Twerk video celebrating MLK faces a backlash. But are critics missing the point?
A closeup of Shaina Simmons’ backside, draped in American flag booty shorts, is the first image greeting viewers of her performance art video “Twerk on Washington.”
In a performance set to an energetic New Orleans bounce beat and sampling excerpts of Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” speech, Simmons twerks up and down the National Mall — gyrating by the reflecting pool, dropping into a split at the Louisiana pillar of the World War II Memorial, bouncing up the steps to the statue of Abraham Lincoln — as visitors ignore or stop to stare.
The video, posted on Black Lives Matter Global Network’s social media and website, came out this month as part of a new MLK Artist Series.
Featuring works from six artists, including a mixed-media piece from artist Derrick Adams, music from Grammy-nominated jazz trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, and spoken word from author Nikki Blak, the series aims to “collectively remember Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King not just as an iconic Civil Rights leader, but as a human being full of love, joy, play, and healing,” wrote cocurators Patrisse Cullors — also a co-founder of Black Lives Matter — and Noni Limar in a curatorial statement.
The series was inspired by a set of photos from a 1967 issue of Ebony magazine showing King relaxing in Jamaica with his wife, Coretta Scott King. Cullors and Limar were also moved by the work of artist Tricia Hersey, whose Nap Ministry platform advocates for rest as a form of radical Black resistance.
Nap Ministry “inspired us as an organization as well,” Limar said. “What can we uplift, given all of the political turmoil that has taken place in the last couple of weeks. And what ways can we bring a lens to restoration, joy, love, care.”
But when the social justice organization posted “Twerk on Washington” to its Instagram, along with an artist statement from Simmons describing the video as “advocating for the decolonization of oversexualizing Black women’s bodies to reclaim an ancient sacred dances of liberation and wellness,” a flood of backlash immediately followed.
The Instagram post received 1.2 million views and more than 5,000 comments, most of them negative, calling the video tasteless, disrespectful, uncomfortable and embarrassing. Many demanded Black Lives Matter take the video down. On Simmons’ personal Instagram, where the artist spent about three hours responding to feedback, there was even more resistance to the idea of twerking to celebrate King’s legacy.
Reaction to the video was “unexpected, but expected,” Simmons said.
Simmons first recorded and released “Twerk on Washington” in 2019 near Independence Day. She chose to twerk at the National Mall because of the area’s history — a space for protests but also a site of oppression of Black Americans. (Enslaved Black people helped to build the White House and the Capitol.)
A continuation of her series of performances centered on twerking beginning in 2017, “Twerk on Washington” explores what it means to reclaim traditional dances on American soil. Even though people were overwhelmingly supportive of the first release, the recent backlash serves as a reminder to continue making art around the rights of Black women, Simmons said.
In the age of Megan Thee Stallion’s and Cardi B’s sex-positive “WAP,” it’s time “to really start questioning when we get up [in] arms about our sexuality, really taking a good hard look at ourselves,” Simmons said. “When are we responding to white gaze, when are we responding to self hate.”
Both Cullors and Limar were shocked that many people considered “Twerk on Washington” controversial.
Cullors came across Simmons’ work through the artist-activist MFA program the Black Lives Matter cofounder created. “I did not at all see this piece as a sexualized piece,” Cullors said. “It felt like high performance, high art conversation with the March on Washington, and it felt like a perfect fit for this series.”
Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors leads the new Social and Environmental Arts Practice MFA program at Prescott College.
Deep-rooted aversion to the video is wrapped up in misconceptions about twerking, a devaluation of Black social dances and respectability politics, said scholars who study Black dance and feminism.
Although a 2013 Times column described twerking as a “charmless, stripper-inspired move,” the dance traces back to at least the early 1990s, in Black communities in New Orleans, wrote dance scholar and educator Takiyah Nur Amin in a collection of work on Blackness in popular culture.
The roots of the movement show a strong resemblance to West African traditional dances, like Mapouka, described as “la danse du fessier,” or the dance of the behind, in the Ivory Coast.
Despite its history, twerking came to mainstream media’s consciousness around 2013 when white pop star Miley Cyrus twerked at the MTV Video Music Awards. Since then, the dance has become increasingly popular and appropriated.
Because the dance involves a Black woman’s behind, it’s often immediately interpreted as sexual “or a declaration of hypersexuality,” Amin said. But twerking is also a form of self-expression, joy, pleasure and freedom.
“Twerk on Washington” wasn’t offensive to Amin. “I don’t find it salacious or problematic compared to some of the depictions of twerking that I’ve seen in other popular music videos. This is actually pretty tame to me.”
For Amin, the video raises different questions, “about what it means to be twerking in front of the Washington Monument, given that George Washington kept slaves. … I have more questions about what does it mean to twerk in front of the Lincoln Memorial when some historians suggest that Lincoln’s commitment to emancipation was less about a concern for Black freedom and more about a political commitment to maintaining the union.”
Reaction to the video is partly a response to the way society views Eurocentric dance forms like ballet — “clean and appropriate and decent and respectful,” Amin said. And twerking is often interpreted as, “that’s nasty, that’s dirty, that’s bad, that’s wrong.”
If Simmons had danced a Black social dance like the Electric Slide or the Cha Cha Slide to excerpts of King’s speech or in front of monuments people are expected to revere, there most likely would not have been the same reaction, said Aria Halliday, an assistant professor in the gender and women’s studies department and in the African American and Africana studies program at the University of Kentucky.
Halliday pointed to respectability politics, the idea that marginalized groups are told to uphold and teach one another to behave in a way that conforms to white norms.
“Black women who are expressing joy, Black women who are controlling their bodies, Black women who have any kind of personal agency over what they’re doing with their bodies — people have a lot of issues with that, historically and present day,” Halliday said.
Cullors and Halliday also pushed back on the frozen-in-time image of King that tends to water down the civil rights icon’s history, including the intensity of his critics and his condemnation of white moderates.
For the last two years, Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors has been immersed in art, exploring the intersection of performance and activism while earning her MFA from USC’s Roski School of Art and Design.
“Anything that celebrates Black people, Black women as we live and breathe every day, is appropriate, because that’s the ultimate vision of King,” Halliday said. “Twerking, dancing, joy, embodiment, all of those things are part of claiming that personhood.”
Halliday also offered up this thought.
People forget King “had sex. He has lots of kids,” Halliday said. “For a lot of reasons, we create this distance between people who are worthy of honor and people who are sexual. And people who are worthy of honor are not sexual in the kind of traditional understandings of honor.”
Although Cullors and Limar considered responding to the backlash, they ultimately decided social media was not the best outlet for a productive conversation. Instead, they plan to continue talking about these issues through an upcoming podcast on radical Black art.
The backlash was painful, said Simmons, who took a break from checking her direct messages, but it also revealed something else: “That the progress that we think we have made around the work of MLK — there’s still much more work to be done.”
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