I miss the kind of multicolored feminism that was so popular in hip hop music in the early Nineties. It was definitely embodied by many of the participants in Freedom, that all-star soundtrack song I featured last week. So many of those musicians came to blossom in an era when female pop stars could make their debut in big, baggy clothes, while doing goofy dances. And no group wore their clothes baggier or had goofier videos than TLC.
In those early videos, T-Boz and Chili were the sex symbols. Their beauty was apparent from the beginning. But Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes hid her femininity behind shiny, oversize hats and goofy glasses with a condom for a lens. And in the video for What About Your Friends, she was rocking suspenders and bangs that made her look like an eight year old.
Even though she was talking about sex in Ain’t Too Proud to Beg, and claiming “Left Eye don’t mean the rest of my body is irrelevant”), the video’s aesthetic was more hip hop romper room than boudoir seduction. (Seriously, imagine what that video would look like from a group coming out now!)
Grown up sexuality would come later, on CrazySexyCool. That album remains the most successful R&B album ever released — 11 million records sold in the US, and 15 million worldwide. Even though she doesn’t even rap on the track, the video for Creep was a shining moment for Left Eye. The impact of that song was so huge. I remember seeing it and wanting a pair of silk pajamas so badly. TLC’s take on sexy (Red Light Special, Diggin On You) was always tempered with sass (Kick Your Game). And then there was Waterfalls.
(fun fact: did you know that Cee Lo sang backup on Waterfalls?)
In the documentary Last Days of Left Eye, which aired all weekend on VH1, Left Eye muses about her lyrics in that song:
I seen a rainbow yesterday
But too many storms have come and gone
Leaving a trace of not one God-given ray
Is it because my life is ten shades of gray?
I pray all ten fade away
Seldom praise Him for the sunny days
And like His promise is true
Only my faith can undo
The many chances I blew
To bring my life to anew
Clear blue and unconditional skies
Have dried the tears from my eyes
No more lonely cries
I’ve listened to that song so many times, and not once did I ever think about what Left Eye was trying to say. And what those lyrics that were repeated so many times in 1995, must have meant for her at that time. After burning Andre Rison’s house down and being sentenced to five years probation, she tried to come to terms with her personal demons through those lyrics. And she touched millions of lives in the process.
I watched that documentary, The Last Days of Left Eye, last night. It shook me. The critics all agree – MSNBC, the Washington Post, and the New York Times all described the introspective autobiography as heartbreaking, enigmatic, tender, haunting. After watching the documentary, I dreamed about Left Eye last night. Her pain was so, so deep, and the power of her experience in Honduras couldn’t have been anything less than life changing.
The impact of the events of her spiritual retreat are addressed here in this NPR interview with director Lauren Lazin. Lazin reveals that Lopes seems to have known her fate, and accepted it long before the inevitable accident. “She had a very particular thought about death and what death was. I spoke to her one time in my life, and she was saying how much she and Tupac had in common. How similar they were. And she said to me I wouldn’t be surprised if I died young as well. And she said, but you know, I don’t really see death as a bad thing, I see it as a transformation of energy. I see it in a different way than a lot of people see it.” Two months later, she was dead.
The film leaves so much hanging in the air, and after seeing Left Eye as we had never seen her before, hearing her unedited, unrhyming words in that inimitable voice, the shadows linger long after you’ve seen it. The film is gaining notoriety for it’s finale, which actually shows the footage of the accident that took her life – she looks at the camera, we get the sense of peace as they travel along the then-familiar road, we hear her horrific scream. Then, the wreckage. But what haunted me the most wasn’t her death, it was the struggles that led her there.
Left Eye’s last days with TLC were fraught with tension. She came up with great ideas for Fanmail, (love her rhyme on No Scrubs), but confessed that she couldn’t stand behind that album. Tension with T Boz and Chilli became public, and Left Eye called them out for a solo album challenge that never manifested into the success she craved. Left Eye was so excited about her solo album, Supernova. She did drop a single from Supernova in the UK, the quirky and kid-friendly The Block Party. And she speaks frankly about her beliefs about the afterlife in the spoken-word song A New Star is Born.
The title of her album perfectly captured Lopes’s existence — a supernova is a stellar explosion so hot and bright that it outshines its own galaxy, before it burns out forever. The album was ultimately shelved by her label, and reportedly, that crushed her dreams and led her to seek out spiritual salvation through yoga and herbs in the forests of Honduras. There’s no doubt that the experience affected her on a deep internal level, and the film helps to create a new level to her legacy.
Even without the documentary, Left Eye would be remembered as one of the most creative, exciting, smart, and sassy female rappers of all time. But without the revelations she so openly shares in the film, the acknolwedgement of her alcoholism and the abuse she’d faced by the men in her life, the eerie premonitions of her death — brought on by a car accident in which a little boy, also named Lopes, was killed by the car she traveled in — the scars she reveals, and the hope that shone so brightly in her beautiful doe eyes; without those things, the story of Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes might have remained just another tale of a lost one. Yet another celebrity only remembered for the way she left this life, not for how she lived it. But because of her brave and stunning film, her legacy will shine even brighter. Left Eye is my Afrobella of the Week because of the strength she revealed in her final moments. She believed in transformation and reincarnation, so I hope that somewhere in a rainforest, she’s naked and playing with her animal friends as she yearned to do in life. I hope that her visions of the afterlife were everything she would have wanted. I hope that wherever she is, there is peace.
Instead of sharing yet another TLC video, here’s Donell Jones’s “You Know What’s Up.” I love her look and attitude in this video. No more condom glasses or spray painted clothes. She looks like the angel that she is, and she’s spitting rhymes on her own terms.
We miss you, Left Eye. You will never be forgotten.