Fresh on the heels of watching Lupita Nyong’o get robbed at the Golden Globes for her star-making, provocative and mesmerizing performance in 12 Years A Slave and frankly, still salty over Kerry Washington’s Emmy loss last fall, I was reminded of theHotness’ Most Fascinating List from 2010 and knew it was high-time to bring that justificative joint back. And yea, the Oscars even snubbed Oprah yesterday and left her, for a second time (first was for her role as Sophia from The Color Purple), without a deserved nomination for her riveting, well-played role in The Butler. It’s quite astounding, and then, it’s not. I have learned that the awards I see on TV are not my awards and that if I am to be satisfied and happy I must celebrate my own, particularly when they do work that uplifts, educates and challenges the status quo. So in response and in revolt to the Golden Globes, The Oscars, The Emmys, The Grammys and certainly Barbara Walter’s iconic, but recently quite plastic list of her 10 Most Fascinating People where only one woman of color made the cut (Robin Roberts), I present theHotness 15 (just too much hotness in 2013 to keep it at 10), which highlights the 15 freshest and most fascinating hot grrrls of last year.
And because there were so many rabble-rousing provocateurs to cover this year, I enlisted the help of some remarkable writers to join the celebration. My thanks to Esther Armah, Shantrelle P. Lewis, Emily J. Lordi, Alicia McGhee, Vinita Srivastava and Davida Ingram for their crazy fresh contributions!
BEYONCE – Singer. Mother. Producer. Designer. King.
Mrs. Carter had a very interesting year last year. To say it fascinated would be the understatement of the decade. 2013 started off with Beyoncé seemingly taking a professional stumble at President Obama’s inauguration where it was revealed she lip-synched the national anthem, but then she more than rebounded just a month later with her thrilling 13-minute explosive (live) Superbowl performance that, quietly, we all know short-circuited the power at The Superdome. Yoncé, all turnt up, ended the year by flipping the entire music industry on its head by releasing, BEYONCÉ— a stunning visual album that she unconventionally didn’t promote, publicize or even make initially available to brick & mortar retailers. Clearly out to show that grrrls really do run this mutha, Bey’s surprise release got the Beyhive a’ buzzing and led to it breaking all kinds of records. BEYONCÉ, her fifth studio album, became the highest first-week sales of her solo career and the best-selling debut week for a female artist in 2013. It was the fastest selling album in the history of the iTunes Store, both in the US and worldwide– selling 828,773 digital copies worldwide in just three days. Bey’s ability to blow wigs back was directly in line with her ability to not only create dialogue (and controversy) about feminism (check out “Flawless” where she samples author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s speech about girls and competition), sexual pleasure and body image, but also with her record for creating real access for women by hiring them to fill out every position in her band. From back-up singers to bass players, the women artists that worked on The Mrs. Carter World Tour got major Beyoncé signed paychecks in 2013. And while others had nothing better to do than talk about her baby girl’s hair, she was off writing about women and gender equality for Maria Shriver’s report on the economic state of women in America and handing-out gift cards to Walmart shoppers (a subtle but decisive middle finger to Target for not carrying her CD). In 2013, Third Ward Trill showed us that living a public life could be an opportunity to be more than a spectacle. It’s a chance to raise the bar, to educate, to complicate and show that it’s never easy, but it can always be interesting. Yea, bow down haters.
LUPITA NYONG’O – Thespian. It Girl.
Lupita Nyong’o colonized both ends of the spectrum this year, owning the role of brutalized slave woman and that of die-for fashion diva. The 30-year-old Kenyan actress had just graduated from the Yale School of Drama when she beat out 1,000 other contenders for the role of Patsey in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. Playing Patsey with a fierceness and liveliness that dismissed the vacuity of Tarantino’s slaves in Django, Nyong’o was devastatingly believable in the role, but without being defined by it. That was the point: she was a slave who should have been anything else. In fact, I half-expected her to walk out of the film and onto a runway in Milan at any moment. I can’t wait to see where she goes next. –Emily J. Lordi
Blood clots be damned, Serena showed us in 2013 that she was not going to go out like that! After recovering from a foot injury, which revealed life-threatening clots in her lungs, the youngest of the Williams sisters, Serena, won not one, but two Grand Slam Tournaments last year and the WTA Tour Championship. She is the only female player to have won over $50 million in prize money. And it’s not just that she wins that makes her so friggin’ fascinating, it’s how she wins. Just when it looks like she’s about to lose a match, Serena taps into this undeniable mental strength that takes the currently ranked No. 1 player in women’s singles tennis from probable loser to celebrated winner. Like a Phoenix rising from her ashes, Serena’s ability to come back from an impossible situation is mind-blowing awesome. And then to do it with Aces is like her slam-dunk in the face of rivals. At the 2013 French Open final, in the last game of the match, she fired three aces, including one clocked at 123 mph on match point. You know that moment when a breakdancer spins and then freezes in her most defiant b-girl stance? That was Serena at The French Open and to really get gully with it, the Compton native gave her victory speech in perfect French. Bang. Boom. Voila!
DR. YABA BLAY – Image Activist. Professor. Bawse.
I was fascinated several years ago when Yaba called from Miami where she was completing a pre-doctoral fellowship at Florida International University, to tell me that her dissertation, at the time, the longest in the history of the Department of African American Studies at Temple University, was completed after only three months. I was fascinated when, the now, Dr. Yaba Blay (doctor as in Ph.D), began to write journal articles about skin bleaching and attributed white supremacy as its perpetuator as opposed to the commonly accepted theory of Black self-hatred. I was fascinated when Dr. Yaba Blay embarked on a new research project to challenge traditional ideas about race, Blackness and colorism around the globe. I was fascinated when Dr. Yaba Blay appeared on CNN multiple times, on the front cover of Philadelphia Weekly and in the New York Times Lens Blog. I was fascinated when Dr. Yaba Blay not only wrote One Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race, but also started her very own publishing company BLACKprint Press to provide a platform for scholars and artists to use photography to tell our stories. I was fascinated when Drexel University asked Dr. Yaba Blay to accept the post of Co-Director of Africana Studies within only a year of her post as a professor in the department. I was fascinated when Dr. Yaba Blay devised “Locs of Love” and led an army of women to help positively change the lives of little brown and ebony girls like Tiana Parker and LaShawnte Brown. And I was utterly fascinated because she did ALL of this on her own. As she continues to achieve more as a social justice scholar, professor, mother, grandmother, daughter, lover, sister, friend, I am fascinated by Dr. Yaba Blay’s ability to change the lives of women around the Diaspora…like me. And to use one of her own terms, that is #PrettyPeriod. –Shantrelle P. Lewis
CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE – Writer. Genius. Yoncé Muse.
It’s quite possible that no other author in recent history has given us a glimpse of the realities of middle class continental Africans who, seeking another dream, emigrate to the States or the United Kingdom, like Igbo-Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Chimamanda, whose critical acclaim is understated, is an honest writer whose gorgeous yet complex stories about Nigerians, both at home and abroad, are multi-layered, colorful and intense. Her latest masterpiece, Americanah, recognized as one of “Ten Best Books of 2013” by the New York Times, is no exception. Using the love narrative of two soul mates, Chimamanda exposes us to a world where privileges and disparities co-exist and resilience rules supreme. Americanah is a candid analysis of race, nuances within Black America, and the dichotomous realities for continental Africans who return home after being “westernized” for an extended period of time. Despite controversial casting, everyone is also anxiously awaiting this year’s theatrical release of the film adaptation of her Half of a Yellow Sun, which granted her the 2007 Orange Award for Fiction (now the Baileys Women’s Prize). Surprisingly enough, even Queen Bey fell under the influence of the brilliance that is Chimamanda and created a Black feminist frenzy when she quoted the writer in her new track “Flawless.” Then again it’s no wonder, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is indeed that fascinating. – Shantrelle P. Lewis
MALALA YOUSAFZAI – Agitator. Uplifter. Survivor. Warrior.
A blogger and advocate for girls’ right to education, Malala Yousafazi found herself on the Taliban’s hit-list at the age of 14. Despite her young age, Taliban believed her outspoken opposition to their tyrannical and violent campaign against girl’s education in Northern Pakistan should be silenced. On October 9, 2012, the Taliban shot Malala in the head. Remarkably, Malala survived and lived to publish her story in her autobiography, I Am Malala. Malala’s courageous and powerful voice has inspired girls all over Pakistan to fight for their right to go to school. Her story may have also inspired Pakistan’s newest animated superhero, Burka Avenger. Burka Avenger is a mild-mannered teacher who uses her secret martial arts skills to fight local thugs attempting to shut down girls’ schools. Like Malala, Burka Avenger’s weapons of choice are pens and books. Meanwhile, real-life superhero, Malala celebrated her 16th birthday this past summer by addressing the youth assembly of the United Nations. In that address she said, “The Taliban shot me on the left side of the forehead…they thought the bullet would silence us. But they failed…out of that silence came thousands of voices…Nothing changed in my life, except this: Weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength power and courage was born.” –Vinita Srivastava
When I didn’t hear your name called, I felt as though someone had punched me in the stomach. I sat there barely able to breathe with my heart thumping almost through my chest. You had become the first African-American woman to be nominated for an Emmy in the category of Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series in 18 years and now I sat there in my living room waiting for you to win that Emmy. You had already won an NAACP Image Award earlier in the year and were named “Favorite actress” and “TV Star of the Year” by the editors of TV Guide’s Magazine. Your portrayal of Olivia Pope comes close to crashing Twitter every Thursday night. In 2013, even though you should have been number one, I accepted your second place ranking on People magazine’s 100 Most Beautiful People list because you had also just been named Woman of the Year by Glamour so I just figured it was the law of physics balancing it all out in the end. But when you did not win the Emmy that threw me and the entire cosmos out of whack and the rage was quite palpable on social media. But your loss taught me something about all of these awards shows– that they hold no validation for actors like you. Actors who not only respect their craft, but study to hone even the finest details of their characters. Actors who happen to not be white. Your portrayal of Olivia Pope is so popular and appreciated particularly amongst Black women because you give us another face of who we are and that woman, albeit flawed, is smart, passionate, fearless, formidable, sexy, provocative, stylish and commanding. When Liv Pope talks, we all listen. This image counters TV’s fixation with portrayals of us as unlovable, ratchet, angry, sex-hungry, ghetto, gold diggers. So, fellow Bronx grrrl, you see, you are already a winner. What you have given to a community is not even quantifiable by votes or a trophy. When you hosted Saturday Night Live and impersonated Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Beyonce in a sketch that spoofed, but also called-out SNL for not having a black female cast member since 2007, that was a full circle moment as you consistently make visible what many networks would rather leave on the cutting room floor. We see you and we say thank you. Award or not, you are outstanding. One love.
For almost two years, Melissa Harris Perry has had everyone tuning in to the Melissa Harris Perry weekend news show, which she hosts on MSNBC and tapping into her Nerdland discussion group on Twitter to discuss current affairs, pop culture and political issues. The #nerdland hashtag has become a badge of honor for active, forward thinkers. From penning an open letter to Tiana Parker about her dreadlocks to donning tampon earrings in protest of the GOP’s War on Women, MHP has stimulated public discourse in a sharp and unconventional way, while also bridging a gap between generations of multi-racial viewers. She has transformed talk television by engaging her audience through social media and encouraging their input. Perry has said that the #nerdland hashtag is a reflection of the staff as well as her guest panelists. It is quite refreshing to hear a black woman bring to a national platform issues that might otherwise be ignored or sensationalized, such as abortion, natural hair, sexual abuse, education reform and transracial adoption. Despite the recent controversy when a joke, shared on the show, about a photo of Mitt Romney with his adopted black grandson came under fire, Dr. Perry demonstrated for many the anatomy of a sincere apology. The Tulane University professor, mother and author took full responsibility with no qualifications and rose above blatant attempts to get her fired by CNN and conservatives decrying “reverse racism” mythology. For that and much more, she deserves mad props. As if she wasn’t bad ass enough, as Director of The Anna Julia Cooper Project at Tulane University, MHP organized the phenomenal and very well received “Gender, Sexuality and Hip Hop Conference” last December. Can’t wait to see the fire she brings in 2014! –Alicia U. McGhee
Danai Jekesai Gurira had a spectacular year in 2013. The Walking Dead star plays Michonne, whose katana-wielding, zombie-chaining warrior image is super empowering and one of the most formidable black woman characters in television history. Before her breakthrough role, Danai, who was born in Grinnell, Iowa and raised in Zimbabwe, was a psychology student at New York University. However she found her calling was to “tell African women’s stories” and ended up in the creative arts as a writer and actress at the Tisch School of the Arts. She became an award-winning playwright (2006 Obie & Outer Critics Awards) for her two-women play In The Continuum. A few years later her Eclipsed won Best New Play at the 2010 Helen Hayes Awards. In addition to her AMC hit show, last year we got to see Gurira shine in her lead actress debut in the feature film, Mother of George— a juicy drama about a newlywed Yoruba couple struggling with infertility. Gurira’s performance was pitch-perfect and she stood out among a very strong, dynamic cast. Danai is definitely a rising star to keep an eye on. –Alicia U. McGhee
TV on. Remote in hand, I would watch you. You spoke clearly, lucidly, wrapping words in compassion, directed at a people whose criminal justice system marked your child guilty. You looked tall. I wondered if grief stretched your body, or maybe grief was a laser that honed every inch of your mama brown self on due process and the pursuit of justice. Trayvon. A nation knows his name. He was your baby. Can you even talk about him in the past tense? Folk spoke about your elegance, your grace. I remember that one press conference when you told us: “It’s not a black or white thing, its a wrong or right thing.” Those words freed parts of a nation addicted to false notions of their own innocence to join a movement. White, black, brown, yellow stood up and called for justice. There was a trial. Six women jurors applauded the actions of a killer. My mama was here when the verdict came. She sat beside me as breaking news announced words unrepeatable by lovers of justice. My mama asked me to explain. I had no words. She stood up, pulled me by my hand and wrapped her arms around me. I am taller than my mama. I imagine your baby was maybe taller than you. And you will never feel his arms around you again, as my mama felt mine around her, nor will you inhale again the smell of your child, which reached into your skin, your mouth, your heart, your womb, in ways unknowable to anybody other than a mama. Your body carried him and somehow it carried you through this public criminal justice process that demands a black woman maintain peace about this horrifically intimate relationship with violence and be reasonable about murder and burying her baby. Ms Sybrina, I wonder who holds you up when all the parts that managed to stand, fold up, fold in, sink, plummet, drown. We speak your baby’s name– a child turned ancestor, Trayvon Martin. We speak yours too in shared outrage, in love, in compassion, Sybrina Fulton. –Esther Armah
More than just cutting and pasting, Wangechi Mutu creates massive collages that are meditations, movements and musings on sexual politics, identity, culture, beauty and pleasure. Born in Kenya, and now spreading love the Brooklyn way in her Bed Stuy studio and home, Wangechi splices and dices images of insects, with motorcycles, animals, and woman’s body parts (red lips, fingers with manicured nails, and eyes get Ginsu-ed probably more than other body parts). Her works are famous for remixing motorbike ads with Vogue fashion layouts and Black Tail spreads to form otherworldly women that are part cyborg, part animal, part human—exotic and around-the-way. By doing so, Wangechi critiques and revises gender roles and lays claim to a new visual language that is familiar yet subversive, pointed yet free. In 2013, the darling of afro-futurism, had one of the most provocative solo exhibitions on the globe. “Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey,” which opened at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in North Carolina and is currently on view at Brooklyn Museum of Art, will blow your wig back, cut your scalp wide open and leave you flailing in awe. Comprised of more than 50 pieces this show also features The End of Eating Everything—her first animated short film with music artist Santigold about mass consumption and gluttony. Wangechi’s genius was blowing skirts up in nearly every corner of the globe last year with other solo shows in Philly and Sydney and in group shows in Moscow, São Paulo, San Francisco, Harlem and Cape Town to name just a few. And all of these openings, awards and art talks were great, but even they didn’t compare to Wangechi’s most important work last year when she gave birth to her second child. A fantastic journey indeed.
Once upon a time, an unknown gender-bending gorgeous doll-faced woman wearing a cummerbund and pompadour jumped on stage and blew everybody away with the nightingale way that her petite frame bellowed out all kinds of scales and notes. That little lady is none other than Janelle Monae, and once upon a time was only a few years ago. Since first signing with Puffy in 2006, Janelle Monae has danced, sang and performed right into the adoring hearts of fans around the world. Out the gate, she has been considered pretty audacious as an artist and even has been labeled Afro-futurist by the Black-punkish and surrealists groups. However, with the release of her latest project, Electric Lady, Janelle Monae has established herself as a feminist-performing artist whose gender and class politics are pretty on point. You’ll be hard pressed to find another alternative artist, with the exception of the Erykahs, Lauryns and Alices of the world, as bad assed. Janelle owns her sensuality, but not at the sake of losing her agency. And she continues to express range as an artist and her Electric Lady should be a basic primer in 21st Century Black Feminist 101 Classes. The Q.U.E.E.N., Ghetto Lady, Rock-N-Roller, Android, and Electric Lady, all with the sultry voice of Billie Holiday and performance charisma of Michael Jackson, make up one of 2013’s best creative offerings. –Shantrelle P. Lewis
In 2013 all eyes were on the pussy. Alleged pedophile R. Kelly wanted to “marry the pussy” and Russia’s Vladimir Putin put it on lock for doing feminist performance art in a church. When band members Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich, and Nadezhda Tolokkikova of Pussy Riot were imprisoned for “hooliganism,” almost immediately, “Free Pussy” movements erupted everywhere and protestors in Moscow and all around the world donned their own brightly colored balaclavas in support of the punk rockers. The Russian Supreme Court, under international pressure, finally ruled the band was imprisoned illegally and freed two band members (another was previously released on appeal). I would love it if Pussy Riot’s victory encouraged more outrage about our own country’s political prisoners (ahem, Assata Shakur) and will be seen as a warning to conservatives and the political right to leave our pussy alone. –Davida Ingram
“The odds were doubly against me, being black and being a woman. Not having access, not having a rich uncle. These are the things I thought I needed, wanted, or thought I deserved at that time. All of that energy, all of that focus to extract from other people is distracting you from what you’re doing. All of that is desperation. When I figured that out, things started to change for me. And when I got that, a revolution happened for me.”
Since becoming the first African-American woman to win the Best Director Prize at Sundance Film Festival for her second feature, Middle Of Nowhere in 2012, Ava DuVernay has been on everyone’s speed dial. In 2013, post her revolution, Ava produced and directed Venus Vs, an ESPN documentary that detailed Venus Williams’s fight for equal prize money for women tennis champions; directed The Door, a short film for fashion house Miu Miu, Say Yes another short film that was sponsored by cosmetic brand Fashion Fair and John Legend Interludes Live for TV One. In November, the world tilted on its axis when Ava joined forces with Shonda Rhimes and Kerry Washington for her directorial debut on their ABC hit drama, Scandal. Her episode, “Vermont is For Lovers Too,” nearly beat CBS and NBC broadcasts combined during the 10pm hour and with 8.8 million viewers had the second highest draw of all TV programs that day. Not to be out done by accolades and record-setting viewership, this Cali native spent the end of 2013 creating Be A Rebel— an initiative specifically designed to expand her distribution platform—the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement’s (AFFRM) offerings by building community and cultivating audiences.
“As a portrait artist I wanted to use the images of women, personal friends and colleagues of mine, to humanize women in the public spaces – giving faces and voices to the bodies that are sexualized on the street.”
Fed up with not being able to walk down her street or damn near any street in both her Philly and Brooklyn hoods without hearing “Smile baby,” “Can I get your number,” or “Hey, what’s your name,” Tatyana created Stop Telling Women to Smile— an art series that confronts street harassment where it all goes down—outside, on street corners and in public spaces through defiant portraits of women. Her massive posters, most of which feel like they are boldly shouting messages like “My Name Is Not Baby” address the ways in which men insult, annoy, beset and bother women by stopping us on the street, demanding that we respond, and cat-calling crap about our body parts. Tatyana’s hugely successful Kickstarter campaign in 2013 garnered a great deal of press from a number of major media outlets including The New York Times, Ebony, and Fast Company and sparked many a debate between men and women on what it means and feels like to be hollered at. In 2014 Tatyana will be taking her show on the road to a number of cities around the globe. From Baltimore to Berlin her work will continue to teach women and men the importance of creating safe spaces in our hood where women should feel free to walk down the block with a grimace in peace.