If there's anyone taking creative control during quarantine, it's Kehlani.
With the release of her album It Was Good Until It Wasn't back in May, the 25-year-old singer has been proactive in making sure the pandemic doesn't derail her year with the release of quarantine videos to accompany her singles. Her latest, for "Can I," has an important message. Directed by Kehlani herself and Sebastian Sdaigui, the R&B star takes a horny turn into the web space as she watches a number of cam girls at work.
The video definitely matches the song, with risqué lyrics like: "Call me over 'cause I go hard / Sweet lil' bih, f*ck like a porn star." But as nasty as the song and video is, at the core it's a celebration of an oft-disparaged group of people: sex workers.
The singer even made sure to note on her instagram the importance of supporting sex workers with this heartfelt message: "support sex workers!!!! ESPECIALLY BLACK TRANS SEX WORKERS. the most vulnerable. sex workers deserve proper pay, protection, and to exist in their careers without consistent shame & violence."
The video ends with an even more powerful message from writer and activist Da'Shaun Harrison: "SEX WORK is a political term that covers and embraces: street-level prostitution, erotic dancing, camera work, adult film, agency escorting, sensual messages, dominatrix work, and all other occupations through which one sells their sexual(-ized) services to clients. It is a legitimate form of labor that must be decriminalized so as to function as a safe form of work for all sex workers. It is often the lives and livelihoods of those who do street-level work that is impacted by criminalizing policies and cultural stigmatization. Overwhelmingly, those folks are Black trans women, Black cisgender women, and other Black queer and trans people — including youth. Black people—as well as Indigenous people and other people of color — deserve to be able to perform sex work without any limitations or stigmas attached, and this means that everyone must commit to learning from sex workers about sex work and sex workers' needs."
Women artists have been profiting off of selling sex appeal and what some might call sex worker aesthetics for decades. Recent chart hits from Doja Cat's "Cybersex" to Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion's "WAP" revel in female sexual autonomy and freedom. (While women artists have always sung and rapped about sex, male rappers have always employed video vixens to star in their sexually charged visuals that heavily borrow from the sex worker aesthetic as well.)
But Kehlani aside, it's rare to see women artists publicly stand with real life sex workers. In fact, they often speak out against them. Instead of receiving support for their profession, sex workers — especially those that are Black, disabled and trans — are often met with ridicule in the punchlines of rap songs by women who themselves have garnered a following based on music that sells a certain type of sex.
There's multiple layers of irony at work when Nicki Minaj raps about sexual liberation, including the ironically-titled "Rich Sex," but in the same breath condemns those may actually have sex for money. "I didn't realize how many girls were modern-day prostitutes," she once told Elle. "Whether you're a stripper, or whether you're an Instagram girl — these girls are so beautiful and they have so much to offer. But I started finding out that you give them a couple thousand dollars, and you can have sex with them. I was like, 'Yikes."
Minaj was attempting to take accountability for her role in the selling of sex appeal machine that controls the music industry, but the message gets lost and comes off as whorephobic, hating and demeaning sexually active people who are oftentimes going to be sex workers.
Minaj continued with another lopsided message: "I'd rather you be called snobby or a bitch or conceited — I'd rather you be called that than easy, and a ho, and a slut."
The degradation doesn't stop there. In her hit single "My Type," rapper Saweetie ridicules women who sleep with me to get their rent paid in the midst of a song where she explicitly says she only dates men with money: "You the type that's f*ckin' for the rent (you a th*t) / All on another n*gga d*ck (on the d*ck)."
The urge for rappers to distinguish themselves from working women runs deep. On her debut album, Cardi B, a former stripper from New York, made sure to note that she never sold vagina to make a dollar: "They gave a b*tch two options: strippin' or lose / Used to dance in a club right across from my school / I said "dance" not "fuck", don't get it confused."
What's most confusing about Cardi trying to clarify her position on the sex worker totem poll is that stripping is a form of sex work. Why does she then feel the need to shame those women who might sell sex and strip?
The trend of women entertainers borrowing heavily from the hoe aesthetic while playing into respectability politics isn't new. In a 2009 article for the Journal of Black Studies, academic Matthew Oware presents the argument that even though rap provides an escape for marginalized and oppressed groups, like Black women, there are very "high numbers of female self-objectification, self-exploitation, and derogatory and demeaning lyrics about women in general." Oware reasons that when women rappers degrade and belittle other women, that nullifies the empowering message and upholds male notions of what a "good woman" is.
The degradation of sex workers is a form of whoreaphobia that many of our most successful entertainers still need to unpack. Sex work is a form a legitimate work that deserves the same level of respect as any job. Escorts, cam girls and porn stars get up everyday and put their bodies on the line with the intention to provide for themselves and family.
When women entertainers take part in the shaming and devaluing of legitimate work, it creates even more barriers for sex workers to establish safe spaces to talk openly about their work. Many of us will never understand what it means to risk jail everyday for simply trying to survive, so why in turn are we so quick to minimize their personhood?
2020 will forever be remembered as the year women in rap ran the singles, albums and streaming charts. It's been a celebration of women empowerment everywhere we look. At the height of so much female supremacy, it's worth noting that many entertainers continue to dismiss certain women that don't fit the purity politics mold from such empowerment.
If so many women rappers continue to affirm their music is meant to uplift all women, that should include the very women that laid the sexually liberated blueprint we all have the choice of following today.