Photography by Ricardo Gomes
Fashion by Eyob Yohannes
“They are so naive; they think we are not aware of their crimes. We know, but we are just not ready to act. The storm isn’t in the air, it’s inside of us. I want to tell you about love and loneliness, But it’s getting late now. Can’t you hear outside of your Supreme hoodie, the wind that’s beginning to howl?”
Thus ends the song Dark Ballet, the second track on Madonna’s latest album, Madame X. It’s a strong, powerful message, which only Madonna is brave enough to unleash on the world. Her social justice activism is matched only by the absolute discipline she applies to her work in the studio and on the stage. And that is how it’s always been.
When I was asked to write this introduction, I became reflective. I have known Madonna for many, many years. She has been the star of three Versace advertising campaigns. But more than the celebrity, I have had the rare fortune of getting to know the woman. Of talking to her not only about work, but about life.
Because Madonna is extremely informed and culturally aware she can hold her own on any subject from music to art; on politics and our environmental crisis. In her latest album, I have found that same spirit of protest we first saw in her early work. Her only mission then seemed to be to shock the world – whereas her real goal was and has always been to expose things which, as a society, we didn’t have the courage to discuss. That is why she has always been criticized, misunderstood, minimized, and at times, vilified.
Her reaction was to crucify herself voluntarily. During the Confessions on a Dance Floor tour, there was a really powerful moment when she enters the scene on an enormous cross, wearing a crown of thorns, to sing Live To Tell.
Her beauty is—and excuse the word-play—divine.
Everyone saw Madonna on the cross as another one of her “provocations”—because the intelligentsia have never taken her seriously. A woman who dares to lift her head up and say what she thinks? To expose the rot we are all trying to hide? No one noticed that, in reality, the message she sought to convey was a much different one. When the count on the screens stops, the information, which leaves you breathless—like a punch in the stomach—begins to appear. It’s the number of children who would soon die from AIDS if society didn’t do something to help them, not just with medicine, but through prevention, research, education, and discussion.
In reality, we were all crucified, yet many of us hadn’t realized it yet.
Madame X really struck a chord with me. I listen to lots of music, especially music that experiments with sound. In this album, I not only found experimentation, but also powerful, relevant lyrics. I found a Madonna uninterested in currying favor. I found the Madonna of Like a Prayer and of American Life—perhaps one of her least understood albums.
Not long ago, Like a Prayer turned thirty years old. I can still remember the scent when I opened the CD sleeve. Despite the cultural stigma of AIDS, the record was accompanied by lyrics that focused on the epidemic that was claiming so many victims and on the importance of global education about a monumental health crisis that would touch all of society, and which above all required compassion and empathy for those infected.
The day after the launch of the video, religious groups all over the world protested against the use of Catholic imagery, and even the Pope went out of his way to ask “fans” to boycott the disk.
Both tracks went straight to number one on the charts and sold over 15 million copies. The album became a manifesto for the battle against those who want to keep us ignorant and oppressed, against stereotypes, against all those who want a society trapped by bigoted and ignorant preconceptions.
That is what Madonna has always been to me: A lioness. A fighter.
Besides the records sold, besides her ability to interpret society like no other artist, to create fashions that have inspired us all; besides the countless records made and awards won, Madonna to me, more than a fantastic performer and the female artist who has sold the most records in the history of music (well, yes…), is a woman. A mother, a great businesswoman, one who began marketing before the word or even the discipline had been invented, and who has always challenged us to be a more cohesive society, to fight together against injustice and to respect our neighbor.
I admire Madonna’s fearlessness. She has never been afraid to go out on a limb. In concert, always, she asks the crowd: How many people talk the talk and how many walk the walk?
She even did it physically in her controversial book Sex—another ground-breaking, record-breaking project which can only be found today second- or third-hand. She accomplished this radical artistic and cultural statement by laying her ideas bare.
The day before the American elections in 2016, on a cold late-fall evening in New York, she made a surprise performance in Washington Square Park before hundreds of people who quickly gathered around her. She appeared with just a guitar and her desire to keep on believing.
After the terrorist attacks in Paris the year before, she had done the very same thing.
With a lexicon of words that fail to adequately describe her, I return to one: brave.
While a song cannot give us back what we have lost; it can definitely help and support those in need. And there she was again, with her face and her body to say: I am here in person, and not just with words.
Today, certain messages may seem obvious or even cleverly masterminded. Almost 40 years ago, they weren’t. And even if just one person in the world still feels the need to claim these rights, it is because the world we live in could be a better place. Because enough is not being done, because women are still not treated equally to men, because if Madonna were a man…she probably would be the President of the United States.
I know her well. It is not just her mind, but her heart, that wages this lifelong campaign against injustice.
I met Madonna in New York a few months ago for World Pride, which she supported with a mini-concert to round off a very important month for the LGBTQ+ community.
I saw she had the same curious gaze she had when she was a young girl, and the same burning desire to make herself heard, to not be intimidated, and to keep going despite those who do and always will criticize her, no matter what.
It is no longer a question of how many records she sells, but of continuing to do what she has always done better than anyone else: to make us think.
To inspire us to take action.