Column: Pop Culture is Dead, Consider I Killed It by Sarah DeSouza
Author’s Note: This column was written on January 7, 2020 prior to Summer Walker’s recent xenophobic and serophobic (discrimination against people with HIV/AIDS) comments. Please take this article at face value, as a commentary on the mental health and wellness of Black womxn, and not as support of this kind of rhetoric.
Before dropping the remix of her song “Girls Need Love” featuring Drake in February 2019, Summer Walker was barely popping. She remained relatively quiet until this past fall, with the release of her single “Playing Games” and debut of her first album “Over It.” Summer became an overnight sensation – the album, at its peak, hitting #2 album on the Billboard 200 and #1 on the Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop charts – not to mention beating out Beyoncé’s Lemonade for the title of most streamed album by a female R&B artist ever.
Along with shattering records and earning nominations, Summer quickly amassed a large and dedicated fan base. As her tour picked up, however, fans were quick to call out a timid and unaffectionate Summer, who differed from her extroverted Instagram persona. Soon after that, Summer canceled 20 of the 29 tour dates, citing her social anxiety and the importance of prioritizing mental health and wellness. And when it came to the performances she did keep, she angered fans by being three hours late to her Toronto show. Fans were unempathetic on every front, unable to understand how posting on the gram, twerking in the strip club, etc. were all things she could do while not being able to perform, despite Summer being open about her struggles throughout.
In the first few months of her stardom, Summer Walker has been criticized, misunderstood, memed and even canceled for her social anxiety, all while being candid about her mental health and how her success has only exacerbated previous conditions. Her health has been consistently scrutinized and dismissed as just a consequence of success in the industry. However, when it came to emo rap and its artists, those same critics weren’t as quick to judge.
Beginning on SoundCloud in the mid-late 2010s and inspired by hip hop artists like Kanye West, Kid Cudi and Drake, the conversation surrounding mental health has emerged in the music scene with the craze of emo rap. From 2017 to 2018, the genre grew in popularity by 292 percent according to Spotify, launching Juice WRLD as Spotify’s breakout artist of 2018. Credited with reviving the timelessness of emo rock and the “feelings of angst, frustration and powerlessness” it was famous for, emo rap features artists like XXXentacion, Lil Uzi Vert, Juice WRLD, among others, who have normalized battles against depression, suicidal thoughts and tendencies, addiction, etc. and allowed their followers to not feel alone in their own struggles.
On the other hand, emo rap has also produced a culture that idolizes the “sad boy wave” and coping mechanisms like abusing hard drugs to avoid dealing with poor mental health. This is also something we’ve seen tragically play out with the deaths of artists like Juice WRLD and Lil Peep, so much so that the Department of Justice has blamed the genre for “glorify[ing] opioid use.” Male artists have been allowed to pour out these feelings in their music, even crediting social media as facilitating that candor, and yet Summer is disallowed that outlet, critiqued and mocked for operating in a realm supposedly for everyone.
Ari Lennox, another breakout R&B artist of the year, has also voiced similar concerns about the industry bolstering her depression and the necessity of quitting to “save her sanity.” The neglect of Black womxn and their mental health has not escaped them, despite fame and the new normalization of conversations surrounding mental health. We tell Black womxn they have to be strong, they have to be magic, but we never tell them it is okay to just be -alive-. We never complain when Selena Gomez and Ariana Grande take mental health breaks to sustain their careers and sanity, but when Summer suggests such a break, she is villainized for not being appropriately grateful for her success.
Emo rappers have been praised for doing exactly what these womxn have been doing – baring their struggles for all the world to see – but Black womxn are subjected to being the strong Black womxn at all times. Our openness about struggling is only allowed in apology. It is not allowed during the struggle itself. No one is praising Black womxn for maintaining our sanity, especially in a world that is anticipating our failure. With our own burdens to bear, we are also burdened by having to consider everyone else and their feelings. Summer is right when she says this is not what she signed up for, all for making music. According to the bois, though, she doesn’t get to be sad.