It’s ironic when musicians are accused of being racist. Supposedly, music is one of those universal languages that unite people regardless of financial standing, political belief, and of course, race. But musicians have repeatedly been the subject of racism accusations, some of them for the artistic decisions that these musicians have made, some of them for things that these musicians have said or done. Of course, that’s not to say that all accusations of racism are valid. As some of the following examples will show, certain sectors of society have a tendency to play the “racist card” at the slightest provocation. In fact, it can even be argued that mere displays of cross-cultural appreciation and appropriation are today considered racist.
So which of the following accusations of racism are valid and which ones are not? Read on and decide for yourselves.
10. Avril Lavigne
As soon as the music video for Avril Lavigne‘s “Hello Kitty” was released in April of 2014, a majority of those who saw it instantly proclaimed, “Racist!” In it, Lavigne prances around in a cupcake-dotted tutu while shrieking out Japanese phrases in various settings in Tokyo. Around her are expressionless Japanese women dressed in matching outfits and dancing in sync. In response to the accusations of racism, Avril tweeted the following:
She does seem to have a point. The video was especially shot in Japan for Avril’s Japanese fans under her Japanese label and with a Japanese director. Furthermore, according to Japanese officials, Avril is being hailed as a cultural hero in the country because of her “Hello Kitty” music video.
9. Miley Cyrus
During the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards, it seemed that Miley Cyrus was on a mission to stir controversy, and she certainly achieved that goal through her performance with Robin Thicke, 2 Chainz, and Kendrick Lamar. The stunt screamed, “Look at me! I’m wild!”, and not surprisingly, various sectors were quick to pounce on the segment. Among the criticisms of the performance was its racist undertones, which were evident in the alleged use of black people as props, including Miley slapping the behind of a plus-sized black woman. In fact, even before the VMAs, Miley had been the target of anti-racist groups because of how she had proclaimed that she wanted to make music that sounded “black” and that she liked “hood music” but wasn’t “a white Nicki Minaj.”
8. Sky Ferreira
Like Miley Cyrus, Sky Ferreira has been accused of using black dancers as props. In particular, she was hit for the 2014 music video for “I Blame Myself”. In it, Sky portrays a gang leader relied on to settle a dispute. Dancing with her all-black male crew in Compton, Ferreira’s character is then arrested and questioned, causing some critics to observe that the dancers were reduced to the neighborhood setting they were shot in. However, the singer-songwriter has vehemently denied the charges through the following Facebook post:
Nothing upsets me more than being called racist because that is one of the most hateful things anyone can be. Not only do I find it insulting towards myself but I also feel insulted for the actors & dancers & my family in the video. No, I did not use black back-up dancers as “props”. I never have and never will look at any human being as a prop. That’s disgusting. It’s also an idea that has never crossed my mind, which is what I find questionable of the people telling me that I did so. Dancers are objects?!?!?! How dare you! Dancers make things come to life.
7. Courtney Love
In 2002, MTV decided that Courtney Love would be made to do a live broadcast for 24 hours straight, and that she would be in full control of the programming for those hours. The stunt turned out quite disastrously with the videos that Love requested often not being played or being faded out after being played for a few seconds. Worse, Courtney ended up being too tired to finish the show and had to spend the last few hours crying on a couch. Before that happened, though, in the sixteenth hour, Courtney told a story about walking into the studio and asking a black man to get her a rootbeer. That man turned out to be Jay-Z. Of course the “racist” chants began, but they were nothing compared to those that were heard in 2010 during a Hole gig at Washington D.C.’s 9:30 Club. At one point during the show, Courtney brought a fan up on stage and asked her, “Do you really like rock music? Because you’re African-American. That would be like me being into Lil Wayne.”
6. No Doubt
No Doubt pulled out their music video for “Looking Hot” very soon after it was posted because Native American activist groups found it to be offensive. The video shows the members of No Doubt playing a game of “Cowboys & Indians” with lead vocalist Gwen Stefani and bassist Tony Kanal dressed up as native Americans, while the rest of the band members played “white people.” The ending had the native Americans winning, but that didn’t placate critics, causing No Doubt to issue the following statement:
As a multi-racial band, our foundation is built upon both diversity and consideration for other cultures. Our intention with our new video was never to offend, hurt or trivialize Native American people, their culture or their history. Although we consulted with Native American friends and Native American studies experts at the University of California, we realize now that we have offended people. This is of great concern to us and we are removing the video immediately. The music that inspired us when we started the band, and the community of friends, family, and fans that surrounds us was built upon respect, unity and inclusiveness. We sincerely apologize to the Native American community and anyone else offended by this video. Being hurtful to anyone is simply not who we are.
5. Lily Allen
How ironic that what was intended to be a feminist statement was instead accused of being racist. That’s what happened to Lily Allen‘s 2013 music video, “Hard Out Here,” which she meant to be a critique of the entertainment industry’s objectification of women. What stirred up controversy was that the dancers satirically shown to be twerking, and having champagne poured on their behinds while being slapped were black and Asian. Allen, however, defended the video by explaining that the best dancers, regardless of race, were chosen for the video, which she claimed had “nothing to do with race, at all.” Furthermore, all of the dancers in the video appeared to be thrilled with how the video turned out as they posted links to it and retweeted Allen’s remarks. Nevertheless, critics continued their criticism, blogger Black in Asia writing, “‘Satire’ is not an excuse or usable cover for racism. ‘Ironic’ racism is STILL (ding ding) RACIST.”
English singer/songwriter Morrissey has been accused of racism several times during his career. In 1992, he performed at the first Madness Madstock! reunion concert in London, where he wrapped himself with a Union Jack flag, and the backdrop for his performance was a photograph of two female skinheads. “NME”, a British music magazine, cited Morrissey’s past controversies that triggered people to call him racist and wrote that the singer had “left himself in a position where accusations that he’s toying with far-right/fascist imagery and even of racism itself, can no longer be just laughed off with a knowing quip.” Morrissey again gave the publication a reason to call him out in 2007, when in an interview with “NME” Morrissey said that immigration had caused British identity to disappear. However, Morrissey fired back by saying that he had been misrepresented in the interview and even sued “NME” for unsubstantiated accusations of racism. The case ended in a settlement that had the publication apologizing to the singer. However, in 2010, Morrissey again became the center of racism accusations after he described the Chinese as a “sub-species” because of the animal cruelty in China.
3. Phil Anselmo
Phil Anselmo, best known as the frontman of the heavy metal band Pantera, has been accused of being a racist several times, an accusation which he has denied repeatedly. However, it’s not difficult to see why anti-racism groups have found an easy target in Anselmo. In 1985, during a Pantera concert, in between songs, Phil delivered a white pride speech that he began by interpreting community pleas for an end to black-on-black violence as “basically saying it’s okay to kill white people.” He then continued by saying, “This is our world, and tonight is a white thing.”
After the show, Anselmo wrote an apology to Warner Music Montreal and Toronto, the media, and Pantera’s manager. In it, Phil took responsibility for the harmful words that may have racially offended the audience. He also apologized to “a particular black girl” who had “seen Pantera six times” and the security crew whom he was alleged to have told, “Tell the niggers to stop eyeballing me.”
The New York Times praised Lorde’s massive hit “Royals” as a “thoughtful, calmly insubordinate song” and a refreshing change of pace from the overly emotional romantic songs most of the era’s female pop performers sang. But not everyone was in agreement with the song’s message. In fact, some have called the song racist for some of its lyrics that allegedly take potshots at black culture. This is the controversial stanza:
But every song’s like gold teeth, grey goose, trippin’ in the bathroom.
Blood stains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room,
We don’t care, we’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams.
But everybody’s like Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your time piece.
Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash
We don’t care, we aren’t caught up in your love affair
According to some critics, references to “gold teeth,” “Cristal,” and “Maybach” specifically target black folks, rappers in particular. In an article on the “Feministing” blog, Veronica Bayetti Flores asks, “Why aren’t we critiquing wealth by taking hits at golf or polo or Central Park East? Why not take to task the bankers and old-money folks who actually have a hand in perpetuating and increasing wealth inequality? I’m gonna take a guess: racism.”
1. Katy Perry
To open the 2013 American Music Awards, Katy Perry performed her hit “Unconditionally” with a Japanese-themed background. The production was impressively elaborate, featuring a geisha-dressed Perry and a background of cherry blossoms, taiko drummers, a Shinto shrine, and several dozen other performers. However, the number was called racist by some for sexualizing the geisha. However, what some observers saw as “sexualizing” in the performance was not entirely clear. In fact, several of Katy’s fans were quick to defend her:
However, in February of 2014, Katy’s music video for the #1 hit “Dark Horse” once again sparked accusations of cultural insensitivity after viewers noticed that it contained a scene where a lightning bolt from Perry’s fingers burned an Islamic pendant. As a result of the backlash, the video was edited to remove the offending image.