En Vogue emerged as a recording ladies’ quartet in 1991. “Free Your Mind” appeared on their Funky Divas (1992) recording. The lyrics urge people to free their minds from prejudice, specifically along racial and gender lines. The video opens on a zoom-in of a dark, Negro woman with baby locks. She is surrounded by bald, shirtless White men. All look in different directions. Only she possesses a gaze, looking directly, albeit sheepishly, into the camera. “Prejudice, wrote a song about it. Like to hear it? Hear it go.” After this pronouncement, the group En Vogue sings out “free your mind.” The shot cuts to a wide shot of a poster drawing of a White caricatured male head shot in business attire with his mouth agape and a stuffed monkey in the foreground. It seems to indicate that Orwell’s Big Brother watches. The bass offers a strong acoustic line, reminiscent of rock music. Visually, a line of multi-racial, multi-ethnic men and women walk arm-locked and in slow motion toward the camera.
The setting is a fashion show/concert with En Vogue as the models/performers. Photographers snap pictures and onlookers dance around the outskirts of the auditorium. Dressed in all black, the four women parade the look of dominatrix, similar to Madonna’s look in “Justify My Love.” But in this visual display the women deal only superficially with sexual politics (although some would argue that their dress connotates a certain eroticism that foregrounds discussions of sexuality). John Leland suggests that En Vogue, like the group Salt-N-Pepa, “play sex as sex, but also as politics. At a time when popular music is particularly hostile to women, theirs is a celebration of female sexual control.” Evidence of this control can be assessed both with the lyrics and this video.
As the group members individually walk the runway, each has a specific commentary on looking relations–particularly those relationships that objectify Colored women. Each member lip-synchs one stanza:
I wear tight clothing, high heeled shoes. It doesn’t mean that I’m a prostitute. No, no. I like rap music, wear hip hop clothes. That doesn’t mean that I’m out sellin’ dope. No, no, no. Oh Lord forgive me for having straight hair. It doesn’t mean there’s another blood in my heirs. I might date another race or color. It doesn’t mean I don’t like my strong black brothers.
In this first stanza the group wonder aloud why society indulges in shallow preconceptions. What made this video and text particularly compelling was their juxtaposition of uniquely Colored women’s encounters with society and the visual illustration of the problem.
In the second verse the women sing:
So I’m a sista. Buy things with cash. That really doesn’t mean that all my credit is bad. So why dispute me and waste my time because you really think the price is high, for me. I can’t look without being watched. No. You rang my buy before I made up my mind.
After the last line Terry Ellis thrusts her pelvis forward and strikes the overused pose women assume in male videos–legs agape in a V. The expression “Ow” is heard in voice-over. In male videos the camera or the male singer himself would then move through the opening of the unidentified woman’s legs. In En Vogue’s case, however, Ellis kicks, crosses, turns and walks away. She subverts and denies traditional male view and access.
The lyrics continue:
Oh now attitude. Why even bother? I can’t change your mind. You can’t change my color.
During the next two musical bridges, the video shows a Black male torso with white hands caressing it from the back while overhead shots display White men with their mouths agape. Additionally, a White (presumed) punk rocker jumps into the crowd, conjuring scenes of a grunge/rock concert. The young Black woman who appeared at the beginning of the video now sits smiling as the men turn their gaze toward her and massage her shoulders. The final segment of the song features a guitar solo that recalls Jimi Hendrix. This again reinforces the mantra to free your mind through replication of certain freedoms called for, especially in this case, during the sixties and seventies.
Robin Roberts erroneously critiqued the video as a central visual text for gendered empowerment. She claims, for example, that the line “I can’t look without being watched” is an indictment of male gazes and is directed toward all women. Although the gaze may be a male one, the look that En Vogue refers to is frequently a more racialized one–one directed at Coloreds in stores where proprietors/sales clerks ascribe a propensity for stealing to Colored bodies. This look comes from both males and females. Thus, the visualization of “Free Your Mind” not only calls for an outside action, but examines specific oppressions. In this heightened fashion world, Black women could find voice lyrically and visually by confronting taboos (Black-White coupling) and mechanical (camera) objectification.
Beretta E. Smith-Shomade, I Got Your Bitch!: Colored Women, Music Videos, and Punanny Commodity