Lorde’s “Royals” & the Complex Conversation of Race in a Global Context

By Amber Jones

I’m not gonna lie: I like(d) “Royals” by Lorde.

It’s a cute song. She’s adorable and she has a great voice. The video didn’t make much sense to me. At least, until I uncovered Feministing articles one and two on the track.

Apparently, it’s racist. Who knew?!

I surely didn’t. And that’s probably an issue.

I have to say: I slipped up and did not maintain a level of media literacy with everything I encounter and consume. Once I read Flores’ opinions on Royals, I was honestly blindsided. How could I allow me, the social-justice-black-studies-race consciousness-feminist young woman that I am, fail to see this? It’s actually kind of scary.

Now that I’m done spewing bits or sarcasm mixed with true sentiments, I will honestly say this:

I like Royals. But I hate it at the same damn time.

Don’t you hate when that happens?!

Let me explain myself:

I still like Royals mainly for the reasons I liked the track beforehand. These reasons are still pretty shallow: i.e., it sounds good. This is void of any critical analysis of the piece, nor does it participate in any kind of media literacy. It is entertaining. No thinking. Just feeling.

It is when I move from the feel-good, catchy, blindly-consuming perspective to the perspective that is more critical that my delight in Royals begins to dissipate.

First, let’s talk about this element of media literacy from Lorde’s side. For her to comment on everything her friends and her seeing in today’s music being these manifestations of luxury that are not accessible to her community is understandable, but quite misguided when seeing it from a more critical perspective. She has been cited in interviews saying that this song is a critique mainly on hip-hop. That’s not fully a hip-hop critique; that is more so a popular music critique that focuses specifically on popular hip-hop music. For us hip-hop scholars in the virtual room, we know very well that the culture is built out of struggle and is central to understanding its essence. The celebratory, flashy, luxurious realm of hip-hop is one piece in a vast, complex puzzle. Also, while most times I get frustrated with seeing Cristal, Maybach, and diamonds on  time pieces, it can also be seen as a huge middle-finger to institutionalized racism–i.e. “I’m a black (wo)man that made it out the ‘hood; now I’m living good.” More lightly, I could just be hating ‘cuz I ain’t got it yet!

Royals is also devoid of the realization that the image of hip-hop in the global scene is very limited–almost exclusively to a few artists that are dominating the local U.S. scene. In general, we all have to come to the conclusion that what we see on TV, what we hear on the radio, is not an adequate representation of that community or culture. But that’s not Lorde’s fault. As Flores points out, “she [Lorde] is reacting to the decontextualized slice of U.S. consumer culture exported around the world.” That’s outside of her hands. But she should be cognizant of it when critiquing a culture unfamiliar to her.

What also irks me is something that has always bothered me about hip-hop’s move to the mainstream: black people do not make hip-hop profitable–white people do. The buying power is majorly in their hands. Knowing this, when we analyze popular hip-hop music, we have to recognize that the images that are presented to the general public may be consumed by a multitude of people, but those investing back into the industry have a largely mono-racial appearance.

Think about it in layman’s terms: who buys all the albums in the first week (deluxe-versions included)? Shoot, who buys the pre-orders? Who sells out the shows? Who owns the venues that host the shows? Who buys the VIP packages? Who pays for the ridiculously-overpriced merchandise? Who owns the radio shows that play their singles? Who owns the TV networks that stream their music videos? WHO HOLDS THE DOLLAR? Barely, the hand that holds the power is brown.

Often, we criticize the face on the screen holding the mic, when often, that person possesses only a fraction of the power we believe they possess.

Okay, Amber; we get it. But does that mean the song is racist?

I’m not fully sure if I would typecast it as “racist,” but definitely communicates sentiments that contribute to upholding racism as a system. There is a profound lack of understanding about all of these points and the multitude of points Flores brought up that is occurring in the piece. That doesn’t mean Lorde is racist. It means that this is yet another example of how racism’s impact is underestimated, especially in a global context. It’s bigger than her

Racism survives mainly because of ignorance. Because of Lorde’s ignorance, because of the executives’ either ignorance or unwillingness to rid Lorde of her ignorance, a popular song was created that situates itself under a foundation that relies on the subjugation of hip-hop culture, which is heavily connected to the African-American community, in order to exalt her sentiments as a teenage girl from across the globe that never has to interact with such community if she so chooses. Not everyone gets the privilege to do that and go double platinum.

You can think and wrestle about all of these elements, or you can just hit “play” and mumble through the words while humming to the melody. It’s up to you.

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2 thoughts on “Lorde’s “Royals” & the Complex Conversation of Race in a Global Context

  1. Pingback: It’s Hard Out Here for Black Women | University of Minnesota Women's Center Blog

  2. Hi Amber. This is an old article but I have just read it. Interesting subject and analysis.
    I think you are wrong to label her ignorant.
    I think if you peel away the racial discourse and controversy, you have a then 15 year old girl living in New Zealand, commenting on the fact that some of the songs she hears on the radio talk about these hyper expensive items have no relevance to her and her friends lives. She was a teenager with no money of her own living an average suburban life. You agree that the wealth bragging isn’t a reality for most people. She wasn’t condemning hip hop and is a fan of the genre. She pointed out the fact that there is a disconnect within the lyrics in relation to most people. When she wrote the song she probably hadn’t thought about why some hip hop artists may have a reason to assert themselves with wealth bragging. I hadn’t thought about it myself. She would be aware now like many of us who have read about it and given the matter some thought.
    It is understandable why hip hop artists may wish to brand brag given the history of race relations and oppression in the USA. That still doesn’t alter the fact that brand bragging lyrics do not reflect the way most of us live, no matter if you are black, white or yellow.
    It has been a good public discussion to have thanks to Lorde, a talented, perceptive and intelligent 15 year old, Now after the racial controversy has played out the song and the resulting discussion has proved positive for hip hop and black culture because it has promoted a discussion and hopefully an awareness and an understanding of hip hop and black resentment.
    I think that is a win win situation for everybody.

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