Music

Patti Smith Instigates The Weight of the “Rock n’ Roll Nigger’

February 23, 2011

“Nigger no invented for color it was MADE FOR THE PLAGUE the word (art) must be redefined-all mutants and the new babes born sans eyebrow and tonsil-outside logic-beyond mathematics poli-tricks baptism and motion sickness-any man who extends beyond the classic for is a nigger-one sans fear and despair-one who rises like rimbaud beating hard gold rhythm outta soft solid shit-tongue light is coiling serpent is steaming spinal avec ray gun hissing scanning copper head w/ white enamel eye wet and shining crown reeling thru gleam vegetation ruby dressing of thy lips puckering whispering pressing high bruised thighs silk route mark prussian vibrating gushing milk pods of de/light translating new languages new and abused rock n roll and lashing from tongue of me nigger.”

Patti Smith Instigates The Weight of the “Rock n’ Roll Nigger’

Words Camille Collins

 

**The Patti Smith film, “Patti Smith Dream of Life” is also being screened, starting this month. For more details, click here!

 

(Photo by Jean Baptiste Mondino)

 

The above, bullshit disclaimer, accompanies punk godmother Patti Smiths recording of the song Rock N Roll Nigger, a cut from her 1978 album Radio Ethiopia. In the song, she uses the term “Rock N Roll Nigger” to explain how the narrator of the song feels like an outsider, second class citizen, nigger. If it’s any consolation, in the song lyric she refers to Jimmy Hendrix, and Jesus Christ as niggers too.

 


(Rock n’ Roll Nigger)

 

We can’t begrudge her for trying to justify her use of the word; it’s a powerful little nugget, as profane and emotionally nuanced as the last four hundred years of America’s love/hate, black/white romance. The trajectory of a casually uttered “nigger” is hard to control. Freeing it from the cage where it belongs means granting it freedom to give rise to its brute instincts. Still, I’m not buying Patti’s rhetoric. Mostly, I think as a mad scientist of punk, she wanted to experiment and poke around with something dangerous and combustible. Like that nasty yellow-ochre color in the acrylic paint box, she wanted to dabble with one of the ugliest words in the English lexicon to see what she might fashion.

Black lovers of punk are no different than any other kind; we love the assault of impolite, opprobrious sounds thrashed out and hollered with little regard for the protocols of harmony and catchy lyrics that define pop. But what’s a black person to do when their favorite punker drops the “N” word in what might otherwise be a totally awesome song?

In The Exene Chronicles (a novel), I take on the legendary LA punk band X and its use of the “N” word in the song Los Angeles. Lia, the fifteen year old protagonist experiences the uncomfortable epiphany we all may have felt at one point or other in innocently listening to some tunes and having a white singer (or black rapper) hurl that ugly word at us through ipod speakers.

“Lia cranked the volume and did a spastic, jerky dance around the room, baiting her father’s wrath because twice he’d already told her to “quit thumping around up there!” But that didn’t stop her; only a cold realization did; was the “nigger” Jeff Green’s friend had hollered at her the same one Exene meant in the song Los Angeles? In other words: her”

The rules remain unwritten. How do we respond to a verbal assault with such heavy implications? Do we abandon a band entirely by deleting every one of their tracks from our libraries, or just refuse to play that one song ever again? Does it really make a difference if said band is using the word as a cheap shot of provocation, or for real social commentary? And if so, does the ladder option mean its okay to give them a pass? Does their stance on race matter at all since it’s not like we’re hanging out at their house every weekend?

As we ponder these questions, we can be grateful for the present. For Afro-Punk and all the bands it features. For the freedom of voice we have now–in this 2011.

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