INCONVERSATION

Black Pussy, Whitesplaining
DUSTIN HILL with Jordannah Elizabeth

Black Pussy is a Portland, Oregon-based neo-psychedelic rock band with all white male members. If you search for their music and forget to put the word “band” next to “Black Pussy,” you’ll get graphic pornography with black women subjects. The disconnect between the band’s name and its explicit link to the exploitation of women is that the band’s founder and leader, Dustin Hill, has been adamant in the press that the name has nothing to do with an African-American vagina or the exploitation of black women’s sexuality.

Black Pussy Promotional Flyer, courtesy Dustin Hill.

Hill found himself in hot water in March when a schoolteacher in San Francisco made a petition accusing the band of being racist and sexist. The petition did not bring a deluge of backlash, but, as one of the few African-American female rock critics, with an interest in neo-pyschedelic rock, I knew about Black Pussy from their start, I understood Black Pussy on a cultural and musical level, and I couldn’t dismiss them.

In a May interview, Hill had me going for a moment. He denied his band name had any connection to black women’s sexuality:

“... And the thing is I hold fast to, [is] the band name as being ambiguous. I haven’t even put a meaning to it. The words are ambiguous and they are ambiguous together. I like art where the artist doesn’t give away the meaning—they leave it up to you. To let it inspire something within you. It’s made for some strange controversy. It’s good. It seems that it’s actually helping. It’s a good thing for our band because publicity is publicity.”

I’m not ashamed to admit that I was hoping that he was not a misogynistic, immature rock and roll musician who lives by 1962’s standards of political correctness and gender appropriation. During an earlier phone interview in March he told me some heartfelt and apparently sincere anecdotes about his family, and admitted that his band name was tacky and would be shameful to his grandmother.

That’s all well and good, but before I accepted everything Hill had to say as good-natured truth and pure-intentioned fact, I took a look at the images and media he was sharing with the world to represent his band. The first photo I found was of his band’s T-shirt. At first glance, my own grandmother’s voice popped into my head, exclaiming, “The Devil is a liar!” an expression old Christian black women use when they witness something they see as unclean, or even demonic.

Black Pussy’s black T-shirt is replete with symbols of black magic and showcases a woman with a ram’s head protruding from her vagina. That was a notable nugget of creepiness, but not enough to prove a pure case of misogyny. I began to search the band’s old flyers and photos and realized most of them featured images of women, mostly white, who had stereotypically dark features and exuded equally stereotypical witch-like and psychedelic-drug-induced connotations—think of Charles Manson girls who decide to dress like Marilyn Manson. These types of images are used by bands who play stoner rock and psychedelic drone rock, offshoots of psychedelic music that sound closer to Black Sabbath than to Pink Floyd or Arthur Lee and Love.

Ironically, Black Pussy’s music does not sound dark. Hill uses major chords and higher octave tones for his reverberated psychedelic compositions, but does adopt Wiccan and demonic imagery for his band’s flyers and merch.

Nonetheless, one of Hill’s earliest Black Pussy flyers convinced me to stop searching. It showed a man dressed like a pimp with a scantily clad black woman lying on the hood of a Cadillac. To me, that proved that Dustin Hill is a premeditated misogynist. The photo of Valerie, the black member of Josie and the Pussycats, Photoshopped with “Black Pussy” across her chest and on her tambourine, was even more proof of Hill’s exploitative intentions.

Hill isn’t fooling anyone with his ambiguous, hippie banter about how Black Pussy came to him in a “meditative state.”

Jordannah Elizabeth (Rail): If you were in the courtyard of a junior high school and there were young men yelling “black pussy” and laughing in the presence of young girls of color, would you correct the boys, or inform the girls that they should get a tougher skin, as the boys had a right to say what they wanted in any environment?

Dustin Hill: I think groups of men of any age being derogatory towards any woman, or objectifying any woman no matter what color, is wrong. Since we’re specifically talking about my band name—if there were men calling an African-American woman “black pussy” and laughing about it, I would definitely set them straight. That’s just wrong and that is very different than what’s going on with my band name. When you’re objectifying someone, you’re putting words onto someone as if it is an accusation and that can make someone feel uncomfortable and afraid because you’re targeting them.

A lot of the times, I get called a faggot when I’m playing shows in the South because of the way I look, and I try to approach and correct people when I am wrongfully targeted.

Rail: So you’re saying it’s about context. Would you play on a bill with a band called “Faggot?”

Hill: Sure. If a band or an art project takes on that name—which is not a bad name for an art project, because art is about ideas, because it’s ambiguous and causes people to think. I think it’s a bold band name. If five straight guys called their band “Faggot,” would you find them to be homophobic or would you find them to be embracing that idea and taking away the hate power of the word?

Rail: What if the band was a straight fundamentalist Christian rock group?

Hill: Then we would have to get into the context of lyrics. It’s all about intention. Intention is very important within our society and being in this dimension as spirit beings we have to be very careful with the limited capacity of language.

Rail: Here’s another scenario: you meet a beautiful dark-skinned woman, whom you really hit it off with and find a strong natural attraction. She knows nothing of your band. Would you feel comfortable telling her the name of your band when the moment came to talk about what you do in life?

Hill: As the relationship would grow and expand, she would find out what I do. The obvious question that would come up after finding out I was in a band would be, “What’s your band’s name?” I would just tell her. There would be no hesitation. Her reaction would lead to whatever conversation. The reaction has to do with the individual, so it’s hard to say what she would say, but I wouldn’t be afraid to tell her.

For example, I ended up in a Waffle House in Amarillo, Texas at three in the morning after a show and most of the employees were black. The staff said to us “You guys look like you’re in a band, what’s the name of your band?” We never hesitate. I just say, “Black Pussy.” When black people hear our band name, they usually laugh. They’re usually in disbelief, and a lot of the times we go and grab some merch and hand it to them, and we’ve never had an issue. There has never been confrontation, until now. If I were around a young black woman who was under 18, I would be a little more reserved, but it’s not my place. It’s the parents place, but if they’re an adult, I have no problem saying it. I embrace whatever conversation happens from it.

Rail: What does the word “pussy” mean to you?

Hill: The word pussy is very ambiguous. I did my research on it, but in today’s society, and being a male in this society the word can mean “weakness.” That is one of the definitions. I hear “pussy” used in my little circle with male friends as “weakness.” We also know that “pussy” means cat, and in history, “pussy” means rabbit. I also believe “pussy” is super sexy in the bedroom sense. In the last ten years or so, I’ve started hearing women say “pussy power” a lot. I ask them “What do you mean by that?” and I learned it means “powerful woman,” and I think that’s cool. The word has a lot of meanings.

Rail: Do you understand how a woman could be offended by having knowledge of the “weakness” definition of “pussy?” Women are well aware that “pussy” is used as an insult and a way to diminish the importance of emotional vulnerability and combats the choice for anyone to say no to something that makes them uncomfortable.

Hill: I hear women use that word for weakness as much as men, especially in the rock and roll world.

Rail: Well, can you step back and realize that there are a number of people who may think that you naming your band Black Pussy is foolish?

Hill: I can definitely see that, and a lot of people believe that. If my grandmother were alive, she would probably say, “Dustin, that’s pretty tacky.” I can totally see your point of view, and there are a lot of tacky band names out there. There are a lot of tacky business names and names of cars. We could say that the Jeep Cherokee is racist. We can start freaking out on everyone, but I can accept that my band name is tacky to certain people. A lot of people think the band name is a foolish business decision, but this is art! In art you take risks.

Rail: Your band name is distracting people from actually listening to your music.

Hill: I have to disagree with that statement. People are listening to our music. People are buying records and want to hear our music.

Rail: Would you please address the Portland feminist community and let them know what is going on with you and a little about who you are?

Hill: I think it’s great that women decided to reclaim the word “bitch” and name a magazine after it, and that’s bold. I don’t know if the founders came under any fire for naming their magazine that, but we’re kind of kindred spirits in a sense. We’re taking these words and turning them into art and letting them take on a life of their own—and taking the hatred out of the words. By starting a magazine and saying the word “bitch” all the time, that word loses its hateful impact. I’ve never heard anyone cat-call anyone “black pussy” or heard it used in a hate-filled manner in my life.

Rail: It’s not really about hate. It’s that Black Pussy has a raunchy connotation that is very sexual and has a tone of invasiveness that can be scary and offensive to black women. Black women are made out to be over-sexualized people, having our body parts, particularly our backsides, objectified. So, black women don’t really want to be reminded about butts or pussies because it’s not a new or creative concept to us. Also, black female musicians understand the lifestyle of touring musicians, which is often tied to promiscuity, and there is also this air of expectation of sexual behavior or vibe when being at a show with a band named that.

Hill: When it comes to the lifestyle of rock and rollers, not all of us are like that. I don’t model myself after the lifestyle of Mötley Crüe or the Rolling Stones. I don’t really do any heavy drugs, I am monogamous, I love the woman I am with. I think the Rolling Stones are really embraced by a lot of black women because they have some amazing black female back up singers, one of which has been touring with them for twenty years. I wish I could remember her name, but the Stones give her a couple of songs to sing by herself. But I don’t know Mick Jagger or David Bowie. I don’t really know what they’re like. For me, it’s great to get to know people as humans, and it’s great that I get to talk to an African-American feminist in the rock world and we get to know each other.

Back to men being promiscuous on tour, I meet a lot of women who tour in bands who do the exact same thing. This industry isn’t one sided.

Rail: What have you learned from this experience of your band being criticized for its name?

Hill: I learned that the internet is very dangerous. There are certain people that are very dangerous and make allegations that may cause incorrect interpretations. I (and my band) am being labeled as racist and sexist, which is totally untrue. For some reason, on the Internet, people are allowed to say whatever they want. It is scary for me because we could get some scary person who thinks we’re actually racist who could shoot us on stage while we’re out on tour. That’s a new learning experience for me: because of lies being spread about me, I have to fear for my life. But the fans seem to be more protective of us now, and the African-American women who come to our show every night have become even more supportive. If I am opening doors for black women to come to rock and metal shows and feel safe, then I am blown away and honored. This is opening doors for communication and important conversations.

Rail: Would you volunteer at a rock and roll camp or a battered women’s shelter?

Hill: I would probably be more comfortable at a rock and roll camp, but just so you know, when I was four years old, I watched my mom get beaten so badly that she’s deaf in one ear, and I was picked up and thrown against a wall. We lived in that situation for three years. I have a sister who was born from that situation. My mom grew up in Malawi, Africa, and I grew up around foster children who were Native-American and three black little girls from New York City who called my mom, “mom.” That’s how I was raised.

I know about the feminine divine because of my mother, my sisters, and my grandmother and how they raised me. I can hear my grandmother’s words in my head now, “I don’t understand it, it’s your scene and you know what you’re doing, but I think it’s tacky.” [Laughs.]

Contributor

Jordannah Elizabeth

JORDANNAH ELIZABETH is a musician, arts and culture journalist, editor of The Deli Magazine San Francisco, and author of the upcoming book, Don’t Lose Track Vol 1: 40 Articles, Essays and Q&As By Jordannah Elizabeth, on Zero Books.

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