Every Monday in Listening Closer, Jeffrey Overstreet opens up the art of songcraft, sharing his own musical experiences, interpretations, and epiphanies, while soliciting alternate interpretations and discussion.
One is a sex worker. The other has caught the eye of a local drug dealer. And what may seem clear cut, right and wrong, good and bad to you and me. . . well, it isn’t nearly so simple for them. Not in this East London neighborhood. Not in these Paris housing projects.
I don’t know these girls—Becky or Marieme. Their experiences differ from mine in far more than gender and geography, so maybe I’m ill-equipped to write about them. But their troubles are my troubles now, because I’ve been drawn into their stories by two observant artists—novelist and rapper Kate Tempest and filmmaker Céline Sciamma.
* * *
When we first meet Marieme (played by Karidja Touré), she’s 15 and caught up in the hilarity of her girlfriends’ company, heading home from school, quieting as they pass a pack of watchful boys, and then parting ways. We follow Marieme home where we observe her tender intimacy with her younger sister: they have bonded not only as girls but as survivors in a home with a physically abusive older brother and a mother whose hard labor keeps her out long hours.
At school Marieme’s dreams are drying up. She’s not scoring high enough to make it into high school; only vocational school is open to her, which sounds like a death sentence. Feeling hopeless, powerless, desperate to find a foothold as her world crumbles around her, Marieme stumbles into a girls gang, learning how to bully other students for cash, how to spend stolen money on parties, how to accelerate her life’s disintegration and have fun doing it.
These are scenes from a film called Girlhood, now playing on Netflix Instant.
And what may be the film’s most memorable scene is nothing less than a music video: four fragile figures on the border between girlhood and womanhood, dressing up in clothes they can’t afford and diving deep into a dream as they lip-sync their way through Rihanna’s “Diamonds.”
And then there’s Ismaël, a quiet young man who notices Marieme just as she notices him. But they both know how Marieme’s older brother will react if they start seeing each other. And besides, her recent shows of wild abandon have caught the eye of a local drug dealer, and he sees potential in her.
To quote a Kate Tempest refrain, “These are lonely daze.”
Okay, let’s get the obvious “Sequel to Boyhood?” jokes out of our system for two good reasons: First, because this English title for the French film Bande des Filles was secured before Boyhood was released. Second, because this is a subtler, more cinematic film worth taking on its own terms.
Maybe you’ll notice three possible interpretations of the title. “Girlhood” is, for Marieme especially, a phase of life fraught with challenges and needs. It’s also very fragile; one wrong move could bring the naiveté and potential of “girlhood” to a crashing halt. Then there’s the movie’s emphasis on “girls in the ’hood”: where a hyper-confident diva called Lady is training up her entourage in the ways of petty crime, partying hard, and punishing rivals (violently). And finally, if you put a slash between the syllables—Girl/Hood—you might get a premonition of what appears, from Marieme’s vantage point, to be the only way toward a future better than slave labor.
It might surprise viewers to know that this world of black girls in France was brought to life by a 36-year-old white filmmaker. An article published in The Independent focuses on how unusual and unlikely this is:
With Girlhood, Sciamma’s intent was clear: to represent faces rarely seen. “I was shocked by how black people were never on screen [in France],” she says. “Very, very few – even in TV. Particularly that age group and women. There are no black actresses famous in France.”
Perhaps it was watching Girlhood, and coming to care so much for this community so unlike my own, that set the stage for me to become enthralled, even a little obsessed, with a record that I completely missed when it arrived in May 2014.
* * *
Produced by Dan Carey (Bat For Lashes, Toy, Hot Chip), Everybody Down—the debut album from poet, novelist, and rapper Kate Tempest—plunges us in media res into East London, where a young woman named Becky is lonely and lost, but learning to claim her personhood and to survive surrounded by needy, exploitative, sometimes dangerous men.
Becky has taken a chance on love with a man named Pete who does not approve of her employment as a “masseuse.” (It’s hard to miss the implications; in hard times like these, you don’t make money giving backrubs.)
Listen closely to this scene from Tempest’s song “Theme for Becky,” one of many chapters in a cohesive narrative told over the course of the album.
The voice with which Tempest tells Becky’s story is one of powerfully persuasive confidence, as if she’s known these people, shared drinks with them after work, listened to their confessions, and taken up their causes. Tempest’s substantial, densely layered, relentlessly creative lyrics are the work of a remarkable literary talent, and they’re delivered in a voice unlike any I’ve heard in popular music: Louis Pattison at NME describes it as “a seen-it-all drawl dotted with street slang and glottal stops that sounds one minute like it might mug you on the top deck of the 171 bus, and the next like it might crumble under the cracks of emotion.”
Where some would be quick to judge Becky for her decisions and routines, Tempest writes with affecting empathy about this “smart kid” with “soft eyes” who has “moved up to massage,” to a place where “she’s in charge.” (If this is moving up, let’s not think about what she was doing before.)
From Becky’s point of view, this variation on prostitution is better than a lot of things. Notice how she grasps for whatever flickers of grace are available to her:
Talking to clients
Adoring the silence
Of after the session
Her and the night air
How to be more than the sum of your parts?
She knows how they see her but they don’t know half
Without anyone on the scene to show her what love can really mean, she’s taking a jagged path toward whatever light or freedom she can find. Becky even manages to find a silver lining to her physical contact with clients:
It’s such an important endeavor
To feel tender
She can’t believe there are some
Who have never been held in their lives
. . .
It’s not sordid, it’s sacred
To open them up to the warmth
Of her nature. . . .
And yet, the lyrics quickly add that she doesn’t want to stick with this job. She’s doing this because, well, “let’s face it / Wages are f—ed /And rent is outrageous. . . .”
These are the realities from the perspective of the poor as they grasp for crumbs from the tables of those who live with privilege.
But what gives me hope for Becky—what actually inspires me about her spirit in this sad reality—is her inclination toward a spirit clearly lacking in the rich: empathy.
Well, all of us walk to our own beat
And each person’s rhythm is unique
You can’t hear somebody’s tune
If you count in your time
You must count their time
To enjoy how their mind
Makes its music. . . .
That sounds to me like something close to “loving your neighbor.”
By bringing Becky and a whole cast of characters to life with compassion and vivid detail, Kate Tempest is telling stories that teach us to look closer, to listen to and care for neighborhoods we might otherwise never know. So is Céline Sciamma, with her tales of girlhood gangs in Parisian projects.
Thanks to their empathetic imaginations, Marieme and Becky—and thousands like them in cities around the world, some of them just down the road from my house—are on my mind.