En Vogue’s epic R&B tune “Free Your Mind” found its way onto my iPhone the other morning and I was so excited. I hadn’t heard the song in years and it’s always brought back memories of my childhood. I was especially excited to hear the opening lyrics: “Prejudice. Wrote a song about it. Like to hear it? Hear it go.”
When I was 10, my best friend and next-door neighbor, Rachel, choreographed a dance routine to this song. She taught it to me in her dad Mike's pristine garage (I know it was pristine because I often had to help clean it...and pick up twigs from his lawn and sing lullabies to his rose bushes). Once I had the moves down (which probably took a really long time, because I’m bad with moves), we taught it to our two younger sisters—Ouisa and Emily. I remember it involved a lot of cartwheels and the classic move of running our hands from our ankles to our thighs—like we were putting on invisible thigh-high stockings. (I just tried to spell that “stalkings.” Weird. And surely somehow Freudian?)
A week of hard-core rehearsals later, I was very excited to perform the dance for our parents. Rachel had the boom box all plugged in to the side of the Kelleys’ house, and we lined up lawn chairs for our parents to sit on while we danced. The littler Kelley kids sat on the grass in front of us, and Hannah Kelley and Penelope were just babies, so most likely parents held them on their laps. To the outside world, it probably looked gloriously middle-class American and family-oriented.
|Boom box with 90's style effects.|
And so we danced. And it was spectacular.
But when I was in my car on the Hollywood Freeway listening to “Free Your Mind” at 9:15 a.m. on Thursday morning, the whole event suddenly took on a different shade. For one thing, the opening lyrics after the intro I wrote above are:
“I wear tight clothing/
That doesn’t mean that I’m a prostitute.
I like rap music/
Wear hip-hop clothes/
That doesn’t mean that I’m out selling dope.”
Um…how the hell did our parents sit through this performance without laughing their asses off or dragging us off to our bedrooms?
I still love the song, and the message is on point: just because I’m a sexy black woman who dates other races and wears scandalous duds, it doesn’t mean I’m a slut or a traitor to black people: “Be colorblind. Don’t be so shallow.”
HOWEVER: what were a bunch of little, Catholic, white girls doing with this dance routine, which, in the clear light of 20 years of retrospect, seems ever-so-slightly…I don’t know…inappropriate?
Our parents must have been frozen in shock and maybe mild-to-moderate nausea. I’m sure they wondered if we knew what the terms “prostitute” and “dope” meant, and I’m guessing they figured we did, since besides the repeated cart-wheeling, we kept acting like we were putting on our thigh-highs for a night of street walking.
|Really patient parents at an outdoor concert circa 1992.|
I’d like to think that they were trying really hard not to laugh at us. I’m sure Mike Kelley was probably smirking. Joan Kelley was probably rolling her eyes. But my parents were pretty straightedge at the time, and I’m sure that The Beatles-Beethoven-and Ravi Shankar-loving pair of them were wondering when and how this decidedly urban music had entered their 10-and-7-year-old daughters' worlds.
But they were kind and wise enough to applaud the performance and leave it alone. We were never admonished for play-acting at being hookers, and it seems to me that they played it just right in that moment. To draw attention to the lyrics would have only invited weeks or months of uncomfortable questions from us to which they would have to find clever answers (i.e. lies).
Many years later, when I was in high school, my favorite pair of jeans went missing. They were wide-legged and made of thin denim and they’d split up the outer thighs (through no fault of my own). I’d proceeded to pin them at intervals with safety pins and I thought they were epically bad ass and I wore them everywhere with my black combat boots and long, cheetah-print coat. And one day during my junior year of high school they mysteriously disappeared. Mom never admitted to it, but I’m pretty sure they went into the garage garbage can sometime in the dead of night. Mom couldn’t take any chances that I’d turn into the dope-selling prostitute my childhood hinted at. Though, to reiterate, the song specifically stated, “That DOESN’T mean that I’m a Prostitute.”
*"Free Your Mind" by the incredible (though not very enduring) all-girl 90's group En Vogue.