The Larger Cultural Conversation Evoked by Miss Red's 'K.O.' Is of Dire Importance
K.O. is a furious showcase of Miss Red's vocal and lyrical prowess. In the dancehall tradition, she uses the music to reflect on her experiences as a female MC while undertaking larger social and political issues.
13 July 2018
The ubiquity of technology and streaming sources have maximized an artist's ability to disseminate their sound while incorporating global influence. Overall, this has complicated questions about a musician's authenticity and whether albums tip toward cultural appropriation or appreciation. The answer is never objective or simple, and artists such as Miss Red certainly extenuate the complexity of the situation. Her recent release, K.O. is a furious showcase of Miss Red's, aka Sharon Stern, vocal and lyrical prowess. In the dancehall tradition, she uses the music to reflect on her experiences as a female MC while undertaking larger social and political issues including capitalism, systematic violence, and inequality. Produced by Kevin Martin, aka the Bug, his trademark rhythms are evident and at times create a sonic symbiosis with Miss Red's flow. But questions remain regarding Miss Red's identity as a white Israeli woman and her brand of dancehall.
Miss Red is unapologetically confrontational throughout K.O. Her empowered display of emotion is especially evident in "Shock Out" and "Money Machine". Yet she doesn't settle for pessimism. "Shock Out" encourages the realization that joy is obtainable despite the trauma and turmoil. For the most part, the Bug's contribution only serves to extenuate Miss Red's lyrics. However, there are times when the music unintentionally suffocates her vocals as in "Clouds". Consequentially Miss Red sounds small and inconsequential thereby creating a sonic contradiction when juxtaposed to her typical spitfire.
Although, for the majority of K.O.,the Bug's rhythms are restrained and simplified compared to his typically layered and involved music. In "Big" for example, he tones down his music to a mere beat making room for Miss Red's flow. He picks up again during the chorus and amplifies the energy that carries Miss Red's repetition of the word 'big'. "One Shot Killer" uses a walloping bass line and ethereal energy reflective of his track "Skeng". But Miss Red takes the music and uses the lyrics to exhibit her own standpoint. Unlike the Bug's version that illustrates a characteristic "badman", Miss Red centers the track around her self-awareness and musical acumen. As she confidently demands, "Give me the money, and pass me the mic / If you have a problem, you can go catch a hike." Here she makes listeners believe that one shot is the only opportunity she needs to succeed and the result is a total knock-out. See what's she doing here?
Despite the album's distinct musicality, it's hard to shake the feeling that Miss Red is culturally appropriating Jamaican dancehall. She is clearly devoted to the history of dancehall, and her music is endowed with the cultural and musical themes that are the hallmark of the genre. But at times Miss Red's style is too archetypal such as in "Dust" and "Come Again" where her vocal affect sounds manufactured and trained. When it comes down to it, she is a non-Jamaican emulating dancehall with a patois style. Her music identifies the restrictions that gender inequality played on her musical career. However, it is also vital to consider the avenues opened by racial privilege. Dancehall music exemplifies the marginalization and oppression of Jamaicans and has roots in the indigenous musical forms. As such, it's hard to accept a person from Israel shares similar cultural conditions.
At the same time, the point of dancehall is to resist modalities of power by using the space and music to enact defiance and subvert oppressive norms. Isn't that exactly what Miss Red is doing? Without a doubt, K.O. engages an overt defiance against dominant societal norms. "Dagga" specifically addresses how gender inequality minimizes a person's cultural contribution while "Money Machine" evokes the complexities of mass production and the ease in which economic privilege aids success. In "War" Miss Red takes on capitalism again and this time connects it to the cultures of violence that systematically marginalizes. In doing, she doesn't simplify dancehall but adds cultural and political complexity. In such, it is arguable that Miss Red's approach to dancehall is an act of cultural appreciation as she understands and pays tribute to the genre's historical and social roots.
K.O. is an album that has its musical and lyrical strengths and weakness. However, the larger cultural conversation evoked by Miss Red is of dire importance. To dismiss the album as straightforward cultural appropriation ignores Miss Red's musicality and globalization's impact on music. Simultaneously, conversations of racial privilege and musical accessibility render K.O. more than a rudimentary dancehall album. It's clear K.O. doesn't undermine or ridicule the cultural value of dancehall but it might not be enough to set aside the influence of racial privilege.