Ann Powers

Kreayshawn Breaks In, But Whose Party Is She Crashing?

Kreayshawn, who signed a deal with Columbia Records this week. i i

Kreayshawn, who signed a deal with Columbia Records this week. Courtesy of Audible Treats hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Audible Treats
Kreayshawn, who signed a deal with Columbia Records this week.

Kreayshawn, who signed a deal with Columbia Records this week.

Courtesy of Audible Treats
LANGUAGE ADVISORY: Videos and links in this story contain language that some readers may find objectionable.

I sat down yesterday to write something about Kreayshawn and honestly didn't know where to start. The 21-year-old Oakland rapper whose "Gucci Gucci" became an instant viral hit last month announced this week that she's signed a big-money deal with Columbia Records, making her either the new Odd Future or the new Rebecca Black.

2.5 million YouTube views for Kreayshawn's signature song — a brag based around some playfully chill slaps at women who hide their personalities beneath designer clothes — suggest that, at the very least, she's able to catch listeners' ears.

Many angry responses to her self-presentation as the leader of a "white girl mob" who dresses like Salt 'n' Pepa's trans-racially adopted daughter and rocks a flow that some might call appropriated and others would dismiss at straight-up minstrelsy suggest that Kreayshawn is also one of those pop-up metaphors the culture produces every now and then, embodying the moment's most powerful tensions and possibilities.

I'm just starting to think about Kreayshawn, who I'm pretty sure will turn out to be worth the debate she's engendering, not only because her act is so impishly well-constructed but because she's already proven ready to tackle the criticisms thrown her way. She's no dummy, despite her deliberately stoned and frivolous persona.

Consider just one aside, her comparison of her posse to the Bratz dolls — a way of swiping at her rival Nicki Minaj — the self-described "black Barbie" — while also announcing a desire to not just appropriate African-American culture but inhabit a multi-racial scene. The Bratz dolls are those controversial Mattel toys despised by some mothers for their hyper-sexy accouterments, but also appreciated because unlike the Barbie line, they came in all skin tones from the start.

One-liners like that, as well as the Kreayshawn's biography as the daughter of a single mother who grew up in racially diverse East Oakland, suggest that she does experience herself as an equal member of a multiracial scene (she also very publicly hangs with black male rappers like Soulja Boy, the Odd Future crew and Lil B, for whom she's directed a couple of videos). Her critics, however, have quickly thrown up the blackface flag, saying that Kreayshawn is simply mimicking black women's style and "swag" in order to gain attention.

This is where matters get complicated, and where the conversation we were having on this blog earlier this week — about Adele and the shifting nature of "blue eyed soul" — seems relevant. Compared to the super-hot British soul singer, who's comfortable in her own peachy-cream skin while also borrowing much from Black soul traditions, Kreayshawn seems like a cartoonish throwback.

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My colleague Frannie Kelley pointed out to me that the swag that Kreayshawn says is "pumpin out my ovaries" takes the form of statements men would be more likely than women to utter. White women appropriating women of color's style to gain access to masculine power is a common pop strategy. Pink does it in "Raise Your Glass," Gwen Stefani did it with "Hollaback Girl," Christina Aguilera does it every time she covers "Lady Marmalade" and those are just recent examples. Here we are circling back to the discussion of Amy Winehouse I mentioned in my post on Adele: Kreayshawn even physically resembles that earlier swag princess.

Yet listen to Kreayshawn speak in this Fader interview, and there's no pretense. She's sounds like what she apparently is: a young woman raised in a pretty arty but also pretty working-class environment; a nascent but conflicted feminist; a musician's daughter who's trying to work out her own relationship to that legacy. Also, she's funny. And that seems very important.

Like Ke$ha, the massively popular and surprisingly (not to me!) influential white rapper who's at least as relevant to discussions of Kreayshawn as, say, Vanilla Ice, this young woman is going for laughs much of the time. She's working the extremely long-proven trick of using comedy as a means of claiming power as a marginalized person (young, female, "ghetto girl" or "trailer trash"), as well as a way of appropriating the juice of others even more marginalized than yourself (African-Americans, almost always.)

As it happens, the day Kreayshawn blew up, I got a text from my friend, the critic Jody Rosen, who does a lot of great work on lost artists from earlier pop eras. He was urging me to pick up a new compilation on the Archeophone label featuring two long-forgotten performers, May Irwin and Clarice Vance. These women were "coon shouters," turn-of-the-twentieth-century white parodists of black vernacular whose swagger was all tied up in perpetrating horrifying offensive racial stereotypes. Why should we listen to their music?

Because it's arguably the beginning of the road that brought us to Kreayshawn (and let's remember: nobody really knows whether she will turn out to be a legitimate artist; she's really, really just begun to bother us) is a 100-plus year saga of dirty jokes covering up but also exploding even dirtier secrets, a popular music tradition that arose from people's ad-hoc ways of coping, through laughter, with the terrible wrongs people in power perpetrated on those they've oppressed.

So we've come a very long way from the "coon shouters," but as we continue the absolutely necessary ongoing conversation about who has a right to say what in pop music, it's worth looking down on the ground we stand on. Kreayshawn and her pals comparing themselves to male MC's while donning door-knocker earrings and rashly using the "N" word (something she foolishly keeps trying to justify) connect across the century to those white female performers who strutted like men, empowered, partly, by cartoonishly invoking the speech and experiences of women with even less power than themselves.

Here's another link in the gold chain: Kreayshawn's mother was in a surf-punk band called the Trashwomen, who recorded a single album in 1992 for the famous garage rock label Estrus and whose raw sound — very derivative of 1960s surf music — was complemented by a look that borrowed heavily from the Latina "chola" style popular in San Francisco's Mission District for the past half-century. To nod at another artful borrower, most of us first learn to build our identities — and to speak our prejudices — in the glass of the parental boudoir. "We are all perfect, babe," sings Lady Gaga. What we're not is purely self-made, and controversies like the one surrounding Kreayshawn simply remind us, again, to honor the source.

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