From feminism to ‘fun shit,’ Boyfriend knows best

Boyfriend’s rap cabaret cracks down on the joys (and complications) of womanhood this Friday at ONCE Ballroom


It’s hard not to hone in on the the somewhat ironic femme ridiculousness of New-Orleans-based rapper Boyfriend.

Higher-than-heaven hair curlers, Madonna-style cone brassieres, svelte, silky boudoir slips: The rapper’s image centers around the complications of what it means to look “womanly” in the 21st century, specifically focusing on a stylish blend of showgirl aesthetics and the chic 1950s.

But there’s a lot of extra work that goes into making her self-proclaimed but bona fide “rap cabaret” a live touring experience. If anything, her concerts lean more towards the semantics of a circus than a typical show, which the folks at ONCE Ballroom will soon discover this Friday (January 25).

“Setting the stage is like re-inventing the wheel each night, because there’s no way to prep our backstage until we are there in person, and tiny things like ‘where are my black panties?’ make a huge difference for how the show goes,” Boyfriend, born Suzannah Powell, tells Vanyaland. “It comes down to inches and milliseconds. Since we can’t guarantee stage-side green room access at venues, we bring a dressing screen to each show and create our own little world back there, which is scary but fun, because it’s problem solving each night. ‘How angled does the screen have to be so the audience is blocked, and how much does that cut into our room? Is there a balcony such that folks can see over the screen? Can we hang a robe on anything or does it have to go on this amp?’ It’s a little logistical adrenaline surge!“

And once Powell literally unpacks her set, she gets cracking on unpacking all her feminist themes, citing her song “Wash That” as a prime example. The single, released last year, breaks down social and “proper” beauty standards – and subsequently stomps all over them in her stilettos. Don’t be fooled by her lingerie getup onstage; There’s a lot to piece together in her message and mindset, and none of it involves subservience or appealing to men.

“The aesthetics I’m interested in are these established visions of ‘femininity; and ‘womanhood’ – as problematic and gorgeous and complicated as they are,” she explains. “There’s a duality at work… take the image of vacuuming in high heels and pearls. I reject the oppressive implications, that a woman’s job is to keep the house clean and look good for her man, that the pearls are a reward from her breadwinner for keeping his sanctuary clean (ew gross gag!) But at the same time, there’s a power in that image you can also choose to embrace – we look good while working hard, goddamnit! We’re fancy and we’re athletic (have you tried vacuuming in heels?) We’re delicate and we’re tough.”

Housework-in-heels aside, Boyfriend’s imagery tends towards the old housewife stereotype because of its accessible perspective. The old sexism is easy to spot in Mad Men-esque scenery, but reclaiming the look — and not the roles that come with it — presents a special kind of vindication for Powell.

“I borrow the retro imagery because the context is easier to access,” she elaborates. “I could look way more hip — sometimes I wish I did, ha! But what I’m trying to unpack are heteronormative themes of institutionalized sexism, and to me it’s more interesting to do that with stereotyped aesthetics, because it’s never so simple as ‘lipstick is a burden’ or ‘shaving your legs is bowing to the patriarchy.’ Yes, AND ‘lipstick is fun,’ ‘shaving my legs makes me feel sexy.’ It’s all of it at once, it’s gray, it’s slippery — and what women choose to do in order to present themselves is fascinating territory, an endless exploration of objectification, expression, and power.”

Put succinctly, from feminism to “fun shit,” Boyfriend just knows best.

BOYFRIEND :: Friday, January 25 at ONCE Ballroom, 156 Highland Ave. in Somerville, MA :: 8 p.m., all ages, $12 to 15 :: Advance tickets :: ONCE event page :: Facebook event page :: Featured photo by Lenore Seal