** Spoiler Alert: Plot points from the Channel 4 TV series We Are Lady Parts revealed but of course you've watched it by now because it's bloody brilliant. **
At one point, in Nida Manzoor’s TV comedy series We Are Lady Parts, we find our heroine Amina (played by Anjana Vasan) sitting alone in the college cafeteria. It’s a common set-up in films. The college cafeteria has become the place to compare happy friendship groups with the existential dread of the outcast loner. Amina doesn’t fit in despite having tried very hard. She’s been shunned by her conservative Muslim sister-friends after they discover she is in a Muslim women's punk band. However, that same band has now imploded after being pummelled by some very public outrage. In the surreal musical language of this show, Amina suddenly elevates above the other students and begins to sing Radiohead’s achingly haunting anthem:
I’m a creep.
I’m a weirdo.
What the hell am I doing here?
I don’t belong here.
I don’t belong here.
It’s a great song choice. Creep was written in 1987 by Radiohead's then 18 year-old lead man Thom Yorke when he was in college himself and reeling from an unrequited love. When the song was released in 1992, the track spread like wild fire across US college campuses. Creep went on to become Radiohead’s most beloved track to the bands chagrin who can no longer bear the sound of it. On release neither could the BBC who banned the track for being too depressing. In its' time, the BBC has struck off quite a few songs usually for political or explicit content reasons. However this may have been the one time a track was banned for, essentially, being too Emo. Creep was loved and unloved for articulating a position that We Are Lady Parts explores well over its eight anarchic episodes - the agony of not fitting in.
Philosopher Bayo Akomolafe would I’m sure love Creep and We are Lady Parts for the very same reasons I do. Bayo studies what he calls the cracks within our existence. He recognises the gaps within our accepted identities as a kind of creative fugitivity. He believes these discomfiting parts of ourselves, and our cultures, are, in fact, the very parts we should pay attention to. If attended to, they could become our sanctuaries.
The women-only Muslim punk band Lady Parts is where guitar playing Amina finds sanctuary. Her experiences with this odd-ball group of misfits finally convince her to quit her disastrous attempts to become a good Muslim wife and embrace her artistry. This might sound like a simple narrative arc but Manzoor’s wise writing and the nuanced performances of the cast, show how complex that journey can be and also why many of us choose not to attempt it. In another endearing segment, Amina, pressured by her best friend, embarks on a series of disastrous dates while imagining herself the subject of a game show called 'Rate My Date' in which “a group of randomers” judge whether she will indeed make a good wife. This scene reminds how loud our internalised policing voices can become during that fragile, young adult period. As we step out of our schools and homes, the crippling fear of loneliness can force us back into uncomfortable, coddled communities. And it is there many of us live out our days.
In the middle of binge-watching this highly entertaining show, I drag myself out for some air. On my walk through the park I plug into hear African-American cultural critics and podcasters Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris elegantly pontificate the cultural effects of another, quite different, music track. Frankie Beverly and Maze's Before I Let Go is a much-loved 1981 soul classic and the Still Processing podcast episode explores how it serves as a unifying anthem for the African-American community. During the episode, various contributors describe the times they witnessed masses being summoned to dance floors by the track's distinctive opening chords and how the song moved people to connect and bond across generations. Wortham shared a particular memory of attending a party for queer Black New Yorkers. When the DJ played the song, their shoes, alongwith their New York cool, were abandoned in the rush to hit the dance floor. The group hit the high notes together, held hands and experienced that overwhelming sense of love and connection. Wortham adapts a word to describe the feeling that she experienced that night: She felt 'belonged'.
I've felt belonged too when that same song played in Black clubs in the UK. I’ve been transported on a high of swaying hands and bodies, uplifted by the blend of horns, wailing vocals and that reassuring two-step rhythm. It’s like a big serotonin injection.
I have also experienced what it’s like to witness that response happening in other people's bodies but not mine. Those bodies might even look like mine but mine remains unmoved because the music strains are foreign to me. I have felt hot and uncomfortable, itchy and embarrassed. Do I join in anyway and emptily mime what everyone else is singing? Do I tap the shoulder of the person next to me and ask politely for the name and origin of this song that everyone seems to know but me? Or do I stand there like Amina in the cafeteria showing just how far I exist outside this shared collective consciousness? Basically I’ve felt that warm sense of belonging but also the cold realness of unbelonging and both states seem to rely on each other.
It seems like African-American screenwriter Lena Waithe might be experiencing some of that cold realness too based on the public critiques of her behavior and work. Column inches and Twitter threads are being racked up in an effort to point out just where she is going wrong. Her projects are Black trauma porn and that’s not where Black audiences are at, say current aficionados of Black popular culture. More disturbingly, Waithe has been accused of supporting a male actor who was fired for sexual harassment rather than the black woman who accused him on one of her shows. She once made the glaring misdemeanour of suggesting that she drew more inspiration from white film directors than Black. In the strangest transgression, she was richly roasted for posting bizarre comments on the thread of the popular Black music event Verzuz TV. Black Twitter didn’t like that last one at all. “Did you wake up black for the first time this morning?” She was lambasted “a fake, “a try-hard” and a “white stud in a black body.” It seems that in the cafeteria of The African-American College of Culture, Waithe is eating alone.
I do not have a personal opinion on Waithe's legacy. I've enjoyed some of her TV work and been less taken with others which is about the same odds as most TV writers. However the voracious backlash to this successful showrunner says much about belonging and, critically, the price of unbelonging. Like the band Lady Parts, Waithe has clearly overstepped the boundaries of what is deemed right and proper behaviour for a Black or Brown cultural leader. She seems to be signifying all wrong. Her unfiltered complexity, encapsulated, in some parts, by her non-heteronormativity, is complicating a certain algorithm of what a successful Black TV personality should be like.
In case this is beginning to sound like only Black or Muslim cultures pursue heavy cultural policing, we need to look no further than the Conservative Party’s very own Common Sense Group who are currently leading a sophisticated attack on “wokeism”. The right wing broadsheets going after organisations like the National Trust or people like BAFTA changemaker Krish Majumdar (who The Times recently tried to fabricate a buddy relationship with dethroned filmmaker Noel Clarke to suggest a kind of nefarious Black/Brown woke conspiracy) are recent crude and dangerous attempts.
Cultural policing is and has always been baked into our institutions. It’s how societies have been managed. So while cancel culture is spoken of as a tyranny of new media, cultural outcasting is far from a new phenomenon. Whether you were gay, poor, a woman who was burnt at the stake for growing herbs or even introverted, depressed, too gauche, too shy, or a Muslim punk, there has always been a painful price exacted for transgressing cultural norms. Which is why many of us choose not to do it. Which is why it is easier not to reveal our full selves for fear of banishment. Which is why it is better to mouth the words of a song rather than admit we don’t know it. Which is also why it is easier to demand that others accept us than it is to accept the truth of our own messy, complex, contradictory selves.
Bayo Akomolafe might say, that Waithe's cracks are simply allowing us to witness our own. He might see her as playing the role of the Trickster. Akomolafe believes in the critical role this Yoruba mythic-god figure plays in troubling our certainties. A cousin to the English Jester, Trickster's mischievously challenge our desire for order, certainty and belonging.
In We Are Lady Parts, Amina's mum, in true Tricksterish fashion and annoyingly to Amina, playfully goads her daughter's more rebellious side to emerge. Amina is only set free once she stands in front of the world (in this case a spoken word audience) chokes back her bile and stumbles through an awkward admission of how scared she is to be her full self. She summons the courage after hearing her friend recite revolutionary Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz's poem Speak.
Speak, your lips are free.
Speak, it is your own tongue.
Speak, it is your own body.
Speak, your life is still yours.
My own courage has been shored up by the journey of Amina and her Lady Parts and even more so by writer Nida Manzoor who pressed ahead with the series despite the ferocious backlash she received after the pilot was aired.
I am further galvanised to own and explore the cracks of my own persona. Admit it G - despite your black cultural affiliations your favourite film really is Gentleman Prefer Blondes. And if you were forced to choose, the closet Emo in you would probably go for Radiohead’s Creep over Frankie Beverly’s Before I Let Go. And how about those knee jerk reactions that cause you to rail publicly against some injustices and remain quiet over others? Why, for instance, as a good friend recently challenged, am I more likely to rally around the horror of a black man killed by a white than the murkier problem of black men killing each other?
We should acclimatise ourselves to the truth of our own private failings, blind spots and transgressions Akomolafe and Manzoor remind me. Have the courage to admit that we don’t always know what we are doing and we are all messier than we present. Be honest - we don't always feel like we belong in spaces that we should and sometimes we feel at home in spaces that we shouldn’t.
Over at The Space To Come we developed an audio tool called Listening to Yourself which I've been using daily to gently interrogate my thinking and long held positions. It's helping me fess up, come clean or as Virginia Woolf urged, kill the angels in my own house. It's helping to free my voice.
All this to say, that the incisive We Are Lady Parts is a reminder of what can happen if we stopped cancelling the weird, unresolved parts of ourselves and embraced them instead. We might have a chance of birthing something truly new.