White Girls and Black Men’s Songs, From Jenny Owen Youngs to Katy Perry

Almost since there’s been hip-hop, there have been white women covering songs originally recorded by black men, often for comedic effect. Most recently, Katy Perry turned in a less-utterly-humiliating-than-could-have-been expected rendition of “Ni**as in Paris.” She avoided the most obvious conflict by performing the clean version, subbing in “ninjas” for the title term and avoiding the spectacle of a white girl thinking it’s okay to use “nigger” or a variation thereof just because it appears in lyrics. Plus, the oral sex jokes are at least kind of in keeping with the faux-Sapphic hijinks that got Perry famous in the first place:

Then, there’s Karmin, who have made their entire career out of the incongruity of two white hipsters—but really, mostly, a white chick—stepping into the lyrics laid down by black rappers. There’s no question that Amy Heidemann deserves to be the champion at any number of karaoke nights, but there’s something a little weird about the idea that this is a hook for an entire career. It’s also interesting to see them take Chris Brown’s “Look at Me Now” to Ellen and Ryan Seacrest’s show, places where the original artist himself is (justly, I think) not exactly welcome:

In 2006, Robyn and Jenny Wilson covered Saul Williams’ “List of Demands (reparations).” It’s a song that’s arguably as much about romantic relationships as race, and that’s clear in the original. But Robyn and Wilson did leave out a striking verse that compares a confrontation between lovers to a confrontation between a man and the police. Williams sang in the original “Call the police! / I’m strapped to the teeth and liable to disregard your every belief…Protect ya neck,’cause, son, I’m breaking out of my noose.” That seems like a wise omission. It’d be hard for either of these women to deliver those lines with any credibility or claim to familiarity with the experiences they’re using as metaphors:

But the best entry in the the white-ladies-covering-black-male-rappers genre remains Jenny Owen Youngs, who in her cover of Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” made herself the most normal thing in the setting. When there are giant penguins and abominable snowmen about, the focus doesn’t have to be the supposed incongruity between the singer and her lyrics:


The marvelous Dan Drezner reminds me of this cover of “Whatever You Like,” which is one of the few of these covers to successfully and transgressively change the meaning of the initial song. In it, Anya Marina claims the kind of economic power that rappers tend to hold as their sole prerogative to dispense to women. And the setting makes the “Let me put this big boy in your life” line much funnier than it initially was:

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