The wagons have circled and the natives are restless for sure. E-mails and condemnations are flying quicker than broken treaty promises. The recent Grammy performance by rap artists OutKast of their hit Hey Ya! has the native community on both sides of the border in campaign mode. Since February 8, when the band emerged from a fake green teepee and proceeded to bump and grind with their backup dancers, scantily clad in feathered pseudo-headdresses, aboriginal folk have been waiting for the apology. "It was the most disgusting set of racial stereotypes aimed at American Indians that I have ever seen on TV," says Sean Freitas, a board member of the San Francisco-based Native American Culture Center (NACC). The NACC is calling for an international boycott of CBS, OutKast's label, Arista Records, and the National Academy of Recording Arts And Science (who sponsored the awards).
Now, I've got into my own trouble over the years dabbling in other people's symbols and metaphors. And I surely know there's lots of cultural borrowing going on these days. For instance, at the Calgary Stampede you'll see thousands of Indians dressed up as cowboys. I've yet to hear an outcry from any cowboys' anti-defamation league. Then there's the fact that First Nations people themselves aren't above generating some tackiness of their own. At one aboriginal meet I attended, there was a dance routine choreographed like a 1950s Hollywood movie. Picture a dozen or so female dancers in buckskin dresses waving their arms in the air. And it certainly wasn't in irony. The audience was in shock. I'm sure it was worse than the faux-Indian Grammy performance.
Still, it's horrifying to think how little mainstream entertainment knows about First Nations. Elaine Bombery, native arts coordinator and producer of the popular Toronto Real Rez Bluez concert series, was in the audience that night. "Watching OutKast's performance was a truly painful experience. After all these years, we're still presented in such a stereotypical, horrific way. What was even sadder was that everyone was cheering and screaming, oblivious to the racial spectacle."
Ojibway poet Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm says the performance was "the most vacuous and disrespectful exploitation of native American culture seen in years." With such hurt feelings, is there an apology on the way? At Arista, a rep says OutKast - Dre (Andre Benjamin) and Big Boi (Antwan Patton) - have nothing to say.
Boosters of the band point to OutKast's adventurous music and their tendency to strew cultural clichés. They point out that the duo aren't social Neanderthals and voiced opposition to Bush's Iraq war. They are even due to receive Image Awards from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, though the NACC is asking the NAACP to reconsider. (The NAACP did not return calls.)
OutKast's goofy surrealism and love of dress-up, their followers say, means the band could just as easily have performed Hey Ya! with a chorus in polo suits - as they do in their video. The problem, I guess, is that polo players don't have a history of being wiped out by colonial armies and smallpox.
"There's a tendency within American culture for people to be ignorant about native Americans," says Bakari Kitwana, author of The Hip Hop Generation and the forthcoming Why White Kids Love Hip Hop. "Any time a culture is used out of context is inappropriate. The sensitivity should have been there and it wasn't." This isn't the first time the band has been in trouble, says Kitwana. It faced legal action from civil rights legend Rosa Parks for using her name in the title of a song having nothing to do with her struggle.
At urban music mag Pound, Christian Pearce offers that OutKast "made a mistake. It's a human right, but an apology is in order."
These, it seems, are in short supply. The NACC has appealed for a ruling from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission. But FCC spokesperson Rosemary Kimball says it must be determined whether OutKast contravened the regs around indecency, which say nothing about stereotyping.
So far the only sorry has come from CBS. Isn't it time OutKast showed a smidgen of remorse?