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Don’t Read This

A lame band with a vile name got free PR. Stop the presses?

A DIFFERENT ERA The Rolling Stones pose with Sticky Fingers, the 1971 album featuring “Brown Sugar”.

News | by Paul Dechene

“Boring” has to be the worst adjective you can hang on a rock band and, with that word in mind, allow me to introduce Portland fuzz-rockers, Black Pussy. They tick off all the boxes of a 1970s nostalgia act: Sabbath-influenced power chords, V-shaped guitars, trippy album art. With his stringy long hair, moustache, aviator sunglasses, furry vest and bell bottoms, I think it’d be safe to apply the adverb “literally” when calling the band’s front man, Dustin Hill, a walking cliché.

And I wouldn’t be writing one begrudging word about this group if it weren’t for… you know… that name. Black Pussy. Equal parts racist and sexist, it was met with a series of complaints once it appeared on the schedule of Regina’s Cultural Exchange. The Exchange responded by cancelling the band’s Sept. 18 show, explaining in a statement that their organization found the name “appropriative” and says it “contributes to a culture of objectification of Black people, people of colour, and women.”

The cancellation triggered a backlash on social media (where else?) in which the venue was accused of suppressing freedom of expression and speech. The decision was derided as censorship and political correctness gone too far. The people who took issue with the name were branded SJWs* and fascists.

Within hours, one commenter concluded the Exchange’s Black Pussy Facebook thread had become “a cancer.” He wasn’t wrong.

And now I get to contribute to the festering tumour with this think-piece. Lucky me.

“It’s not a very interesting issue,” says Charity Marsh, Canada Research Chair in interactive media and popular music at the University of Regina. I went to her looking for a scorching critique of the band’s appropriative ways, something really incendiary to punch up my interest in this topic. I came away disappointed. Marsh was barely able to work herself up to “piqued”.

To be fair, she had other concerns — not all of them political. Over the course of our phone conversation, Marsh’s smoke detector went off, her dog freaked out and her newborn baby woke up. (Just my opinion but each of these quotidian interruptions is a more compelling diversion than a Black Pussy song.)

“I think based on the context of everything that’s happening in our world,” continues Marsh, “and especially here in Saskatchewan, with race relations and the incredible racism and hatred that came out around the Colten Boushie shooting, and the complexities of colonial relations in general, this is by far not that interesting. And I think what makes it even less interesting is the band themselves. I don’t think they’re very … they’re not that critical. They’re not very thoughtful.”

Marsh is referring to the band’s response to the media after the name controversy erupted in Regina — and, indeed, after the controversy has erupted, like clockwork, in all the other cities they’ve played. Front man Hill’s standard line is to claim the band name is ambiguous because if you look up the words “black” and “pussy” in the dictionary they each have multiple meanings.

“Oh my goodness, I don’t know if you could sound any dimmer,” says Marsh. “Even this idea that these terms are neutral in any way, you’re even doing a disservice to why you’ve chosen that name. So okay, if they’re not supposed to have any meaning, what kind of provocation is this? Is it just about getting banned so you can get some publicity?”

In interviews, Hill concedes there are benefits to all the free press. From there he carries on in a Trumpian vein by flipping the blame for the controversy back onto the “crybabies” who’re just looking for something to get offended over. And then he will at some point remind everyone that “Black Pussy” was the original title of the Rolling Stones’ song “Brown Sugar.”

So there you have it, “Black Pussy” isn’t offensive because it’s an homage. It’s an allusion to this piece of the 70’s music canon:

Gold Coast slave ship bound for cotton fields.
Sold in the market down in New Orleans.
Scarred old slaver knows he’s doin’ all right,
Hear him whip the women just around midnight.
Brown Sugar, how come you taste so good?
Brown Sugar, just like a young girl should.

Those are the opening lyrics to “Brown Sugar” which I confess I’d never read before writing this article. To my ears, only the chorus was ever comprehensible and I never liked the song enough to dig deeper.

I wish I’d been spared this discovery.

Really says something that Hill chose for his band a title Mick Jagger thought too on-the-nose to be attached to a song he’d written about rape, torture and slavery.

It’s hard to imagine Hill was as oblivious to Jagger’s subject matter as I was. If nothing else, I’ll concede he’s clearly more of a music nerd than I am. And you can’t chalk his band name choice up to youthful stupidity, either. Hill’s a child of the ’70s whose been in the music business a long time. He dubbed his band Black Pussy when he was in his early 30s and has been touring on that moniker for about eight years.

That makes him a middle-aged man coasting to minor stardom on a song controversy that started 45 years ago. No wonder this entire Black Pussy saga sounds so drearily familiar. The music and clothes are a retread of what Hill’s best buddy’s older brother would’ve found cool. Hill’s responses to media about his band name haven’t advanced in sophistication beyond a stoned parking lot discussion circa 1997.

It’s all so old and tired. And yet I’m still typing.

Despite the protests and cancelations, far from being silenced, Black Pussy doesn’t lack for shows or attention. Their canceled Exchange gig has been picked up by the Cloud 9 Nightclub (another nostalgia act) and will run as scheduled on Sept. 18. Thanks to all the times their name has run afoul of the locals where they’ve played, they’ve been profiled in Exclaim!, Daily Dot, Chart Attack, Huffington Post and Jezebel (in which Hill was dubbed the “Portland Fuckboy”). This incident in Regina scored them a lengthy profile in Vice’s music blog, Noisey.

I hear they’ve quite the following in Calgary**. Even that doesn’t surprise me.

*Social Justice Warriors.

**Show also cancelled and relocated, and copious media attention presumably garnered.