Warning: the following article contains explicit examples of racist and misogynistic language.
Black Pussy. That’s the name of the band, and let’s get this out of the way: they’re not bad. They sound like the psychedelic insert songs you’d hear in the middle of a Soundgarden album between all the really good singles.
How do you get away from that name? It’s become a controversy, leading to canceled shows and a petition to change their name. The band is all-white and all-male. Many critics insist a name like Black Pussy reinforces a white perspective of violence and ownership toward African-American women. It encourages the view that black women are loose, promiscuous, or even a reward to be obtained.
On their Facebook page, Black Pussy links a Doug Stanhope comedy routine as their defense. Here’s how it opens: “If you’re offended by any word in any language, it’s probably because your parents were unfit to raise a child.” Stanhope then proceeds to call a vagina a “pink ugly hole” and use the word “cunt” to describe women.
Let’s be real, the problem is never the word. The problem is the history behind that word and the social presumptions it comes loaded with. Let’s take a look at a few recent examples to give us context.
Why start a conversation about an artist’s responsibility by talking about a football team? It’s the single best example that allows me to demonstrate the power of words. The fight over the Washington Redskins name has reached critical mass. Something’s going to change within the next few years.
Why should it? Whatever its origin, the most damning historical use of “redskin” was as the skin of a Native American, cut either from the scalp or from nape of the neck to the small of the back. Government bounties were offered for “redskins” because bodies were too heavy to transport over long distances. Skins were easier to carry, allowing bounty hunters to rack up more kills. Government accountants could easily tell the age and gender of a dead human being from this part of the skin. You see, rewards differed. The skin of a boy or girl younger than 12 years of age got you 40% of what an adult male brought, but you could still make a year’s wage off of two dead children.
So when you say “redskin”, you may mean a football team, but what someone of Native American descent may hear is “you should be dead, your children should be poached, and you’re no better than an animal”. By using the term, we constantly reinforce the cultural ghettoization of an entire people. We can’t pretend the term says anything else, least of all an honorific. Whatever the term’s meaning now, it cannot be disengaged from a history of genocide. Would we be so defensive of the Washington Redskin nickname if it instead referred to a pile of bodies at Auschwitz and the logo featured a large-nosed, curly-haired caricature? I think not. We’re a nation that holds dear the moral costs of others’ genocides, yet ignores the ones we’re built on.
In 2012, South African rap group Die Antwoord faced controversy after using blackface in their “Fatty Boom Boom” video, which has now been viewed 23 million times.
In the music video, white rapper Yo-Landi Visser wears blackface. Standing next to her, black actor Daniel Isele stands in for white group member DJ Hi-Tek. He wears a sleeveless KKK robe with words like ‘care’, ‘respect’, and ‘love’ printed colorfully across it. The video is framed inside the story of Lady Gaga (played by Ali Ooop) touring Johannesburg’s streets as if she’s on safari, visiting a gynecologist to get a prawn removed, and being eaten by a lion with a taste for the meat dress she’s wearing.
It’s all just blatantly disgusting and offensive, right? The difference is, when you dig into the imagery, there’s a point that Die Antwoord’s trying to make. “Fatty Boom Boom” was made shortly after Die Antwoord turned down opening for Lady Gaga in the U.S. The gynecologist scene is based on a comic by Anton Kannemeyer. They’re attempting to mount a criticism against American pop culture icons and their approach to race by lampooning their perspective.
Does Die Antwoord enjoy too much of the benefit of white privilege in South Africa to be able to criticize that privilege in a way that’s useful? From an American perspective, it doesn’t seem like it. In our culture, it reeks of appropriation, but it’s not something from our culture. Most Americans, myself included, are not qualified to judge it in a South African context.
For the purposes of this article, what I’m concerned with is this: did Die Antwoord try to make something that mattered? Did they attempt to make a statement? Whether it was misguided or not, the goal was to spark conversation and debate. They definitely achieved that; every music publication and arts section in America seemingly weighed in when the video was released.
Was Die Antwoord’s message thoughtful, or offensive? Depends on who you ask. Whether it was successfully executed or not, did they have a real artistic intent beyond shock value when they used blackface? Quite obviously, yes.
One more recent example:
After the announcement of South African comic Trevor Noah to replace Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show, the internet exploded with quotes from his Twitter feed. Noah’s jokes forever burnt onto the internet’s collective memory include:
Almost bumped a Jewish kid crossing the road. He didn’t look b4 crossing but I still would hav felt so bad in my german car!
— Trevor Noah (@Trevornoah) September 18, 2009
South Africans know how to recycle like israel knows how to be peaceful.
— Trevor Noah (@Trevornoah) June 2, 2010
To be fair, Stewart himself has made similar comparisons to Israel’s hawkishness, and he hasn’t gotten in the same kind of trouble.
Complicating the criticism, Noah is a quarter Jewish. Another Jewish comic, Sarah Silverman, is criticized for a lot of things, but bits like “Jewish people driving German cars” is not one of them. That’s the kind of stark, confrontational false flag satire that she’s been praised for, and that she’s molded into a politically meaningful voice.
Noah’s Tweets haven’t just concerned Jewish people, however. He has a worrying attitude toward women, or at least he used to. He’s made fun of overweight women, saying that they look forward to the weekend because people will “get drunk & think that I’m sexy” or that women love being in committed relationships because this lets them get fat.
Comedian Patton Oswalt jumped to Noah’s defense, offering a clever 53-Tweet epic about how no joke should ever have to be explained. Oswalt is absolutely right about one thing: art should never have to explain itself.
That’s the artist’s job.
That’s the difference. Bands like Black Pussy that seek out shock value have often pushed the envelope. Some, like Marilyn Manson, have taken responsibility and had the conversation that follows. They explain their reasoning, and they’re willing to be questioned about it.
The danger is that many bands seek out this shock value without wanting to say anything useful. They want all the free advertisement controversy can bring them, but with none of the responsibility that comes with it. As Vice’s Joe Zadeh points out, bands like Viet Cong, Rapeman, and Lady Antebellum have refused to have any conversation about their names. Still more bands, like Joy Division and Spandau Ballet, were never really called out for it on a large enough platform; it’s one of the benefits of being famous well before the Internet Age.
And that’s the point. Groups need to be judged by the conversation they’re willing to engage in afterward. It’s very easy to offend. It’s even easier to unintentionally offend. What’s difficult is taking responsibility for it.
The Washington Redskins have rebuffed protesters, bribed tribal leaders, and refused to acknowledge the long history of genocide that their name elicits, all to maintain a brand image.
Die Antwoord initially refused to discuss “Fatty Boom Boom”, wanting the video to stand as its own statement. They eventually relented and have become more open toward interviewers. I’m not asking them to address whether they’re removed enough from their own privilege to meaningfully criticize it. They can’t be their own judges, that’s why we have critics. However, they’ve been open to others questioning their meaning, willing to accept that their art may not always communicate as intended, and they share their artistic strategy behind certain decisions. It’s a start.
Trevor Noah’s resisted discussing his Tweets in-depth, and has taken something of a politician’s stance in trying to diminish their importance. Yes, they’re years-old Tweets made by a young comic trying to make a living, but what hosting The Daily Show entails is facing these kinds of issues head-on and being open about your own bias. No one’s asking Noah to be a safe comic. Many critics just want to know that he can handle the tough discussions that follow in an emotionally honest way. That’s the biggest mantle Jon Stewart leaves. He helps us question our own presumptions by regularly asking guests to question his and to teach him better. Noah’s controversy is young yet. Let’s give him time to figure out what he wants to say.
Black Pussy, on the other hand, only offers defenses. A press release explains the band’s name is a reference to the Rolling Stones song “Brown Sugar”, whose original title was “Black Pussy”. This assumes, of course, that another all-white, all-male group is immune to being racist or misogynistic simply because they’re already famous.
Black Pussy wants to enjoy the controversy their name brings without accepting the responsibility that controversy entails. Their band lacks a use for the name beyond shock value. Their entire history is wrapped up in the meaning of the name, and the name (for them) has no meaning. They have repeatedly refused any open discussion in statements and interviews about the repercussions the name can have.
Part of the responsibility of being an artist is that you’ve got to be willing to discuss your decisions and the motives you have in making them. You don’t have to explain every lyric, every joke, or every brush stroke, but when you knowingly create controversy, you have a responsibility to discuss why.
When I bring up views like this, I inevitably hear some voice telling me I’m a censor, as if criticism is synonymous with violating freedom of speech, instead of being one more component of that free speech.
Artists can’t just cause any damage they like free from criticism. They can’t live in a world where potentially harmful decisions are off-limits in terms of discussion. The defense against artists endorsing potentially racist and misogynist views, or any other form of hate, is the critic pointing out that the artist isn’t doing so in a vacuum. In an age when everyone has a Facebook, Twitter, a blog, or Pinterest, we’re all critics. We all have license to make those critiques. In the Internet age, we also have the organizational tools to force bands, sports teams, and comedians to be responsible for their speech.
If you’d like to read more about the controversy surrounding Black Pussy and why the name connotes and unwittingly endorses a history of violence, the Daily Dot features an excellent article interviewing a range of African-American feminists. Read it here.
What do you think? Is controversy for the sake of controversy ok, or do artists have a responsibility to defend their choices that are controversial?