Are We Going to Talk About Patti Smith Still Singing “Rock ‘N’ Roll Nigger”, or Nah?

Patti Smith — Ester Segretto Photography

This winter, 68-year-old Patti Smith the alleged godmother of punk rock sang on stages all over the country. Peering at my Instagram feed from Mexico City, I swiped past photos friends posted of her in concert. There was one person however, a friend of a friend who broke down to discuss her discomfort standing alone amongst a couple hundred white people singing along with gusto to:

“Rock ‘N’ Roll Nigger”

Baby was a black sheep. Baby was a whore. Baby got big and baby get bigger. Baby get something. Baby get more. Baby, baby, baby was a rock-and-roll nigger. Oh, look around you, all around you, riding on a copper wave. Do you like the world around you? Are you ready to behave?Outside of society, they’re waitin’ for me. Outside of society, that’s where I want to be.(Lenny!) Baby was a black sheep. Baby was a whore. You know she got big. Well, she’s gonna get bigger. Baby got a hand; got a finger on the trigger. Baby, baby, baby is a rock-and-roll nigger. Outside of society, that’s where I want to be. Outside of society, they’re waitin’ for me. (Those who have suffered, understand suffering, and thereby extend their hand the storm that brings harm also makes fertile blessed is the grass and herb and the true thorn and light) I was lost in a valley of pleasure. I was lost in the infinite sea. I was lost, and measure for measure, love spewed from the heart of me. I was lost, and the cost, and the cost didn’t matter to me. I was lost, and the cost was to be outside society. Jimi Hendrix was a nigger. Jesus Christ and Grandma, too. Jackson Pollock was a nigger. Nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger. Outside of society, they’re waitin’ for me. Outside of society, if you’re looking, that’s where you’ll find me. Outside of society, they’re waitin’ for me. Outside of society. [Repeat]
One person from the depths of the internet comments wrote something that resonated with me:

“Patti’s song reminds me of me at seventeen. Confident enough to say what was on my mind, and naive enough, to not comprehend my naivate’.”

As a black person, I can’t really think of a time when I sang with several hundred black folks to the song “Cracker Rap Rhapsody” (that is not a real song, I made it up.) The closest we get to something like that might be “Play That Funky Music White Boy.” I get it, it’s punk rock. And I’ not going to sit here and pretend like I don’t love doing trap arms to some trifling lyrics on a Mustard beat. But maybe deep down I am not a critical thinker evolved enough to understand. Someone please enlighten me. Because every time the word nigger rolls off of someone’s tongue in that certain kind of way, a small pit in my throat collapses into my soul. It happens every time, I’ve been called that more than I would like to disclose. Here are a few articles on Rock ‘N’ Roll Nigger if you want to dig deeper.

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