What started as me anxiously rambling, questioning, and at times defending some of my musical idols, turned into an illuminating (and ongoing!) dialogue between me and author, punk-rock heroine, and all-around awesome femme of color Camille Collins.
In the summer of 2001, I was shocked in more ways than one when I heard for the first time Patti Smith’s jam, “Rock ‘N’ Roll Ni__er.” At 14, I thought about what a brazenly triumphant song it was… but I couldn’t bring myself to sing along. (Still can’t.) You see, a lot of my favorite old punk/rock songs have what I’m sure many would consider questionable… hell, downright “racist” lyrics.
Take for example, The Gun Club’s “For Love of Ivy.” Frontman Jeffrey Lee Pierce whispers, “I was huntin’ for ni__ers down in the dark.” Sure, I’m taking that line out of the context of the whole meant-to-be-violent-for-effect song, but is there really ever an excuse for that? I’m left with that unsettling sunken feeling in my gut, while desperately wanting to defend my favorite bands and artists. When I think about the era of Reagan, and Thatcher… and how damn backwards everyone seemed, I’m left wanting to blanketly assert that punks and artists at the time were progressive, radical, committed to social justice… you know, the ones who “had it right.” I can’t really do that, though.
When I listen to a lot of songs from 30 years ago, I’m torn on how to think about punk-rock’s diverse attitudes towards race. And I have a lot of questions. For instance, should we make a distinction between offensive/inappropriate language and racist concepts?
Ex. of the former: Patti Smith’s “Rock’N’ Roll Ni__er.” “Jimi Hendrix was a nigger / Jesus Christ and Grandma too / Jackson Pollock was a ni__er / Ni__er ni__er ni__er ni__er!”
Ex. of the latter: New York Gong’s 1979 song- “Much Too Old.” “I hate my Arabs and I hate my Jews / When I go to Harlem I get the white boy blues / Please save me from the redneck macho dudes / Don’t want no Chinatown opium food.”
Smith’s song describes people she obviously admires (it’s a well-known fact that Jimi Hendrix was her friend and hero) as these sort of badass outsiders who she identifies with. NY Gong’s song, if taken literally, is straight-up hateful. Although I’m guessing it’s ironic, (hey! read that hipster racism article!) that doesn’t change the fundamental content. And for Patti’s song, is cross-racial identification legit or is it just a fucked up illusion? Is it possible for someone from a privileged group to act as if they’re just like someone from an oppressed group? Or is that type of flagrant cultural appropriation even worse than conservative bigotry? Is it as simple as white people think black people are “cooler” and they’re trying to either celebrate that, appropriate it, pay homage, or rip it off?
Take this song (Lou Reed’s “I Wanna Be Black”) for example too:
And well, I might as well throw out there a bunch of songs that come to mind:
The Gun Club- The Devil & The Ni__er
X- Los Angeles
Noh Mercy- Caucasion Guilt (That whole category of white punk backlash for being labeled as racist- Minor Threat- Guilty of Being White, and NOFX-Don’t Call Me White.)
Nervy, confused cross-racial identification! James Chance- Almost Black (I’ll admit that I’ve loved this song for many years.)
The Avengers- White Ni__er
Do I even need to mention the Stones’ “Brown Sugar”?
How should I listen to these songs? I think the most problematic part of this for me personally is: This is art. I’m of the belief that art should be risky and controversial and sometimes even vomit-inducing. I’m deeply opposed to censorship, especially in regards to art. The very idea of restricting expression, however repulsive it might be, terrifies me. So that complicates things. Also, does it matter that these songs were written “in a different era”? What if they’re being ironic? What if they’re actually trying to make an anti-racist statement, but no one interprets it correctly? What if the listener is anti-racist and doesn’t pay attention to the lyrics, but just listens to it because it’s a damn catchy song? What if the song could be interpreted as a tribute, a show of solidarity, or a joke?
Consider the whole semi-recent debate about removing the word “ni__er” from Huck Finn. Now, I know you can’t exactly compare punk lyrics to classic Literature (capital L!) but I personally don’t know where I stand on this issue either. I’m pretty sure context should play a role in determining what’s appropriate or not. I return to the same argument of- words are very powerful. Changing a singular word in a work of art could very well change the entire SPIRIT of that object or idea.
Some people might be interested to know that a book was recently published on the subject of punks and the politics of race. It’s called White Riot, and I didn’t read it because it claimed to be “comprehensive” and “definitive” (give me a break pls) and it also got a really shitty review from Maximum Rock ‘N’ Roll.
I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to fully reconcile my love of these songs and some of the problematic lyrics they contain. Oh, and don’t get me started on sexist/homophobic themes from some of my favorite early hardcore songs. Or do. Whatever. I think this is a good song for me to end my rant with, but then please read below for Camille’s perspective:
Maybe all of this is only a problem if no one discusses it? Which is why I asked smart-tastic Camille Collins to weigh in too! Here was her response…
From the jacked up beginnings of our in-equal coexistence on this continent, black people have sat somewhere in the white psyche, sometimes peering quietly, sometimes shouting in the church tradition; a shadow in the white consciousness imploring whites to do better by us, and in turn, to do better by themselves. Out of this angry, unjust, oft times earnest cluster-fuck of attempted reconciliation and shared history, we’ve collectively circled one another in fear, befriended, and betrayed one another time and again in one of the most dysfunctional “family” sagas of all time.
It’s no surprise then, that we’ve used the prism of art, literature, film and music to mimic, mock, and attempt to understand one another. To express our anger, sadness and fear.
The establishment of a set rule in confronting racism, or at least unsettlingly racist lyrics in punk and other forms of music, has certainly been something I’ve struggled with throughout my life (btw, I’m equally offended by the reverse. By lyrics sung or rapped by black performers that demean or stereotype other races). And similarly, misogynistic lyrics as well. Over time I’ve settled on a case by case, or song by song, criteria if you will. Some tunes are just too disgusting to merit an assault on my ears, even though I may appreciate other songs by the same performer.
In a nutshell, this is what it is: Huckleberry Finn would not be Huckleberry Finn without the words of Mark Twain: ALL OF THEM. Therefore, for me, they should never be changed. I also don’t think the book should be banned. Teachers should possess the maturity and training to know how to conduct a meaningful and insightful discussion with their students about the time and place in which the book is set, and everyone should come away from it having learned something from the art Twain created. Yet, I also know, that when you’re quietly minding your own business, thumbing through the pages of a book, or watching a film touted by all the critics, only to be casually assaulted by the racially offensive language or sentiments of some wholly uninspired hack who thought they were being clever, hip, or spicing things up with a dash of “post-racial” racism, it can be a jarring slap in the face that sucks and instantly makes you feel exhausted and annoyed. But honestly, I prefer that cold slap in the face to censorship, or private movie houses that show a different cut of a film to all white audiences because they don’t want to say how they really feel in front of minorities.
The use of certain words, or the presentation of certain ideas by some white performers in music may have different intentions, but adds up to plain old racism at the end of the day. Lou Reed’s “I Want to be Black” is crass and too lacking in irony to be anything other than the epitome of white privilege run amok. “I want a stable of whores,”Reed croaks in his lazy, talk-sing style. “Like MLK I want to get myself shot in the Spring.” Hilarious! To me, this song has no meaning, besides I suppose, the fact that it’s fun to be a white boy and be hideously insensitive, (or is this simply some crass posturing in the punk tradition of which I do not approve? Take for example, “The Dead Kennedys”), and proliferate negative, and frankly the most tired of stereotypes about black people, just for shits and giggles. (Wouldn’t it have been something if he’d at least been creative enough, politicized enough, to sing about being a black undertaker, peeling the bodies of black junkies (this trash was recorded pre-crack era) off of street corners and giving them tricked out funerals? It still would have been stereotypical, but at least it would have been marginally interesting. And that, in a nut-shell, epitomizes the crassness of it all. Blacks, for Reed anyway, don’t merit such thoughtful discourse. Slumming is a fleeting courtship, a passing infatuation. Hastily consummated in the time it takes to tack together a few stupid phrases, hire some black girls to sing back up, and call it a day.
As a kid, and die-hard fan of X, I never liked the song Los Angeles, so I set it aside and listened to other tunes. But in a sense, that one song haunted all the others, and presented a conflict of interest between myself, the band and their lyrics. Yet, the honesty of their art at the time, and their discourse on race from their perspective, began a conversation which I continued−with an entire book. I don’t know what they intended to state (except, um, for the obvious) with that song, and if given the opportunity I would never ask−because it doesn’t matter. To me the song exists as a work of art, reflective of the dysfunctional family dynamic of black and white, and if it’s not redeeming in any other way, at least it’s honest. (Unlike the song by Smith, at least it doesn’t cut with the double edged sword of racism and blithe racial entitlement, both, at the same time. Here, some skinny child is lamenting that she’s a “ni_ _er.” Why? Because folks don’t get her “art”? Because she can’t afford to live in the Dakota? (And in carelessly appropriating the worst of the black condition and putting it on wax, said child makes a mint and easily sheds all those “ni_ _er” problems which were never really hers in the first place! Yay!). All sarcasm aside, much like X, I do admire other works of Ms. Smith, but unlike “Los Angeles,” I feel “Rock n Roll Ni_ _ er” is too contrived and reeks too highly of entitlement to succeed even while offending me, as the best art often does.
Exene Cervenka reached out to me a couple of times after learning about my book. I bet initially from the title, she never imagined it was penned by an African American author. But whether or not this fact caught her by surprise, doesn’t really matter. What counts is the continuation of the dialogue. Sometimes it begins with us in our own heads; within our own ethnic groups; with John Doe and Exene sitting down in some apartment in Los Angeles years ago, writing that song. Then a bridge is traversed and it’s the black lodged in the white psyche again, questioning, “really dude?” (because that is such a black thing to say). It’s the truth of our dysfunctional family history, slowly yielding to greater understanding, to face to face dialogue, to new opportunities for enlightenment, gradually altering our perceptions, and hopefully making us more aware.
Thank you to Camille for her insight! As ever, I encourage anyone and everyone with an opinion to please weigh in. Or you know, as long as you’re not a hateful asshole.
Interesting perspectives. I think that Patti Smith’s assertion of her “right to say nigger” is a clear example of White liberal artist privilege. Her defence was an appeal to the romantic idea of the outsider artist who challenges the conventions of straight society which try to stifle the natural creativity in humanity etc.
There are a few problems with this perspective.
Firstly, the romantic idea of rebellious outsider artists belies the fact that successful artists have always been dependent on the patronage of the bourgeoisie that they aspire to challenge – ‘epater les bourgeois’ is a cliched principle of outsider artists.
Secondly, Patti Smith’s idea of what it is to be Black has roots in another romantic idea, that of the Noble Savage, which ascribes to non White people a closer connection with natural urges and impulses that are suppressed by civilisation and sets up a false dichotomy between non White/Savage and White/civilised. It also demonstrates a very restricted view of what Blackness is.
Thirdly, Patti Smith’s elision of niggerness to include Mick Jagger and other White rock singers reduces both Black identity and the painful history of the word ‘nigger’ to a denotation of artistic integrity and excellence.
In contrast to Patti Smith’s earnest and arrogant appropriation of the term, the Dead Kennedys’ use of the word ‘nigger’ in Holidays in Cambodia is explicitly satirical and savagely critical of White people like Patti Smith who play the masquerade adopting ethnic traditions and tropes. There may be issues with the Dead Kennedys, but smug White liberal appropriation of Blackness is certainly not one of them.