Black Girl Bedroom
The Identity and Influence(s) of PinkPantheress
A nameless, ageless, genreless face gazes up at the readers of Rolling Stone with bulbous brown eyes. She’s kneeling on what might be a black papasan cushion. Battered black Converse, a small box TV, an amber GameBoy, and nondescript record sleeves, DVD cases, and magazines—save an issue of Gideon Falls, a horror comic—are strewn about the gray carpeted void. That each cultural clue appears fragmented in this photograph—just out of focus or frame—doesn’t strike me as coincidental. The mystery of PinkPantheress is not one asking to be solved.
Stone writer Keegan Brady does fill in some blanks for us. Her real name remains unknown, but she’s recently 20, and her byte-sized catalog of viral hits exemplifies “a new microgenre led by young women:” something called “Alt-Girl Rap.” To be clear, Brady’s article is not exactly a one-on-one with PinkPantheress. It features only two direct quotes from the UK-based starlet, and primarily endeavors to put her in conversation with other Gen-Z cyber-songstresses, including Grace Ives and Coco&ClairClair. I listen to all three artists regularly and acknowledge their sonic and lyrical similarities. PinkPantheress hits different.
I remember the first time I queued up the single “Passion” on Spotify several months ago. Plucky guitar chords arrived as though warped from travel across the space-time continuum: a lutist’s medieval tragedy trapped inside a bottle. Chattering sound bites layered themselves over the foundational melody, quickening the song’s heartbeat. But when an ethereal, British-accented voice finally interjected, nothing could drown out her weighty confession: “Said I had to clear up my head / But tonight, I think I lost the plot instead / I said that I’d be cleared out by three / To the walls, I know they listen to me.” It’s her who is trapped—in her room, in a depressive episode, without motivation. I saved the track to my library before the beat came in.
The cover art is clever—it’s the familiar verdant hills and crystal skies of the default Windows XP wallpaper—but does zero favors in identifying the person behind the melancholic vocals: “The teachers always called it a shame / They say I don’t have passion the same / As I did a few years before / They don’t see the light there anymore.” “Passion” ended—a tight two minutes and eighteen seconds—and I immediately took to the artist’s page within the streaming app, desperate for more. If you take a look at it today, you’ll notice a few things that were yet to come when I discovered PinkPantheress back in July.
Of course, there’s to hell with it, her debut mixtape released on October 15, 2021, that barely covers a congested morning commute from city to suburbs. She smartly opens with “Pain,” the earworm around which her fanbase coalesced in droves on Tik Tok. It boasts danceability (relative to the other nine tracks, though “Just for me” can compare in cadence) and an early 2000s UK garage sample—“Flowers” by Sweet Female Attitudes—deftly reworked as its throughline. PinkPantheress backs her star power with unmissable study. “Pain” precedes “I must apologise,” which somehow makes new the synth-organ hook from Crystal Waters’s house classic “Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless).” Other highlights include the feverish, siren-studded “Reason,” musings on day-to-day existence, happiness, and hope for the future; and “Nineteen,” a downtempo, violin-driven probe of stagnancy, numbness, and dissatisfaction with self that builds upon themes explored in “Passion.” From watching an ex-lover move on to explaining to your family why you’ve withdrawn, no trial of young adulthood is left untouched.
And listeners are touched by PinkPantheress. Her most popular tracks have swollen to anywhere between 18 and 140 million plays apiece. But her self-published biography (“mwah! x”) and photos haven’t changed at all. There’s a heavily filtered, oversize-sunglassed mirror selfie that screams 2014, a snapshot of a bulldog gnawing on a chew toy, and an adorable baby picture in a foam frame. Even her display photo is an overexposed party pic, with friends duck-facing in the background. What’s most prominent, besides her aforementioned captivating gaze, are her knotless box braids.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve all but divested from representational politics. I’m generally of the belief that making an icon out of someone solely based on how systems of oppression marginalize them is a recipe for disaster, or at the very least, disappointment. But I’m already observing a troubling phenomenon close in on PinkPantheress, her minute-long songs, and her minute-long career. In the frenzy to parse her virality, futurity, and relative privacy, her identity as a Black girl is at once overlooked and misrepresented.
Amid the age of Black excellence, I was shocked to discover such minimal acknowledgement of heritage within the music journalism that covers PinkPantheress, save a brief mention of her Kenyan mother in an i-D feature of rapid-fire facts. You could explain this away by pointing to her relative obscurity as an artist—that which accompanies her newness and stems from her desire to maintain agency over her public persona. “It’s not about secrecy,” she told i-D’s Douglas Greenwood over the summer. “I’m avoiding stress and preconceptions.” There’s also something sort of refreshing about her quietly meteoric rise, untethered from the burden of fulfilling any ideals associated with Blackness or womanhood. But instinct tells me the oversight has little to do with the unknowns or a desire to let her nascent body of work speak for itself.
What prevents in real-time the rightful embrace of PinkPantheress into the lineage of “Alt Black Girls” is anxiety. Anxiety about so brutally butchering an artist’s vision and oeuvre that it becomes a talking point she must refute. It’s why my mouth wrinkled when Rolling Stone declared PinkPantheress a monarch of “Alt-Girl Rap.” It’s what pushed fellow biracial British choralist FKA Twigs to scream “Fuck alternative R&B!” But to employ “alternative” in front of a musical genre that once charted as “race music,” and continues to push culture forward worldwide, is more accurately what’s cause for curses; where the cleaver actually falls. It implies that Black music requires modifiers to prove itself “innovative”—and the inverse is also true: a Black wunderkind like PinkPantheress is just making Rap/R&B 2.0. I do find the Alt Black Girl label useful, though, for tracing a lineage of women who refuse to bend to the standards of celebrity, like Twigs and Philly native Santigold, who says of her 2008 industry breakout, “It was an alternative portrayal, a different type of woman, a different type of Black woman making a different type of music. It was ‘other!’ Across categories, we checked the ‘other’ box. I think I was a role model to a lot of kids who felt they didn’t fit in the box of ‘This is what a Black woman does,’ ‘This is what girls do.’ I guess I still am.”
In a June 2021 interview with Cultured Mag, African American painter Jennifer Packer had this to say about representation in visual art: “People think representation is more believable or real than abstraction. But van Gogh’s paintings don’t look real. I’ve never seen a painting that looked real, but I’ve seen paintings that felt real. I’m interested in something that runs through the work despite what the image is.” To be sure, she’s referencing how lifelike a figure appears on a canvas. But her words hold compelling implications when applied to a study of identity and influence in the music industry. Yes, I root for PinkPantheress because she has box braids and so do I: because she’s a Black girl, and so am I. But before I knew any of that, she felt real to me.
Above, PinkPantheress entrances the camera in her first-ever fashion campaign: Heaven by Marc Jacobs. I can only hope I’ll see more of her soon—though probably not as much as I’d selfishly like. In the meantime, to hell with it remains on repeat, because what runs through her music endears PinkPantheress to fans far beyond what she shows us.