Why Pyramids By Frank Ocean Should Be Talked About

In 1962, Malcolm X spoke the words, “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.” To this day, that statement rings unfortunately true and resonates deep within myself. While I myself haven’t faced great amounts of sexism and racism on a day to day basis in my progressive area, the mixture of micro-aggressions and the viewing of systemic inequalities has made me extremely aware that this society was not built to serve and protect me. You don’t have to be the victim of a hate crime to feel the racial injustice that is deeply embedded in not just our country, but our entire world. 

When I think of the exploitation of black women, I get mad, honestly. I get mad because I know the stories of African royalty, of wealthy Kings and Queens that ruled nations before colonization. One of the most notable was that of Egypt, and the last as well as one of the most infamous Pharaohs, Cleopatra VII. Cleopatra’s reputation precedes her, whether it’s a pale Elizabeth Taylor’s longing gaze or Shakespeare’s rendition of her seductress tendencies. One of the most notable references, in my opinion, to Cleopatra and her influence comes from Frank Ocean. On his 2012 album Channel Orange, track 10 titled “Pyramids” tells the story of the fall from grace of black women throughout history from Queens to prostitutes, using Cleopatra as an embodiment of the black queen. Sure, this is a major jump. Not all black women are prostitutes. Not all prostitutes are black women. But the exploitation and hyper-fetishization of the group contributes to degradation that has permeated through generations. I like this song a lot, it’s probably one of my favorite songs ever. And it feels more relevant than ever in my life at this current moment, when the dignity of black women is put under a microscope even by members of our community. Because of all of these current events, I wanted to take a look at these lyrics, and why I feel they’re impactful.

For the first 4 minutes and 25 seconds of the nearly 10 minute track, we are transported to ancient Egypt by the eerie synths and reversed 808s that bring a surreal, and unnerving feeling to the track. The overall feeling is reminiscent of a dreamlike state that is soon juxtaposed by an 80’s inspired percussion. 

Set the cheetahs on the loose

There’s a thief out on the move

Underneath our legion’s view

They have taken Cleopatra

First of all, Cheetah’s is a chain of strip clubs throughout America. (Sounds random in this part of the song, I’ll explain that later!) The pronunciation Frank uses sounds an awful like “cheater” as well, creating a mistrust of our Queen. The statement of a thief slipping underneath the legion’s noses to kidnap Cleopatra could be read in a historical context to be a revision of Egyptian history, but I analyze this to be an exposition for the rest of the song and sets the rest of Frank’s story with the backdrop of a royal crime. The Cleopatra in question is of course the aforementioned last Egyptian Pharaoh who was an icon of sexual power and is known for her rendezvous with both Marc Antony and Julius Caesar.

Our skin like bronze and our hair like cashmere

As we march to the rhythm, on the palace floor

Chandeliers inside the pyramid, tremble from the force

The Egyptian people of Cleopatra’s era are thought to be of Nubian and Semite descent as well as many other ethnic groups, which would give them brown skin and “silky” hair. In many film adaptions of Cleopatra’s life and reign, white actresses take on the role. Not only would it be historically inaccurate for her to be of Elizabeth Taylor’s complexion (especially with those violet eyes), but the whitewashing of Ethnic groups runs deep in the industry. Moving forward, the pyramids that “tremble from the force” are likely references to Cleopatra’s overthrow of her brother, Ptolemy XIV, to ensure that her son would rule one day. For me, this line reinforces her political prowess and strength.

The jewel of Africa, jewel

What good is a jewel that ain’t still precious?

How could you run off on me? How could you run off on us?

You feel like God inside that gold

In patriarchal systems, a woman’s worth is often tied to her purity or the perception of her sexual liberation. The jewel losing its preciousness is one of our first references we see to exploitation of women and then the hypocritical judgment received. Frank’s desperate questions of Cleopatra’s “running off” could be a reference to her escapades with Marc Antony and Julius Caesar, two non-black men. This abandonment transcends time and permeates into our society now, as I’ve seen with my own eyes when a black woman dating a non-black man is called traitorous for dating outside of her race.

(In an unrelated cool fact, Cleopatra claimed to be the reincarnation of Isis, the goddess of good fortune, sea, and travel. This is what I would think that last line in the stanza above is about.)

I found you laying down with Samson and his full head of hair

I found my black queen Cleopatra, bad dreams, Cleopatra

Samson was an Israeli Warrior and Judge that can be found in the Biblical book of Judges chapters 13-16. His lover, Delilah, is bribed by the lords of the Philistines to discover the source of his power and destroy it. Samson tells Delilah that his long hair granted him God-given superhuman strength in confidence, only to be betrayed by her when she cuts his hair in his sleep. The allusion to Samson could be Frank’s character’s insinuation of Cleopatra’s ulterior motives, and her sexual promiscuity for political gain. He continues and calls Cleopatra his “black queen”, which is a purposeful reminder that yes, she was African. 

Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra, 1963

Remove her, send the cheetahs to the tomb

Our war is over, our queen has met her doom

No more, she lives no more serpent in her room

No more, he has killed Cleopatra, Cleopatra

Cleopatra’s is assumed to have been killed by an intentional asp bite after Marc lost the Battle of Actium to Octavian. If you listen to the song, Frank hits his loudest and highest note when he sings the word “serpent.” This conveys the betrayal and pain caused by her demise, also I can’t not mention the double entendre of the phallic shape of a serpent. It is important to also notice that Frank has given the thief male pronouns. This “he” represents the patriarchal Eurocentric system that hypersexualizes black women, a kind of metaphorical death. 

This stanza ends the first part of the song, and we’re soon brought to the second half that is a modern beat with a futuristic synth melody. 

Big sun coming strong through the motel blinds

Wake up to your girl for now, let’s call her Cleopatra, Cleopatra

So now Frank is waking up from this surreal dream, and refers to the woman that he’s with as the Queen he dreamt about, possibly forming a beauty standard.

She’s headed to the pyramid

She’s working at the pyramid tonight

There’s a lot I unpacked from this. Pyramids were where the Pharaohs and other high borns were honorably buried, which would make sense with what we heard in the first half of the song. But this part definitely has a different connotation to me that alludes to prostitution and exotic dancing. “Working at the pyramid” could mean a strip club she’s employed at, but I also picked up on the fact that street corners, where prostitution is stereotypically seen, form a point…like a pyramid. Yet another reference I noticed was the cover art for the single itself, a man under the sheets of a bed next to a woman, with three pyramid looking points under the sheet. Two points for his feet, and uh, I don’t really want to explain what the third point is. 

Pimping in my convos

Bubbles in my champagne

Let it be some jazz playing

Top floor motel suite twisting my cigars

Floor model TV with the VCR

Converse are not exactly high-end shoes, and you shouldn’t have to twist high-quality cigars. Just from these two statements, the economic state of Frank’s pimp persona is shown to not be as grand as his bravado is. To strengthen this point, floor model TVs usually are at low prices to get the product out of stock. 

Got rubies in my damn chain

Whip ain’t got no gas tank

But it still got wood grain

Back to the point above this stanza, flashiness over functionality does not make for a sustainable lifestyle and showcases that even the perpetrators of degradation are not living as well as they could be.

Got your girl working for me

Hit the strip and my bills paid

That keep my bills paid

But I’m still unemployed

But your love ain’t free no more, baby

But your love ain’t free no more

The end of the song comes with a conclusion that once powerful people have been reduced to exploitation of themselves and others, self-hate, desperation, and crime. Eurocentric beauty standards that favor white, blonde, blue-eyed slim women are reinforced at the expense of black women, who are called slurs and demonized to the point that it runs rampant within our own community. While we begin the song learning of Cleopatra’s prowess and power, we end with the melancholy crooning of a man who resorts to pimping out his significant other to make ends meet. Like I said before, the storytelling in this song is extremely intentional and makes the point that the exploitation of black women is rampant. People call them “queens” on social media, but how valid is that title when in the same breath you fat shame, slut-shame, and use colorist language? I’ve seen the addressing of the word “female” as a way to talk down to women, but queen became the new put-down. The term is just a mask for belittling speech, and it doesn’t sit right with me. Honestly, it all feels like a bad dream.

Works Cited

“Cleopatra VII.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 28 Feb. 2020, http://www.biography.com/royalty/cleopatra-vii.

Def Jam Recordings, http://www.defjam.com/.“Samson and Delilah.” Historical Articles and Illustrations, 30 Jan. 2011, http://www.lookandlearn.com/blog/2975/samson-and-delilah/.

Published by Claire Jackson

20 year old college student who likes to read and overthinks the smallest aspects in any social setting

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