Taken as a complete artistic statement, Rhythm Nation 1814 was a stunning achievement. It married the pleasures of pop with the street energy and edge of hip-hop. It was by turns dark and radiant, calculated and carefree, political and playful, sensual and austere, sermonic and liberating. If Control announced the arrival of a young woman ready to take the reins of her personal life and career, Rhythm Nation revealed a maturing artist, surveying the world around her, determined to wake people out of apathy, cynicism, indifference. Writes Slant’s Eric Henderson, “Rhythm Nation expanded Janet's range in every conceivable direction. She was more credibly feminine, more crucially masculine, more viably adult, more believably childlike. This was, of course, critical to a project in which Janet assumed the role of mouthpiece for a nationless, multicultural utopia.”
“We are a nation with no geographic boundaries,” declared Janet on the album’s introductory “pledge,” “pushing toward a world rid of color lines.” Just seven years earlier, black artists couldn’t get on MTV; FM radio was dominated by album-oriented (white) rock; and the music industry was largely segregated by genre. Now a black woman was at the helm of a new pop-cultural “nation,” preaching liberation through music and dance, while calling on her audience to keep up the struggle. For all the inroads, she insisted, the battle wasn’t over.
Janet Jackson’s ascendance was significant for many reasons, not the least of which was how it coincided with (and spoke to) the rise of black feminism. Until the 1980s, feminism was dominated, by and large, by middle class white women. They defined its terms, its causes, its hierarchies, its representations, and its icons. It wasn’t, of course, that black feminists didn’t exist before the 1980s. From Sojourner Truth to Harriet Tubman to Ida B. Wells to Rosa Parks to Maya Angelou—black women made enormous contributions in the struggle for racial, gender, and class equality. But their contributions were often minimized, and their struggles marginalized. As Barbara Smith writes in her landmark 1977 essay, “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism,” “Black women’s existence, experience, and culture and the brutally complex systems of oppression which shape these are in the ‘real world’ of white and/or male consciousness beneath consideration, invisible, unknown ... It seems overwhelming to break such a massive silence.”
Black feminism, however, did just that in the 1980s. From Michelle Wallace’s bestselling Black Macho and the Myth of Superwoman (described by Ms. magazine as “the book that will shape the 80s”), to Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Color Purple (which was adapted into a blockbuster film, directed by Steven Spielberg), black women achieved unprecedented breakthroughs over the course of the decade. In 1981, bell hooks released Ain’t I A Woman; in 1984, Audre Lorde published Sister Outsider; 1987 saw the arrival of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, perhaps the most universally canonized novel of the past 30 years. Appropriately capping the decade was Patricia Hill Collins’s Black Feminist Thought (1990), which documented and synthesized the flourishing movement’s central ideas and concerns. The book, Collins wrote, was intended to be “both individual and collective, personal and political, one reflecting the intersection of my unique biography with the larger meaning of my historical times.”