Already Royal: Reality Trippin’

maimouna-youssef-already-royal-video-lead-715x400Songstress 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?

Then at Feministing, writer Verónica Bayetti Flores just went ahead and said it: “Wow, that Lorde song Royals is racist.” Whew! Still in my dimension! In her piece, Flores took Lorde to task:

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
So unfair
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.

15 thoughts on “Already Royal: Reality Trippin’

  1. Reblogged this on Gnu Reads and commented:
    P. Djeli Clark discusses responses to Lorde’s racist, appropriative track Royals: the surreal, a Grammy, and the sublime, like Maimouna Youssef’s proud and moving remake.

  2. My english isn’t that good, but i will try to express myself properly since I am not US but an african living in France. I found the the whole discussion about Lorde racism just ridiculous.
    First of all, your all criticisms appears to me as typically racism. Your argument is based on the fact the messenger is white. What about “the skinny white girl” and “the ceramic” voice. Imagine a white person wrote that article about ” curvy black girl” and ” sistah” voice, what would have been the uproar, You shoot the messenger because since she from NeW Zealand and white, you denied her any right to have an opinion about hip hop culture. I prefer that “lucidity” about the glowing aspect of black culture from a 16 white teenage, rather than having her being like Miley Cyrus. I still wait for a 16 black girl delivering a such perspective in an accessible way for everybodY.

    Then, please, cool down about the blackness of the culture etc. One rapper said, “it’s not about who did it first but who did it right”. Nas, once said, that his music was everyone’s once it is out. That is the same with the culture. What enrich a culture, it is the outside reception and the foreign influences,and its ability to be owned by people from different backgrounds.I found so “brechtian” and cute the tore up of bling aspect of mainstream hip hop culture on a hip hop beat. That is a sign of maturity for a girl of that age. ( in the same perspective, i found very slick the remix by…Rick Ross).

    And finally, it will be great if black people stop playing the victims. I love Mumu Fresh, but i found her cover out of place and not that good. Once again, if it was the skinny white teeen who covered an original song of the curvy ebony sistah, one would call out Elvis Presley ghosts. The argument about “the have nothing” is not serious. Platoon, Diogene, Mozart, Kafka, Richard Wright, Baldwin, Coltrane, Sembene Ousmane, Camara Layse, KRS, Kendrick, were not from privileged background, it did not prevent them to raise up the culture and the civilization. Enough with the culture of excuse of the mediocrity. I found disappointing to listen Mumu Fresh indirectely defend the same people so opposed to her artististic perspective, just because these people were aimed by the skinny white teen.

    Lorde’s song was good, fresh from a very young artist. All the criticisms based on the subdues racism from educated people, just contributes to banalize this very phenomenon and avoid in depth criticizm of the decline of black culture and the inability to think above race considerations. If the racism is everywhere,it is anywhere.

    • thank you for your opinion, African guy whose first language is not English but manages to weave together a thesis using terms like “Brechtian” in a comment post. i believe you and i have vastly different understandings of what racism, power and whiteness actually *mean* in a historical postcolonial context. until our working definitions of those terms/dynamics manage to converge, we will be speaking different languages in more ways than one. cheers.

  3. Peace, I think the lourdes piece is the result of immaturity as a writer (it could very well be that the girl has no concept of the root of consumerism), and a white supremacy mindset. A larger question for me though, is what can we do in our “calling out” of these things to make our children who love the music and other shiny-ness, see that we are not being simply “hating ass old people”. Is there a way to honor the anti consumerism the art espouses and simultaneously criticize the shallow nature of the metaphor?

  4. “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”
    Yeah she really summed it up there! I did a post on this video as well. She is an amazing talent! Great review!

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