As a word, “unapologetic” has become quite ubiquitous in the past ten years. A quick Google search shows the mention of the word to have dramatically increased over time in the 2000’s. Perhaps some of its popularity can be attributed to the fact that people and brands alike have used it to describe themselves and their missions. However, the term can be more nuanced than a simple dictionary definition. The world has been used in art, politics, pop culture, and everyday people using it to describe some aspect/s of their selves. After speaking with a number of different women about what “unapologetic” meant to them, why they use it, and what it means to live an unapologetic life, I came to the realization that everyone has a different take on the word.
Unapologetic has been used to describe Issa Rae and her pursuit of creating the content that she wanted to see in this word. Trans activist Janet Mock told Oprah in a 2015 interview that, “I will proudly and unapologetically embrace that part of my identity for once, the one part of my [trans] identity that I was taught growing up to be silent and shamed about.”
One of the earliest examples of the word unapologetic being introduced to our daily lexicon arrived – and arguably remains – in pop culture.
In 2012 Rhianna released her seventh studio album entitled Unapologetic. Arguably one of the most popular songs and videos from the album was “Pour it Up.” When the video was released it caused a number of dropped jaws around the world because of its uber, steamy, and gravity defying pole dancing, booty shaking, and sex appeal.
This video really put the physical talent and imagination needed to be a jaw-dropping pole dancer on the map for generations that didn’t grow up in the era of 2 Live Crew and Freaknik. 2 Live Crew and Freaknik showcased the talent and physicality needed for twerking, pole dancing, and booty shaking, however the focus of these free dancing moves were generally through the male gaze. As a video, “Pour It Up” put a woman, Rihanna, and all the dancers at the center of their sexual power and talent. The most notable moment was the pole drop seen around the world performed by Los Angeles-based pole performer Nicole “the Pole” Williams.
Unapologetic’s Pour it Up video put sex, sexy, and the often relegated to late-night “cheating men” strip club talent front and center. It seemed like this album encompassed everything that the word unapologetic meant.
Not only did Unapologetic give us high doses of sexy, it also provided us with ballads of heartbreak and uncertainty – like “What Now.” Through the album Rihanna is almost giving us permission to feel, experience, and go through the range of human emotions without – you guessed it – apology.
Three years later Madonna released her album Real Heart with a song entitled Unapologetic on it. The lyrics tell the story of someone confronting an ex-lover about their mistreatment, the shortsighted ways in which they behaved during their relationship, and how she has finally gotten them out of her system. The chorus sings:
“It might sound like I’m an unapologetic bitch
But sometimes you know I gotta call it like it is
You know you never really knew how much you loved me ’til you lost me
Madonna is finally done with this ex, letting them know exactly how she feels, and why she gotta speak on everything she has gone through. MuuMuse.com went as far and dubbing the album an “unapologetic pop conquest” in 2015.
Then in 2018 comedian Aisha Taylor’s one-season run show, Unapologetic premiered. During it’s one season the show was dubbed a “feminist talk show,” with a panel that featured conversations on a number of sensitive subject matters. In an interview with Vulture, Taylor says the show was a great way to have conversations in ways she isn’t always able to with people. “Now on Unapologetic, I really tell people to speak freely. We’re a cable show, we can bleep you. We want this to be a conversation. And people aren’t there to promote a project or prove themselves, they’re there to have a conversation. What they all say afterwards is ‘I have never had a conversation like that on TV before.’”
Unapologetic covered topics ranging from identity to diet culture to assault. “Our dynamic, rapidly evolving cultural climate demands a frank, no-holds-barred exchange about the ideas and questions raised by the book and series, and the real-world events and issues women face every day. I’m looking forward to expanding the #metoo conversation in funny, honest and engaging ways. It’s about time,” Tyler told Variety.com in May 2018.
Hearing the world “unapologetic” immediately reminds me of the late Shirley Chilsom, the first African American women elected to Congress in the United States. Her book and campaign slogan Unbought and unbossed continues to be a feminist mantra for women, especially Black women, everywhere. According to Nationally Women’s History Museum “Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm was the first African American woman in Congress (1968) and the first woman and African American to seek the nomination for president of the United States from one of the two major political parties (1972).”
Chisholm was truly an advocate for underrepresented and underestimated people of color in Washington D.C. During her career she introduced more than 50 pieces of legislation and championed racial and gender equality, the plight of the poor, and ending the Vietnam War. She was a co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971.
Although she did not herself use the word unapologetic in her slogan, I believe that she encompasses the beauty and power of being “un” something boldly and proudly. As a Black woman she often spoke about the discrimination she faced both because of her gender and her race. For women like Chisholm being “un” seems to be a negative prefix sentenced upon them before birth; however, Chisholm almost takes back the power of being relegated as something “un” by society at large and makes it a mantra of the possibility and power of Black women.
In 2017, Stacey Abrams promised and ran an unapologetic Democratic campaign in the state of Georgia for the state’s governorship. Unfortunately, Abrams encountered a number of political obstacles put in place by her opponent and opposition alike and did not win the election. However, she continues to entertain conversations about a possible 2020 presidential election.
It’s clear that the boldness of walking your truth, sharing your truth, and creating the things you want to see in this world carry an air of doing so without apology. Whether it’s dealing with heartbreak, finding yourself, showing the power of pole dancing, or political might, being bold seems to be a common throughout these themes and almost synonymous with “unapologetic.”
When I spoke to black women and women of color about what the word means to them, they usually expressed feeling a personal connection to the word and how it has helped them evolve and learn to let go. Black woman tech Data Scientist Emma @emmanism shared that, “unapologetic feels like training to me. For example, I had to train myself to walk in a straight line in the street and feel proud of myself when I don’t move out of white people’s way. But I beat myself up when I let them run over me. Now I’m letting go of everything and not feeling ashamed of whatever action or non-action I do, in any moment that feels right for me.”
For Liz @Pielcaramelo the word unapologetic always felt like the right word to use when describing herself. “I describe myself as unapologetic because I have always lived by my own rules. Ever since I was a child, I have done things my way and I have found my own path.” Today, she is proud to say that she doesn’t regret her decisions because she feels they are “part of my human journey.”
However, for some women unapologetic doesn’t fit just right for them. Digital Strategist and creative Amber J Phillips @amberabundance shared that she “doesn’t use that word. I use the word relentless.” When asked why she doesn’t unapologetic she expressed that she felt relentless was a better fit for her.
The word unapologetic – and unapologetically – has increased in popularity in recent years. The use of the word in different ways to activate, change, inspire, and encourage people to live in their truth and life path is something that seems to also increase.
Whether it’s used to describe oneself, an action, or a learning practice, one thing is certain: women of color have always and will continue to lead and live their lives as fully as possible when given and provided the space, community, and ability to do so. Embracing the word as a self-descriptor is less important than living in ones purpose, owning and being proud of every part of you. Above all else, remember to be bold in your pursuit of understanding yourself deeply without apology or unapologetically.