Jill Scott and Erykah Badu kissing on stage.

The Pleasure Gospel of Jill Scott and Erykah Badu

Enter VERZUZ. The VERZUZ platform is pretty simple. Two artists come together, taking turns playing 20 of their hits. VERZUZ was created by music producers Timbaland and Swizz Beatz to help us get through the pandemic. Timbaland describes VERZUZ as more of “a celebration of our heroes in music, the ones who make us feel a certain type of way” than an actual “battle.”

Jill and Erykah’s VERZUZ was highly anticipated and brought in 700,000+ viewers at its peak. A day before Mama’s Day, music fans of Scott and Badu were ready to rock out to “A Long Walk” and “Tyrone” among other hits.

While being mesmerized by two dope artists, my partner and I, along with over half a million listeners, sang along to some of our favorite songs, including “Rolling Hills” and “Cleva.” My sweetie and I Chicago style stepped when Jilly from Philly played “Whenever You’re Around.” Amidst chit chat from Scott and Badu between songs, I texted with my homegirls about the queer vibe we were getting from their exchange and the love we felt. My best friend and I exchanged gifs reminiscing over exes when in Round 14 Scott played “Crown Royal” and gratefully came back to reality when in Round 19 she played “Cross My Mind.” My Black queer friends and I welcomed a shared space where we could watch two women whose music helped us grow into our current iteration of ourselves.

A battle was not what any of us got, but the love and sisterly vibes were exactly what so many of us needed. Imagine my surprise that anyone walked away feeling anything but full and well-fed.

Those who were rigidly expecting to see a contentious battle were likely disappointed. And too bad for them that they missed their blessing while holding on to their perception of what should have been — how the artist should have dueled. I attended a post-discussion on Jill and Erykah’s performance and was shocked to hear that folx were upset. How Sway? During the discussion, one commentator even went so far as to criticize people gushing over the display of sisterhood by proclaiming that “I have sisterhood, I wanted a battle…”. As if there’s a quota on how much sisterhood one can have in their lives.

Hearing the narrative that the battle was a fail because it did not conform to the VERZUZ platform, was disappointing. Maybe the name is misleading, especially since Timbaland has clarified that it isn’t really a battle. But, I wasn’t about to let this discussion impede on my love hangover, so I left that Zoom meeting. During the 15 minutes that I was there, it was clear that Jill and Erykah’s queering of the VERZUZ platform was not celebrated in this particular discussion that relied on a binary performance that controlled outcomes and delivered a clear winner. Instead of celebrating two Black women’s success and show of love, some people have been busy comparing them to other artists who battled. And there’s no need for comparison. Jill and Erykah broke the mold and gave us unadulterated Black queerness in all its glory and brilliance.

For those three and a half hours, I was held by their love, conversation, and fineness. The pandemic, the constant threat, and violence against Black people took some of us out over the past few months. The gift of basking in creativity and breaking with the constraints of norms was the kind of juicy liberation that makes life worth living. And don’t we need to break free of rigidity and expectations to live and be free?

The call for our country to reopen had me in a grip. And I’m not the only one who sees the urgency of normalcy as racist. The past three months have been a wave of depression, reflection, and gratitude and I have been questioning my purpose and place in this world. But by the end of the first hour of Jill and Erykah’s love fest, I knew that I am worth fighting for. That I belong here and that there is something so incredibly life-affirming about Black women doing their own damn thing. I seek to be a woman who does her own thing, pushing back against norms and rigidity to find my purpose and calling. Witnessing Jill and Erykah opened me to so many sacred possibilities. I recommitted to my own joy and thought about what brings me pleasure. And so, I’ve been asking myself lately, does this (insert any number of situations and choices) bring me closer to pleasure? My answers clarify my purpose, while also reminding me of my commitment to joy and pleasure.

Jill and Erykah, reminded me of the letters Audre Lorde and Pat Parker exchanged for 15 years. The love that poured forth through music, is the same love we bear witness to in the letters of Lorde and Parker. I was first introduced to their letters in the Spelman College Archives and then again in Sister Love: The Letters of Audre Lorde and Pat Parker 1974–1989. Their words traced a long and vulnerable relationship between the two Black, lesbian, mama, poets as they built a sisterhood that would guide them through the joys and worries of motherhood, the challenges of writing for pay, and through their battle with cancer. I continue to be rejuvenated by listening to the music of Jill and Erykah and reading the letters of Lorde and Parker because in coming together, and doing what brings them closer to pleasure, they co-create a world worth saving. A world that interrupts binaries. And rigidity. A world that centers Blackness, queerness, and love.

For many, Jill and Erykah were exactly what we needed in a moment where we are collectively grieving the loss of loved ones, heightened job insecurity, and the anxiety of not knowing when outside will be safe for us. And for those who didn’t get that, I think that’s okay, too. Perhaps it wasn’t for you. But, here’s an invitation for us all as we imagine a world post-Rona: ask yourself, does this bring you closer to pleasure? Because no matter the differences of opinion when it comes to Jill and Erykah, we all win when we cease to follow norms and begin to move closer to pleasure and joy.

Aspiring doula. Writer and researcher focusing on Blackness, queerness and the pleasure principle. Faux archivist. On Twitter: @abd4now

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