CocoRosie: When White Musicians Use The "N-Word"

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Ahh, the N-word. We would like to think that common sense would suggest to many people that the dreaded word conjures up an intense hate -- and, depending on the situation in which it is expressed, a desire to inflict physical harm to someone because of the color of her skin. However, black artists -- musicians, writers, poets -- adopted the word as a way to bare "truths." By incorporating the word back through their artistic endeavors, it is used in an ironic sense, to regain power over something that is so psychologically crippling in our society.

When rapper Nas decided to name an album Ni&#er (he later removed the title), I can safely assume that while many were offended, they understood his point: It wasn't that he felt the way that African-Americans who lived and died before him were made to feel by their slavemasters, by store owners, educators and people in the street. He wanted to create a work of art that was political and confrontational, revealing the ugly truth about life that many never want to openly discuss.

And yes, controversy is also a great way to sell records.

But what happens when a white artist says it? For the sister/duo CocoRosie, their use of the N-word has caused some ire, though perhaps not as much as they deserve, and drawn a lot of attention. The problem is, where does that attention come from? A good place, as in "omigod these hipster chicks are so ironic?" Or a bad place, as in "what the hell were they thinking? Are they really that ignorant?" On "Jesus Loves Me" off their new album, Grey Oceans, the ladies sing:

"Jesus loves me /But not my wife

Not my nigger friends/Or their nigger lives."

For me, the above lyrics, which as the newspaper The Stranger points out, is sung in a faux-bluesy voice with a "lazy back-porch, blues-guitar plucking an antique grotesquerie in keeping with the band's frequently deployed old-timely affectations," is pretty bad -- but could be, yes, construed as "ironic."

CocoRosie
Image by odreiuqzide via Wikimedia Commons

If CocoRosie is trying to prove a point via shock value, perhaps the lyrics aren't so bad. But if you believe what is alluded to in the above-linked article, that these two women, who have become indie darlings, are really spoiled, self-indulgent brats who use their father's supposed half-Native American roots to bolster their street cred, then, yes, there is a problem.

To be fair, other folk/rock/punk white artists have also appropriated the N-word. The most famous is John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "Women is the Nigger of the World" where they attempt to ... umm, compare the plight of women to black people? And if they tried to do that, are they saying that white (or non-black, anyway) women deserve more respect than black men and black women whom the word is commonly directed toward? I have always been a bit confused over that.

And then there is Patti Smith's "Rock n' Roll Nigger:"

Jimi Hendrix was a nigger.
Jesus Christ and Grandma, too.
Jackson Pollock was a nigger.
Nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger,
nigger, nigger, nigger.

Which to me is a bit more offensive. Whether Smith and co-writer, comedian Lenny Kaye, were trying to be "radical," calling Hendrix a "Ni#$er" -- Hendrix, an iconic figure who in a sense broke racial barriers in the world of hard rock music -- was not the way to go.

Both songs angered many, but are also seen as some , if not the only important, relevant musical offerings of their generations.

On the other hand, there is also the band Eyehategod's contemporary-era "White Nigger," which is positioned from the perspective of the plight of poor white folks living in a predominately black city (the band is from New Orleans) who reject the conformity of modern-day society. Is it more centered on feeling like an outcast because of societal/economic class differences than racial differences? As you can see below, the writer, Mike Williams, did not feel that he needed to continously use the N-word to get his message across:

 We are the leaders of tomorrow.
We are the ones to have the fun.

We want control. We want the power.
Not gonna stop until it comes.
(chorus)
We are not Jesus Christ.
We are not fascist pigs.
We are not capitalist industrialists.
We are not communists. We are the one.
We will build a better tomorrow.
The youth of today will be the tool.
American children made for survival.
Fate and our destiny we shall rule.
(Chorus)
I am the one who brings you the future.
I am the one who buries the past.
A new species rises up from the ruins.
I am the one who is made to last.

I think it's safe to say that Smith, Lennon/Ono and Eyehategod are perhaps innocent in their use of the "N-Word" -- they're trying to make a point rather than trying to blatantly insult and demean people. But CocoRosie? They are the band that people love to hate. From The Stranger article:

Beyond the numbers, of course, people just say mean things about the sisters Sierra and Bianca Casady. Spin, in a zero-­stars review of their 2005 sophomore album, Noah's Ark, memorably said: "They make each shimmer of postnatal whimsy seem like an eternal gulag of the spotless mind." One particularly bone-picking (and off-base) critic, writing for Brainwashed.com, called them "Cocoracist" (for reasons we'll explore later) in an article subtitled "You're So Worldly, How's Mom's Audi?"

I did some searches to check out the band's music. While the album reviews have been mixed (people either love or hate them with an equal passion) I have to say that I think their music is awful and self-indulgent to the point of ridiculousness. But what has caught the ire of some is that one of the sisters, Bianca, was interviewed for an article written in 2005 by the New York Times about the notorious "Kill Whitey" (or Whitie) parties. The parties were (or if they are still going on, are) are geared toward young whites who love the music they think is played within urban-geared clubs: raucous hip-hop with wildly offensive lyrical content -- which is okay, since the lyrical content doesn't have anything to do with them.

In the article, Bianca talks about feeling safer in the all-white hip-hop environments:

A regular Kill Whitie partygoer, she tried the conventional (that is, non-hipster) hip-hop clubs but found the men "really hard-core." In this vastly whiter scene, Casady said that "it's a safe environment to be freaky."'

Safe from being sexually harassed and/or assaulted by big black men with a penchant for young, nubile white flesh, I surmise.

Another important difference between the '70s pontifications of Lennon/Ono and Smith/Kaye and the contemporary musings of CocoRosie is the era when the musicians created their songs. For Smith and Lennon/Ono, it could be argued that the music emerged during a time when society in general was questioning the confining rules surrounding race and gender. But CocoRosie, whose album dropped this past May, should simply know better. In this era of racial turmoil, they should know that whites should not utter the word, for fear of being called a rac ... well, a Tea Partier. Also, the women are white, somewhat attractive, indie media darlings and come from reportedly privileged backgrounds. What do they know about the lives of black folks? And do they really care? Or is this just a way to get some media attention for their shit record?

But as artists, we are supposed to be given a bit more leeway in relation to political correctness. We can make widely inaccurate assumptions and think that we position our outbursts as "freedom of speech" or, more often, as "art."

But despite the popularity of some artists and their art, its appeal is entirely subjective. And while CocoRosie might mean well, their art comes off as being -- maybe not racist, but just incredibly naive and ignorant. More importantly, the reaction to "art" is dependent on the person creating the art. Nas was essentially forced to change the title of his album. I bet that CocoRosie will always keep that awful song on theirs.

Contributing EditorRace, Ethnicity & Culture

Blog: Writing is Fighting: www.lainad.typepad.com

Writer: Hellbound: www.hellbound.ca

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