Songstress Maimouna Youssef’s soulful cover We’re Already Royal not only puts Lorde’s original to shame, it complicates the young New Zealander’s Grammy winning track’s entire narrative. It flips the script, becoming a type of alternate surreal reality that (after closer inspection) we realize is really our own.
From the jump, I found Lorde’s Royals …irksome. Sure it had an infectious track. And the flow was easy to follow. But the supposed “deeper” meaning behind the song got under my skin. Here was some skinny white teenage New Zealander using Hip Hop soul to critique (or better, scold) conspicuous consumption–in Hip Hop? Rather ironic finger-waving. And the choice of lyrics weren’t helping:
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
Uh, hold up. Who the f*ck are you talking about Lorde? Are you seriously appropriating black culture (with a dose of stereotypes)–to then call out black culture? Who told you this was cool? Who told you that your upside down understanding of reality spoke for anyone beyond your privileged life? I was like my man Rico from BELLY.
But everywhere I looked, writers were declaring Lorde “fresh” and “insightful” and praising her as the second coming of Mary J. Blige. Let the reviewers tell it, and no one would know that Hip Hop has been critical of conspicuous consumption in the genre since KRS-ONE was warning “Love’s Gonna Get You.” Cristal and gold teeth, not corporations and bankers, were the standard by which to criticize capitalism? Shaming the 99% for their aspirations takes priority over calling out the 1%? It was as if I’d crossed over into some surreal mirror reality: where Victorian-styled imperial Hip Hop armies of old had sailed out and conquered the world, colonizing and pillaging it for its resources, and Lorde was some dissident voice from an underground movement speaking truth to their iron-mic oppressive rule. Was there no sanity?
While I love a good critique of wealth accumulation and inequity, this song is not one; in fact, it is deeply racist. Because we all know who she’s thinking when we’re talking gold teeth, Cristal and Maybachs. So why shit on black folks? Why shit on rappers? 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.
Yeah. That. All of that. I’m a grown ass black man so going after some 16 year old white girl is not a good look–or (by history’s standards) recommended for my continued health. But Flores did it wonderfully. Of course, cue the outrage. “Oh nooes! The song can’t be racist!” (because, derp) and “Why are you looking for racism everywhere?” (racism as you know, only exists in a pocket universe that appears somewhere in Nova Scotia between 3:12 and 3:47 AM, having replaced the normal viewing time for the old Jet/Ebony Showcase) and “You’re overthinking it!” (this in response to a critique of a song that itself was hailed as a thinking song). Like a spell of summoning, Flores’s article seemed to call up every apologist with a keyboard, so much so that she had to pen a follow-up in which she explained at length (like you do with children) why Lorde’s song was so problematic on so many levels.
Then the Grammys happened. And Lorde and Mackelmore at the Grammys happened. And the floodgates on the issue opened. Brittney Cooper (Professor Crunk) in a think piece called it “witnessing [the] whitewashing and erasure of … black bodies and black artists who helped create the sound of folks like Macklemore, Justin Timberlake, Pink, Katy Perry and Robin Thicke”….and yes, you, Lorde. Turns out I was in the right reality. Someone was just trying to rewrite it, warp it until it made no more sense.
Luckily, our reality has its own dissident saviors.
Back in January, a friend sent me a Soundcloud track called We’re Already Royal, a cover of Royals by DC-Baltimore indie singer Maimouna Youssef, aka Mumu Fresh. Great I thought. Now people are doing remixes of that damned song. But I gave it a listen. And wow…
First thing you notice, is that Maimouna’s voice is stronger than Lorde’s–like teflon to ceramic. It feels like it belongs on that track, like it was meant to ride that gully, hood-rich, ghetto-booty bass line. And the lyrics! Man the lyrics!
Now everybody’s like
Come on lets celebrate
Finally we getting cake
Every day we hustling
Tryin’ fill that dinner plate
We don’t care
The underdog don’t have no fear
Now that is some introspection. Where Lorde’s critique somehow manages to put the onus on Hip Hop for consumption, Mumu Fresh gives us another take. What’s it like for the have-nots, for those who have struggled to get by, to suddenly be “on the come up?” How might this explain the excess that is so often displayed in Hip Hop culture? Maimouna makes it clear—she rides for the “underdogs,” and ain’t here to lecture, scold and shame them. Like The Coup said in their Marxist-driven anthem of the same name (Underdogs): “Some folks try to front like they so above you. They’d tear this motherfucker up if they really loved you.”
She goes on with:
So if we sing about gold teeth/ Maybach’s/ diamonds on our time piece
You should raise a glass
Help us free from this poverty
Give us free from this love affair
Cuz we’re already royal…
And then, in a break to spit some bars, she lays it down plain:
The ones you see stuntin’/ are the ones who never had nothing/ so first piece of the pie we tryna’ grab something … We don’t know that old true blue blood slave money/ slave money/ war heroes take it to their grave money/ cotton money/ cane money/ Diamond blood stain money… what about that tax money/ oil money/ Africa’s rich soil money/ so thick you cant fold money/ British East Indian company old money…
There it is. A critique of wealth and inequity, based on the history I know. Stolen money from stolen lives that worked cotton and cut cane. Stolen money from plundered diamonds, oil and colonial sanctioned criminal outfits like the British East India Company. Speaking truth to the bastions of power, not at those caught up in its wake. I’d found my reality again.
Who knows, maybe our young Lorde can be inspired to similarly croon about the excesses of the New Zealand Company, its “old money,” and all the pain colonisation wrought on her home isle. Like Wu, Mumu Fresh teaches the children.
Below, Maimouna Youssef’s recently released video for We’re Already Royal. Be warned, there’s magic in there.