How Salt-N-Pepa's 'Blacks' Magic' Gave Me A Blueprint For Feminism
NPR Music's Turning the Tables is a project envisioned to challenge sexist and exclusionary conversations about musical greatness. Up until now we have focused on overturning conventional, patriarchal best-of lists and histories of popular music. But this time, it's personal. For 2021, we're digging into our own relationships to the records we love, asking: How do we know as listeners when a piece of music is important to us? How do we break free of institutional pressures on our taste while still taking the lessons of history into account? What does it mean to make a truly personal canon? The essays in this series will excavate our unique relationships with the albums we love, from unimpeachable classics by major stars to subcultural gamechangers and personal revelations. Because the way that certain music comes to hold a central place in our lives isn't just a reflection of how we develop our taste, but how we come to our perspective on the world.
I don't remember the specific choreography I invented for "Expression," the first single off Salt-N-Pepa's third and nearly perfect album Blacks' Magic, but given the era — '89, '90 — I am certain it was big, full-bodied and probably involved the Running Man. There is no record of this, as I was a bedroom-confined tween imagining music videos on a stage of cream-colored carpet, my audience a doe-eyed Maltese Terrier my mom and I called Chip. But I know I was dancing to match the mic attack of Cheryl "Salt" James and Sandra "Pepa" Denton, who, along with their compatriot DJ Deidra "Spinderella" Roper, had blasted their way into the American consciousness a few years prior with the indelible and ubiquitous "Push It," gold doorknocker earrings and shiny spandex catsuits in tow. They were pop but they were hard, exemplifying the false equivalence between "femininity" and "softness," and putting down classic MC bluster over beats meant for the dancefloor. Or the tween bedroom floor. The patina of Blacks' Magic, and specifically the strength in which Salt-N-Pepa delivered their many messages on it, gave a lonely Mexican Wyoming girl a blueprint for a confidence I didn't inherently possess.
As a kid, I simply adored Salt-N-Pepa, superstars to the hilt: their self-certain voices, their jaunty dance moves, their bright leather bomber jackets. "Push It" was always on the radio, an ambient memory of an era that imprinted itself on my brain, but my favorite early track of theirs was the A-side, "Tramp." I first heard it in a dance class circa 1987 at the Masonic Temple in Cheyenne, in a building with a dusty burnished wood staircase which seemed glamorous enough that I believed I was being set up for a future as a child back-up dancer for Janet Jackson. (Because you are reading this, it seems fairly clear that I was not.) Contrary to my favorite album Control, though, "Tramp" and its bassline, sampled from Otis Redding and Carla Thomas but whittled way down, blew my 10-year-old brain wide open. It wasn't the first hip-hop track I ever heard — that might have been Kurtis Blow's "Basketball" or something from the movie Breakin' — but it's the first memory I have of the rush of hearing an avant-garde sound from what I assumed was space, mesmerizing and disorienting as I tried to perform jetés and the Smurf across the floor. I wanted to hear what these women were saying, to understand the mystery of what the lyrics meant. Too young to truly comprehend a song about snaky male libido, I settled on hypnosis, fixated on their unison timbres and the unflinching chorus, a single word: TRRRAMP.
By Blacks' Magic, though, I was old enough to get it, and so it blew open my brain in a different way. The tracks hit a zeitgeist moment that not only examined the intersections of Black women's pride ("Negro Wit' an Ego," "Blacks' Magic") and predicted the sexual agency that women would increasingly demand throughout the 1990s ("Do You Want Me"), but also helped demystify the terror that was the AIDS crisis ("Let's Talk About Sex"/"Let's Talk About AIDS"). At that young age, too, the album embedded a keen sense of sexism long before I knew there was a term for it, through simple, biting lines that got me thinking about how women, especially Black women, had to prove themselves doubly: "I'm not the man, but I wear the britches" ("You Showed Me"), "Spinderella / She's not a fella but she's a pro ("Doper Than Dope"), and on "Negro Wit An Ego," a full stanza on being pulled over by the cops for driving while Black:
Behind the wheel of this car, it must be narcotics
How else could she have got it?
A brown-skinned female with two problems to correct
Wrong color, wrong sex
I played the cassette over and over in my bedroom, choreographing my little dances to the whole of it while absorbing its message by osmosis.
Even the creation of Blacks' Magic was an instructional blueprint for striking out on one's own path without a male appendage: By that point, Salt, Pepa and Spinderella had grown weary of producer Hurby "Luv Bug" Azor's thumb on their careers (they would later accuse him of bilking their royalties), and the ebullient "Expression" was the first song that Salt ever wrote and produced for the group. Her writing bookends the album: If "Expression" is a bold statement painting Salt-N-Pepa's inclusive, open approach to individuality, then outro "Independent" states plain their desire to break free, not just from Luv Bug but from the stereotypes put upon Black women in the waning years of the 20th century. "Independent" is largely a statement of financial self-reliance in the context of romantic relationships, but it's also hard not to read some frustration with Luv Bug in biting bars such as this one, from Salt, who had dated him:
Ya had to cross me, and now you lost me
Get off me softy, I'm the boss, see?
You can't disguise the lies in your eyes, you're not a heartbreaker
You're a fraud, and I'm bored, you're a fake faker
It's too late to debate with the moneymaker
After while, crackhead, see ya later, gator
They were a group of superstars at the precipice of full control over their futures and simultaneously, though likely not by coincidence, making their best work yet. "Expression" remains one of their most impactful tracks to me, if only for the presence of Pepa's iconic bar, which remains a kind of lifelong mantra, rolling like the cassette I had on loop: "Yes, I'm blessed, and I know who I am / I express myself on every jam / I'm not a man, but I'm in command / Hot damn, I got an all-girl band." It was a plainly spoken mission statement that wove itself through the album, in part as a retort to the harder male rappers at the time who sought to disrespect them because they were too pop, a sentiment that also comes through in the hard "Doper Than Dope," where Salt-N-Pepa owned exactly what they were. I don't quite remember how it hit me in the moment, but in later years revisiting the album, I lasered onto that bar like my life depended on it, repeating it in my mind every time a man at work tried, or tries, to undermine or harass me. I still repeat it when I need to amass the courage to speak up or fire back: Yes, I'm blessed. And I know who I am. I express myself on every jam. I'm not a man but I'm in command. Hot damn, I got an all-girl band.
Blacks' Magic became Salt-N-Pepa's second platinum album, and in retrospect, it's remarkable that so much of its character is rooted in pushing back against all sides, considering how successful the group was at the time. But the way the trio bucked their naysayers came from a deep sense of self-respect and reflected the essence of hip-hop itself: resilience in adversity.
When I say now that Salt-N-Pepa taught me the building blocks of what I would eventually recognize as feminism, I don't mean to exaggerate or deploy hyperbole for the sake of an argument. Throughout their careers, the three members have been scions of agency both in hip-hop and across the music industry, their demeanor of strong, streetwise women eventually permeating U.S. culture decades before the current, glorious explosion of famous women rappers. Leading a pack that included Queen Latifah, MC Lyte and Yo-Yo, Salt-N-Pepa cut through the bluster of the male artists of their era, peeling back the motivations of running game on a woman and expressly noting that no one had time for all that. Most mesmerizing, they comported themselves with a bold sense of self-respect, owning their sexuality but with an uncompromising stance. Later, I came to realize that Blacks' Magic shaped my own sense of individuality and self-sufficiency — that being a "weird" kid in a conservative state like Wyoming could be a point of pride, and that one day I could and would move to the city that fostered Salt-N-Pepa's perspectives — but also that those characteristics are better in numbers, particularly when your creative endeavor is shared in communion with your best girlfriends. Blacks' Magic's confidence and communality strikes me now as the way I relate to feminism, with an emphasis not on the individual but for the benefit of the whole — the way Salt and Pepa traded bars equally, shouted out Spinderella at every opportunity and generally presented as a crew bonded by trust and belief in one another. Growing up in a Mexican-American family with three generations of matriarchs who weren't educated about feminism as an American social movement but inherently practiced its tenets on a regular basis, to me this was Blacks' Magic's most formative reinforcement: that it's stronger in numbers, works best as a collective and means you always stand up for your girls.
Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is a Xicana writer and editor and the former editor-in-chief of Jezebel. She is currently writing a book about hypermasculinity and the American West.
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