So, my piece last week about Lorde’s song “Royals” being racist? BLEW. UP. Mostly I’ve received a barrage of personal attacks, but a few folks have asked genuine questions that are important to address.
First, it feels important (if obvious) to state that Feministing is a U.S.-based site and has a predominantly U.S.-based readership. Because that is the audience of this blog, it is the audience I believed would be reading my initial post. Clearly it has reached a much wider audience now, one that does not necessarily have a full understanding of the context from which I am writing. To be completely clear: my critique focuses on how the song lands in the United States.
Lorde’s Royals is being hailed in the United States as a rejection of the excess and consumerism we see in pop culture today, but I’m still not buying it. Though many genres mention champagne and fancy cars, Cristal, Maybachs, and Cadillacs have specific associations with hip hop. Sure, she includes ball gowns and some other more neutral artifacts, but the lyrics read pretty clearly like a rap video. You don’t have to take my word for it though. Lorde herself has noted in multiple interviews that she is reacting to and commenting on top 40 hip hop, and has said that she is a fan of the genre, naming hip hop specifically as what she is calling out in the song:
People seem excited by the criticism of conspicuous consumption in “Royals.” What were you thinking about when you wrote it?
I’ve always listened to a lot of rap. It’s all, look at this car that cost me so much money, look at this Champagne. It’s super fun. It’s also some bullshit. When I was going out with my friends, we would raid someone’s freezer at her parents’ house because we didn’t have enough money to get dinner. So it seems really strange that we’re playing A$AP Rocky. I experienced this disconnect. Everyone knows it’s B.S., but someone has to write about it. There’s typically been a lot of interest in that aspect of the song, but my all my friends are kinda like, “yeah.” They thought it was less profound.
This is where a lot of folks have questions: is commenting on hip hop racist? Is pointing out things that rappers say or do racist? Of course not. But to pretend that when someone is spotlighting hip hop (in the song, in interviews, etc.) that she is not referring indirectly to black Americans – whether she means to or not – is to ignore the ways that race and racism play out today. She’s not saying she’s above black people, but she is saying she’s above the things that mainstream hip hop often does (“We don’t care / We’re not caught up in your love affair”). It’s irrelevant that mainstream hip hop is not necessarily representative of all or even most black folks in the United States – as many people have correctly pointed out, wealthy white record execs have a big say in deciding what comes out of their labels and what doesn’t, and much does not get through. It doesn’t matter that Miley Cyrus also has worn gold teeth. It’s irrelevant that Macklemore also raps. (By the way, these folks have been consistently called out for their cultural appropriation, for disrespectfully emulating and profiting off of black cultural traditions.) The fact remains that, as a genre dominated by black folks, critique of this genre is inherently raced.
My critique of the song – and, particularly, how the U.S. media is reacting to it – is not to suggest that the consumerism in current mainstream hip hop is above critique, nor that it is unethical to critique a form of art created by people who have been historically oppressed. In fact, as a critic of pop culture, I think that doing so is incredibly important. What I do find problematic, however, is to focus a critique of excessive consumption to a genre both created and currently dominated by black Americans, particularly when the vast majority of excess consumption is done by white people – not to mention the fact that black people bear the brunt of the ill effects of wealth inequality, both in the United States and globally.
As stated in my piece earlier, I reserve most of my scorn for the record companies and the U.S. media. I don’t expect a teen from New Zealand to have an understanding of U.S. race history and relations. That said, I don’t think that she’s free of responsibility: artists must consider the ways in which the art that they create will be received, the effect their art will have on the world. Furthermore, if she is seeking to critique hip hop in its entirety – a complex culture outside of her own, and one with a long history – it is her responsibility as an artist to know its history and background. I know nothing about her intent, nor her personal views on race, but the song and the narratives created by the U.S. media in response fit into a well-worn critique of hip hop consumerism. This familiar critique ignores the reality that the distribution of wealth (here and worldwide) is heavily tilted towards white people, and people of color are disproportionately hurt by the growing income gap. The fact is her intent matters little in the face of what is actually happening: the reinforcement of longstanding racist narratives that blame people of color for problems of which we are not the major perpetrators – and of which, often, we are actually victims.
We see this happening not only in critiques of wealth accumulation that focus on hip hop, but in many arenas. Women of color who reproduce in the global south are blamed for environmental degradation largely created by multinational corporations based out of the global north (which disproportionately hurts women in the global south). White folks use marijuana at higher rates but marijuana arrests target black and Latin@ youth. The general discourse of social relief programs like food stamps are linked to people of color even though the vast majority of program enrollees are white. I could go on.
These long-standing, pervasive racist narrative are not confined to critiques of consumption: hip hop has long received huge amounts of criticism from mainstream white feminists due to misogyny, while the misogyny of artists in genres dominated by white people has garnered much less critique – another example of racism. Again, this is not to say that hip hop is above critique, but rather that it must be critiqued in a way that contextualizes it within a larger system of race and power. To do so without this context reinforces racist narratives that feed into a larger system of racism that consistently dehumanizes people of color, and serve to uphold and excuse much larger oppressive systems. In short, the national conversation on race – even if it’s just in a pop song from a teen in New Zealand – affects the ways bodies of color are seen and legislated. This is racism; not just a casual encounter, or a specific instance of interpersonal prejudice. It is an entire system that requires the consistent reinforcement and dehumanization of people of color to uphold. The ways that the U.S. media is reacting to this song – largely as a brave critique of consumer culture – is part of reinforcing that system.
That a young woman from New Zealand could not have predicted this is not surprising, and I get that she is reacting to the decontextualized slice of U.S. consumer culture exported around the world. I’m no stranger to U.S. imperialism: I’m an immigrant woman whose home country’s economy has been decimated by it. As a person living in the U.S. now, I can’t say that I know much about youth culture in New Zealand nor that I’m qualified to talk about that. What I am qualified to talk about is how it is being received here, and the ways that her critique of a distinctly American subculture fits into a larger racist narrative in the U.S. And though I’m not familiar with race relations in New Zealand – other than the fact that it was colonized by white people at the great expense and suffering of the Maori – I do know that white supremacy is a global phenomenon, and anti-black racism is worldwide. Taking stabs at hip hop that ignore context is dangerous and ignorant at best, and the record execs Lorde has been working with for the last four years should have known that. For them, and the U.S. media who’s eating this song up, there is no excuse.