Nikka Costa is Jesse Helms’ worst nightmare come to rock your town. If Nikka Costa didn’t exist, Prince would have to invent her. Thirty-three years after the late, OG “Funky White Bitch” Janis Joplin went over like a lead zeppelin at a Memphis soul revue, Costa pulled off the same act before a multiracial audience, backed by a multiracial and multi-gendered band. [The Joplin connection was made explicit the following morning at Costa’s Virgin in-store, when the megastore DJ seamlessly segued from Costa’s “Hope It Felt Good” to Janis’ “Piece of My Heart” (itself originated by ReRe’s sister Erma Franklin)]
So yes, by now you’ve heard all the hype and seen Nikka Costa’s updated Dance of the Seven Veils (via James Brown) in her “Like a Feather” video. You may have cleverly surmised that she’s the new Teena Marie (or, if you’re very clever, that she’s the new Lydia Pentz). You’ve probably peeped her celebrated ass-cleavage in male glossies such as Esquire. Perhaps you read that the Purple One has already summoned Costa to Paisley Park for a birthday command performance? While she has the potential to polarize some audiences of African descent (more later), L’il Nikka is Senator Helms’ threatening darkie menace because she is the embodiment of all the things he and peers such as Bull Connor and Alabama Governor George Wallace said would come to pass if the races were to mix freely. Not only did Costa essentially suckle at the teat of Sly’s Stone Flower power, due to her father’s producer-arranger gig, but she can yowl like the aforementioned Miss Marie, drop melismas Pink can only dream of, strut stagecraft that her forebear Prince ripped off from Soul Brother #1 and Jackie Wilson, and she’s got ‘bout as much “back” as J.Lo (we were pleased to note).
She’s one of the best mic-rockers since JB, Rod the Mod and Steven Tyler. And fortunately—unlike dull, waifish opener and Virgin label-mate Miranda Lee Richards—Costa’s vocal gymnastics never left her off key. A few spurts of technical difficulty were overcome by her sassy energy, fiery connection with the sold-out crowd and a fine eight-piece band featuring a Moog-and-horn player named (inevitably) Prince. The obligatory sistah background sisters kept things seamless but the most intriguing musician was the barefoot, shambling lead guitarist John. He was a dead ringer for the young Lowell George and maintained the spirit of the boogie, as the ensemble veered from ol skool hip-hop flourishes to JB’s lock grooves to space rock freakouts. Indeed, the band was eclectic enough to include a dreadlock black rock star as de facto leader on guitar and clavinet, a streetwise bassist who looked like he was a refugee from either Soulive or some late ‘60s Nuyorican boogaloo outfit, a perhaps Scandinavian sax player, and a drummer who may or may not have been a Sikh and sat on the stage during the interlude to play tablas.
This same percussion jam interlude was shocking to say the least, since the band had barely knocked out five tunes—including album standouts “So Have I For You” and “Everybody Got Their Something”—and the break didn’t occasion a fabulous costume change. Clocking not much beyond an hour, this was one of the shortest shows this critic has seen in years. Sho’nuff, can’t everyone be the Allman Bros? But Costa’s set would have more perfectly fit on a vintage episode of Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert (the tapes of which were recently up for grabs at auction). Songs like moody Blow soundtrack single “Push And Pull” allowed Costa to spotlight her vocal and guitar chops. All that was missing was the Bics. But the group obviously needs more material. Costa’s full-tilt carrying on cannot excuse the audience not getting enough bang for their buck.
The Latin funk morphed into Sly’s “Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin”, which Costa used as her sonic Statement of Purpose and interrupted to criticize the rock press who cannot handle her genre fusion because they still haven’t learnt the lessons Sly and his Family Stone attempted to teach in their ‘60s heyday. Riffs on “Everybody Is a Star” flowed neatly into Costa’s sample of “If You Want Me to Stay”: “Everybody Got Their Something”. Being such a spot-on remake, this cut is both the album’s triumph and nadir. And this was replicated live. The horns made the whole enterprise go. The Limp Bizkits and Jiggas should take note.
Now to jump political: Nikka Costa is as good and dynamic a performer as can be expected in these dire days of the pop scene. She is sexy, engaging, wears tailored flares and her stoner gal/Dead-tourhead rap is a charming throwback. Costa is a fine singer who, in the current diminished climate, could go far if her handlers at Virgin choose to reactivate old-style artist development. Still, acknowledging all of this, she ain’t nothing compared to the largely unsung Betty Davis (née Mabry). Davis, the supreme queen “Nasty Gal” rocked and funked harder than Costa and her albums seem to be enjoying a cult revival right now (you try and find one of ‘em at hipster music retailers like the (New York City) Village’s Other Music). This funky bitch thang has been done before—- by sisters and white girls alike. Costa got Chaka flame hair, a little Sarah Dash sexiness, and a soupcon of Millie trash in her stage patter. Physically, she looks and is styled like she’d have been a Skynyrd or Little Feat background singer in the Seventies.
An aspirant rock critic in my vicinity tried to convince me to concede that at least—- if Costa’s a rip-off artist—- she rips off the best and, more specifically, a style of music that gets no airing these days unless you count the synth funk odysseys of Jason Kay & Soulive’s attempts to make jazz dance again. As far as this gig went, the following artists (among others) could sue: Sly, Jimmy Castor, Rufus, Cold Blood, Roy Ayers, Wendy & Lisa and Wonderlove. In some ways, the Funky White Bitch gang just come off as a latter-day, more rockist version of the Brand New Heavies so why should they succeed where the Brit Acid Jazzsters failed?
More problematic than who’s ripping off whose artistry is the gender-race issue. While the crowd at Irving Plaza featured Asians, Latinos, and blacks, the majority was still white. It’s not proven whether more black listeners stayed away because of indifference or offense that Costa should be appropriating the sonics, sass and style particular to black women. In interviews, Costa has related tales of an adolescence spent cocooned in her Beverly Hills bedroom rewinding Stevie Wonder’s oeuvre until she could nail his vocal style and simultaneously learn to sing (I did the same thing but lack the pedigree to make it relevant). This narrative has been played out again and again in American popular culture, even before Elvis and Mick Jagger. Take a look at long-forgotten minstrel Emmett Miller and current teen queen Britney Spears.
Nikka Costa’s band’s vibe and their grooves stretching from sub-Stephney arrangements to Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” were enjoyable. But she crossed the line in her process of blacking up during the encore. First, she sang Innervisions treasure “Jesus Children of America”, so obscure only her label-mate and fellow cultural mulatto Lenny Kravitz could’ve shone vociferous praise for her rendition (Innervisions is his favorite); indeed, the audience was almost comatose and their cultural amnesia most palpable during her reading of this spiritual and polemical Stevie Wonder classic. Second, came the cover that made several black female attendees’ hackles rise and caused my sister-guest to have a crisis moment: “Celie’s Blues” from the soundtrack of The Color Purple.
Costa sang this song alone, a capella and introduced it by saying that she performed it rarely, creating a bond with her audience who thought they were receiving something rare. So the predominantly white audience appropriately acted like her reading of “Celie’s Blues” was special, rewarding Costa’s vocal flamboyance with awe—- as the plebs have been taught to do before Artistes. But my guest and others were stung, shocked even, that a white girl should dare to cover a song that belongs to “us”, a dialogue song of friendship, love, respect and protection between black women left virtually defenseless in a world made violent by Jim Crow and the peculiar strain of black male patriarchy. With what she no doubt believed to be a well-pitched showstopper, Costa alienated the core of her consumers she most needs to pacify.
Perhaps this struggle is too obscure for the mainstream reader and listener but it is of vital importance—- to the realm of culture and the society we exist in. Nikka Costa is a “funk-rock” artist and, as such, accusations of exploitation and rights and ownership and appropriation will dog her career (if her observers are alert). Such questions are legitimate in a country where the entertainment industry (and the rockbiz within it) was founded on and initially powered by minstrelsy. So, on subsequent tours, it will be most intriguing to see whether Costa manages to walk the perilous tightrope between earthy authenticity and faking the funk.