Music

Joni Mitchell Says She Feels An Affinity With Black Men Because She’s “Experienced Being A Black Guy On Several Occasions”

She's not speaking metaphorically. She's talking about blackface.

Okay, let’s back up. I think we all need some context to that headline. The Spring edition of New York Magazine was released today and it features a really interesting interview with Joni Mitchell.

At 71 years old, the folk superstar, ’60s icon and person who taught cold English people how to feel now largely spends her days relaxing between homes in LA and British Columbia, battling a series of nasty illnesses and doing the occasional modelling stint for Yves Saint Laurent.

To discuss all this as well as her enduring musical talent, journalist Carl Swanson got the incredible opportunity to sit in her presence as she drank coffee, listened to classical music, hung out with her cat Nietzsche and smoked a reckless number of American Spirit cigarettes. It’s the dream.

And, during their time together, she revealed a lot. Like many other musicians, Mitchell had a lot to say about the gender problems inherent to much of the music industry.

“All my battles were with male egos,” she said. “I’m just looking for equality, not to dominate. But I want to be able to control my vision. There are those moments when I wax feminine and I get walked on.”

She also took a pretty hilarious stab at Taylor Swift who was being considered as the lead for her forthcoming biopic Girls Likes Us. 

“I’ve never heard Taylor’s music,” she said. “I’ve seen her. Physically, she looks similarly small hipped and high cheekbones. I can see why they cast her. I don’t know what her music sounds like, but I do know this — that if she’s going to sing and play me, good luck.”

But it’s incredibly hard to pay attention to those things after you read the bit where she casually drops a bombshell about race.

“When I see black men sitting, I have a tendency to go — like I nod like I’m a brother,” she said. “I really feel an affinity because I have experienced being a black guy on several occasions.”

The reporter then rightfully asks what in the hell she could possibly mean by that.

“Well, did you ever see the cover of Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter?” she replies.

cover

“That’s me. The black guy in the front.”

It’s important to note that she does not mean this metaphorically. While that is also her pictured in the middle, the man on the left is not some symbolic representation of another side of her psyche. I mean, it could be. Maybe inside she really does feel like an African American magician from the 1970s and if so, great! That’s fine!

But instead, she means this very literally. This, a picture of her in blackface, is her treasured experience of “being a black guy”.

“I was being butchered by a dentist who was capping my teeth … and one day he said, ‘Oh, you’ve got the worst bite I’ve ever seen. You have teeth like a Negro male,” she said. Then after feeling an affinity with a black man “diddy bobbing” — DIDDY BOBBING — down Hollywood Boulevard, she approached him.

“He says, ‘Mmm, mmm, mm, you looking good, sister, you looking good’,” she continues, inexorably. “My mother always told me to stick up my nose, but I couldn’t help it, I broke out into a big grin. And he kept going and I was trying to imitate his walk.”

This inspired her to use the experience as inspiration for her next costume party, and she later chose to spring the character on a photographer while shooting her album cover.

Incidentally, elsewhere in the interview she makes a point of talking about her sensitivity towards race. Her father’s prejudice against “Indians” in particular is something she’s actively fought against over the years.

“I wish I had every blood,” she said. “Then I could tell everybody off and not be a bigot.”

Okay, Joni. Okay.

Read the full interview here.