A lot of the notes were extremely helpful, even the notes I didn't apply because asking questions about those critiques helped me finetune what I was trying to say in my story through being more clear and illustrative.
When we lose our ability to interrogate the ideas we don't resonate with from a place of wanting to understand them, we miss out on an opportunity to hone in on our opposing thoughts and perhaps even expand or reconsider them. If anything, validating critiques and knowing which to take and which to discard gives us a stronger sense of our voice and our purpose. Now, I know this can be tricky territory because people love to pick and choose what is worth considering or what is not but the key is how we receive it. It is the difference between letting something marinate and letting something go over your head, and many people let things go over their heads because they are too afraid to see what is being thrown at them.
As good as critiques are for growth, I would be remiss to not mention how incredibly vulnerable critiques make me (and probably most people) feel but I recognize that vulnerability for what it is: ego. By critiquing me, nobody is saying that I'm a bad person, I'm bad at what I do, I do not have talent, I should stop believing in myself, in fact, I think it is the opposite. Loving critiques should be viewed as something that encourages us to keep going and continue to strive towards greatness because being a master at your craft or a human who is committed to their personal growth is not something you simply arrive at, it is a daily practice you commit yourself to. So, please critique me.
What I’m Watching
Truthfully, the only thing I’ve been watching lately is The Golden Girls but it’s been a minute since I’ve written a newsletter so, I’ll share one show you should be watching if you haven’t and that is Love Life: Season 2 on HBO Max (you can skip season 1 unless for some strange reason you’re fond of Anna Kendrick).
What I loved about this season was that it told the story of what many of us would associate as the nerdy Black guy, Marcus (expertly played by William Jackson Harper who I adored as Chidi on The Good Place) who dates white girls but reckons with that in a way that had less to do about race and being self-hating or anti-Black women and more about him confronting the ways in which he struggles with betraying his own desires and needs out of fear of being alone. It’s a f*ckboi tale but balanced out when he meets his match in Mia played by Jessica Williams. Now, I will say the chemistry between these two actors was a little “eh” at times but I enjoyed the story and got some good cackles and cringes throughout. Especially this clip:
Excuse the obnoxious cackle but he did look like a tree though 😭💀
What I’m Listening To
For some reason, I’ve really been into late 60s Jazz, Bossa Nova, and Samba lately. It’s very pleasant and atmospheric without trying to do too much. It especially seems to ground me when I need some background noise when working or doing stuff around the house. The playlist below is what I’ve been building on (don’t ask me about the name, I really just typed in the first thing I thought).
What I’m Reading
My 2021 reading challenge is to finish all of the books I have at home before buying any new ones, wish me luck! I got Red at The Bone at my favorite bookstore in the city, Housing Works and it’s the second book by Jacqueline Woodson I’ve read (the first one being the YA novel Another Brooklyn). Red at The Bone is about two Black families from different class backgrounds who navigate their children having a teen pregnancy. The themes in this novel range from mother-daughter relationships, Black wealth, class differences, and desire. What I find most relatable about the book is the way it showcases the vast differences in what wanting more for yourself means between the wealthy and the poor, there is also a lot in this book that suggests poverty forces people to be less sheltered both emotionally and physically than people who come from wealthy backgrounds. It’s interesting to see this kind of story through the lens of a wealthy Black family and a poor Black family because we typically only see this perspective from one or the other (and it is usually the latter). Showcasing this dichotomy and how each family showed up to support their children in different ways was refreshing.
Who I’m Supporting
Housing Works! Seriously, my favorite book store in the city (F*ck Strand!). Not just because they have a dope collection of books and a thrift store attached to it (also, one time I went and they were doing a bridal sale of gently used gowns) but because 100% of their profits go towards providing healthcare, housing, and legal services for people living with HIV/AIDS.
You can donate, buy a book or go shopping to support a great cause.
Drop your suggestions for music to listen to, things to watch, books to read, causes to support, or anything you’d like me to talk about in the next one.
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