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Tarred and Feathered

By Afefe Tyehimba | Posted 2/25/2004

Being an ethnically mixed and always race-conscious lot, Baltimoreans could have told OutKast's Andre 3000 not to do it. But the rapper/rock star's plan was already in motion: There would be a Native American theme to his recent Grammy Awards performance of the hit song "Hey Ya," a catchy but senseless ditty that, for the most part, urges women to shake their rumps "like a Polaroid picture."

OutKast fans and music industry pundits alike were hedging their bets about whether the hip-hop duo--comprised of Big Boi, a straight-up rapper, and Andre 3000, an eccentric (some argue) musical genius--might actually pull off the coveted album of the year award for their latest release, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. Bets that it would also win best rap album of the year were off--that was practically a given. (It won both.)

Some Grammy viewers, including me, fell asleep during the long taping and didn't see Andre 3000 perform "Hey Ya" (which landed the group a third Grammy for best urban/alternative performance). But media pictures and film clips the next day showed the following: a bunch of whirling dervishes onstage, Dre among them, wearing neon green outfits (or, in the case of female dancers, neon green cloth strips), with lots of fringe, headbands, and feathers. Stage props included a Native American tepee, and strains of a Native song were used to segue into Andre's hit number.

Awards, applause, and attempts at innovation aside, Andre's performance didn't go over entirely well. "Whoever dreamed up the production was going for an Indian effect, but it more closely approximated the Jolly Green Giant and dancing vegetables on crack," wrote Suzan Shown Harjo, a Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee who is president of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian Country Today. Like scores of Native Americans who watched the Grammys, Harjo saw her culture being exploited and disrespected; she likened it to being "mugged in my own home."

Before CBS network execs could apologize--and they did, crisply and without the nervous effusiveness in the wake of Janet Jackson's Super Bowl debacle--members of the message board started a national petition to voice their objections to the use of Indian stereotypes and misuse of sacred symbols--especially during a widely televised event that attracts and (ostensibly) influences young people.

According to Harjo, "[n]on-Native Americans are so used to the appropriation of Native symbols and the stereotyping of Native people that they seldom notice it's happening and rarely snap to the fact that it's wrong." And while Americans hit the roof about Jackson's breast being revealed to innocent children during her Super Bowl halftime act, Harjo says that Native children "are confronted with unsavory, injurious images and actions," that rarely get addressed by the public. On the flip side, she says, "Jackson's right breast was exposed for three-quarters of a second and both the House and Senate convened hearings immediately."

Harjo's point is taken. I deliberately waited to do this column to see what news headlines or other things might surface to address Andre 3000's Grammy performance. Just after the event, OutKast's management had no comment; and unlike Justin Timberlake and Jackson, who stuttered excuses for days afterward, Andre has made no peep, at least not publicly--and that lack of reaction has sparked anger, especially among young Native music fans.

"OutKast has no meaning nor substance, and that is why his performance disrespects my people!!!" wrote one young poet on the Indianz. com message board. "Natives have suffered more than blacks!!! Sorry that blacks were made slaves, but unfortunately I have my own race to worry about here," another wrote. On ReznetNews. org, a project of the University of Montana School of Journalism, Native youth from around the country posted letters voicing their disappointment. Jade-Heather Lepotokisi from Missoula, Mont., said she was "very shocked that a group I loved for so long would even think of doing something like this," adding that she found the act "extremely offensive and somewhat degrading. I cursed and yelled at the television set."

On the one hand, it's a tough reality to know that even as American society professes itself to be on top of things culturally--whether it means wearing bigotry like a banner or raising mixed-race children--we so often miss the boat. And here, Andre 3000, or whoever masterminded the act, is not alone. Truth is, as an African-American, I probably wouldn't have caught the insult. Truth, too, is that when black performers like Snoop Dogg (of whom I'm a fan) and 50 Cent (of whom I'm not) work their playa game while sipping from gold-encrusted pimp cups, I am not entertained.

Not that I think one form of cultural insult outweighs or somehow soothes another. Rather, I'm fascinated--and flabbergasted--to see 19th-century stereotypes still going strong in 2004, and to see how pop culture is (ka-ching) rampantly blind when it comes to owning, much less avoiding, its mistakes.

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