Black Feminist in Public is a series of conversations between creative Black women and Janell Hobson, a Ms. scholar whose work focuses on the intersections of history, popular culture and representations of women of African descent.
Los Angeles based singer, activist and spiritual coach Monique DeBose has a new song dedicated to all women of color. Released on Friday, “Brown Beauty” is a Black feminist anthem and the latest project of the versatile artist who also hosts the podcast MORE with Monique.
Ms.’s Janell Hobson had an opportunity to chat with DeBose about her new single, which is also part of an online challenge, with the #BrownBeauty hashtag celebrating women of color each week—modeled after the “Jet Beauty of the Week” feature in the now-defunct African American Jet magazine.
Hobson: You call yourself a “transformational entertainer.” Could you say more about that?
DeBose: I have always believed that in creating art, it’s for the purpose of transformation. It’s for the purpose of having people ask questions of themselves and their society that they may not have already been asking. It’s a tool to help change the cells inside of people, so that’s why I say that most real artists are transformational entertainers. Because they put their heart and soul into their work with the intention of moving people.
I was just making it more explicit to have a distinction between art that moves and changes you from putting out pop sugar music. I couldn’t do that if I tried!
Hobson: When you mention “pop sugar music,” what is your relationship to the more mainstream music industry? What are your thoughts on representations of Black women in music?
DeBose: I think there are some amazing figures in music right now—Black women specifically. I mean honestly, I’m also very interested in having my music out in the mainstream. I think there is a lot of good that comes when Black women are shown, so I have no problems with that, and I’m actually on that journey myself as an independent creative. But I’m past the age where I’ll do whatever I need to do to make sure that people see me. I want to be in front of those who I know will be fed from what I’m doing. I can’t do that other stuff just to get attention.
Hobson: What led you to make “Brown Beauty”?
DeBose: I wrote “Brown Beauty” quite a few years ago, maybe like 2016. And it was a love letter to brown girls, and when I wrote it specifically, I was writing it for myself as somebody who comes from a mixed background, somebody who has an African American dad and Irish American mother. I was speaking to my experiences as a mixed-race person who has to live in multiple worlds on the daily.
I don’t have that privilege—if it is a privilege—of getting to choose a group or just be with a collective. That feeling of being in-between and being a bridge, the song speaks not only to the mixed-race woman but to any woman of color, any Black woman who lives in cultures where white is dominant, or where we are the minority. This song to me acknowledges the journey of a woman living in double consciousness and having to masterfully navigate multiple worlds. It just celebrates her courage and her mastery.
Hobson: We need more songs like this, like yours or Beyoncé’s “Brown Skin Girl.”
DeBose: My intention with this song was to put it out at this point in time as just a celebration. I feel like for so long, we have not had the spaces and the public squares to just celebrate and acknowledge ourselves. If we’ve done it, it’s had to be in enclosed circles, and at this point, I’m ready now to just have it be out in public in a way that like has no shame has no trepidation, no insecurity. That to me feels like the next level for me personally, and I feel like there are a lot of women who also are taking these next steps.
“My intention with this song was to put it out at this point in time as just a celebration. I feel like for so long, we have not had the spaces and the public squares to just celebrate and acknowledge ourselves.”
Hobson: Was there any specific incident or event that inspired this song?
DeBose: Yes, it wasn’t necessarily outward facing—it was more inward facing. I was given the diagnosis of a tumor in my abdominal wall in late 2016. So I decided to start having conversations with the tumor, and what the tumor shared with me was that you have so many pieces that you need to put out and you’re just silencing yourself, you keep erasing yourself. You have all these creative projects and all these messages that you need to get out, but you’re afraid that people will shame you or banish you and you can’t do that anymore, all that energy has nowhere to go.
So it is me. That’s a whole preamble to the collection of music that I wrote at that time, and one of the pieces was speaking to my own self and my own identity and really owning it and seeing the beauty in it versus seeing it as an issue or a problem.
Hobson: Wow! I’m amazed at your ability to speak to your tumor that way!
DeBose: I have complete peace with it because I know there’s so much wisdom in each of our bodies if we’re willing to listen to it. This song did its job in healing me. I do believe music is medicine.
“There’s so much wisdom in each of our bodies if we’re willing to listen to it. This song did its job in healing me. I do believe music is medicine.”
Hobson: And here I thought your song was about color politics and colorism!
DeBose: I don’t think it directly addresses colorism. I think what it addresses is any woman who has been marginalized who has had the charge of celebrating herself and owning herself in a space that hasn’t welcomed her.
Hobson: So brown beauty is less about the external and more about the internal.
DeBose: Absolutely. It’s part of a larger project called ‘You are Sovereign,’ an eclectic album that will come out at the end of August.
Hobson: Who are your biggest music influences?
DeBose: My biggest influences are women, women of color. Who jumps out first honestly is Ella Fitzgerald. She was the first person I ever heard that I liked what we was doing. There is also Tracy Chapman who was an important influence as a young person growing up. Meshell Ndegeocello, I just love everything about who she is in the world.
And then going back to jazz, Sarah Vaughn is somebody who really spoke to me just because of what I understood her to be as a woman on stage, just a woman owning herself in that space. I adore Jill Scott, Erykah Badu. Those are some of the folks. Of course, Marvin Gaye. And Nina Simone is somebody who has really influenced and educated me as an artist.
Hobson: What are you hoping in terms of the impact of your album, your song?
DeBose: I am honestly hoping that people feel like they’ve been seen, that they’re not alone. It really is to own more of who they are and to really celebrate who they are. I want people to feel like they’ve been seen to me. That’s the most important because so many of us walk around feeling erased and invisible. The erasure happens in culture, but at some point, we start finding ways to make ourselves small and to erase ourselves, and so, for me, I want this to get people to look at themselves and say you know what? I am worth taking up space. I am worth taking up time. I am worth bringing what I have to the conversation and it’s valuable. I know that has nothing to do with music, but it has everything to do with music for me.
“I want people to feel like they’ve been seen. … So many of us walk around feeling erased and invisible. … At some point, we start finding ways to make ourselves small and to erase ourselves, and so, for me, I want this to get people to look at themselves and say you know what? I am worth taking up space. I am worth taking up time.”
Hobson: How does taking up space relate to your own role as an independent music artist?
DeBose: I feel like there’s a lot of space to take up right now, because I feel like with the “health” pandemic—and I’m only air-quoting health because there were so many other pandemics that were happening, with the racial reckoning—but with this pandemic, I feel like it was an opportunity for all of us to take a moment and recalibrate what is important to me and how do I want to live my life. I feel like everybody got a chance to pause on some level, and people are looking for ways to feel more connected to themselves, ways to have more autonomy in themselves.
That’s what this music offers, so as an independent artist, I feel blessed in a way that I don’t have people saying, ‘Look, this is how you make the money from it.’
Hobson: What would your advice be to anyone who wanted to pursue music?
DeBose: Know what you want to say but know what message you want to deliver. Sometimes we have a calling and knowing that we’re meant to do something, but we may not have the clear language, it may not be in focus.
So if you don’t know what you want to say, my advice is be willing to really be vulnerable within yourself and see what comes out. To me, that feels really important. And then surround yourself with other amazing collaborators. Music is not something that is meant to be made alone. It’s just so much more enriched when it’s done in community.
Also, get clarity around what your actual goals are. Do you want to be famous, or do you want to make music? Lastly, trust your creative process.