02 July 2014

On Robin Thicke, White Male Privilege and the Black Female Body

In 12 Years a Slave  there's a scene where Michael Fassbender's Master Epps corners Lupita Nyong'o's Patsey and desperately whispers and moans his desire for her as he slowly rapes her. The scene is unflinching and Steve McQueen shows us every moment of Patsey's torture and Epp's mental instability. He's caught between a heinous desire and shame for wanting this woman whom he ultimately views as a work-horse. By the time Patsey begs Solomon to take her life, we are there with her. Anything to get her away from this man.

About a week ago, Robin Thicke released his music video for the single "Get Her Back" off his new album Paula. The album is a seeming ode to his estranged wife Paula Patton whom he separated with in February. In the video, Thicke presents himself as a battered man, broken by his love for this woman. He is desperate, he is in love, he is baring his soul (and their private messages), why won't she love him back?

Much has been written about the abuser dynamics and the public shaming Thicke is attempting with this album but what of the issues of privilege and power being played out here?

Thicke has built most of his career on emulating the sound and style of Black musicians, even going as far as to allegedly steal from the legendary Marvin Gaye without giving him credit. Thicke has engaged in a level of privilege that so many White artists have. He has the ability to take the parts of Black culture that suit him and profit off of them while discarding the rest. Furthermore, that privilege was bolstered by his Black wife. She gave him the "street cred" to push the boundaries of Black culture to its excesses. Patton and her assets have been heavily featured in his music videos adding to his cachet for snagging one of the "baddest" Black women in the entertainment industry. Therefore, Paula (and Paula) becomes a lamentation not only about lost love but lost power. And Thicke has been aggressively seeking to gain that power back. The video, his numerous pleas onstage and on the radio for her forgiveness, all of these have been met with silence by Patton yet he continues to push her to forgive through public acts of shaming. These actions show a lack of respect for her as a person and the public nature of them alludes to Thicke's sense of entitlement. He can air their personal business for the world because he is the aggrieved party. He can pick apart their lives publicly because as a White man he is entitled to feel his feelings without fear or shame. Patton is not awarded the same leeway. 

And our society is complicit in this entitlement. Just today Robin Thicke went on Hot97 to talk about Paula and Paula (the album and this relationship are inextricably linked so expect it to come up for the next 6 months to a year while he promotes and tours with this music) and his "woe is me tale" was met with this reaction from The Source online: 
"Poor Robin do you think Paula should take him back?  It’s pretty evident that he is sincerely sorry. The two have known each other since high school."
What is our measure of "sincerely sorry"? Does his apology trump her feelings? Historically, yes. At the very least, we know that his need to "make something artistic out of a very difficult time" trumps her personal privacy.

So in his desperation to get his wife back, Thicke continues to make his career off of her. This time using their personal life as fodder for his watered down R&B music. If he can't have her physically, the remnants of their relationship will be the fuel for his next round of hits. And he will continue to reap the benefits of her body. As Thicke said in his video when it comes to Paula, "this is only the beginning."

*Note: At the time of writing this, Thicke had not yet released the second video of the album "Still, Madly, Crazy" which is equally disturbing.