Punking Lady Sovereign

by Stephen Tringali

Lady Sovereign is a punk. I write this not as an insult but instead as an observation, as a musical definition. Sovereign is a punk of the original variety, a heedless nihilist who probably finds more joy in spraying fans with spit than in graciously accepting compliments and “Top 50 Albums of the Year” accolades.

The events that transpired earlier this month — including a San Francisco Mezzanine performance on Jan. 8 — are only the latest confirming her punk disposition. According to Pitchfork Media, the Mezzanine’s crowd met the 21-year-old British rapper with a demand: “Battle Jelly Donut.”

Jelly Donut, for those who aren’t familiar with this San Francisco MC, throws down his mad lyrical musings while dressed in a plush jelly donut costume. He attended Sovereign’s Mezzanine show with one mission: to get revenge. You might be wondering how someone clothed in a shapeless vanilla tarp could possibly hold a grudge against Sovereign.

Well, Jelly Donut happens to be the friend of a certain Zach Slow. Yes, that’s the guy who gathered $10,000 to “Get Random With Lady Sovereign.” Because Slow wanted to treat Sovereign on an expensive date, he created a website for fundraising purposes. He eventually raised the money and took Sovereign out for what he thought would be an excellent time.

Despite all the convening and currency involved, Sovereign didn’t enjoy the date; she thought it could have been better. Ten thousand dollars — that’s a lot of money. "Couldn’t it buy a more exciting time?" Sovereign wondered aloud to the press.

Jelly D couldn’t let his friend get trashed in the news like that. Sovereign, however, wasn’t going to put up with the local MC’s Mezzanine antics. She allegedly responded to his rap battle challenge by spitting on him, later throwing a drink at him, and finally having security remove the plump pastry from the venue.

Let’s face it: this story first caught my eye for its entertainment value. I think we can all agree that, between James Brown’s death and President George W. Bush’s call for increased troop presence in Iraq, a bit of levity was needed over this past winter break. But in addition to making some of us laugh, Jelly D also brought to light something about Sovereign’s character, which in turn revealed something about the nature of music and how its facets have been changing over the past decade.

Rap has its roots in a variety of genres. Soul, funk, jazz, etc. We know this. What most people don’t understand — and when I write most people, I mean those who decry rap specifically for fostering an entire generation of amoral teenagers — is that rap’s demeanor is motivated primarily by the punk rock scene, a persona that’s been in existence since the late '60’s.
There’s a history of rebellion and disillusion behind Eminem’s declaration that he “Just Don’t Give A Fuck,” Wu-Tang Clan’s assertion that they “…Ain’t Nothin’ Ta Fuck Wit,” and even in Lady Sovereign’s rejection of the “9 to 5” work day. That history began with the Velvet Underground, was brought to public attention by the Sex Pistols, and blossomed through the '80s.

Somewhere between the '90s and the turn of the new millennium, punk rock lost its bite and found itself transmogrified into something decidedly less potent—a mixture of emo, pop, and dance. There to rescue the disaffected torch was rap.

Yes, I understand that much of rap, especially what’s played on the radio today, is just as tame, if not tamer, than contemporary punk rock. What I can say with much certainty, however, is that the spirit of punk rock lives most powerfully in the minds of those rappers the public considers dangerous, unacceptable, immature, or peculiar. The Eminems, the Ghost Face Killahs, the Lady Sovereigns, and even the Jelly Donuts.

(Photo of Lady Sovereign at the 2006 Coachella Music & Arts Festival by mteson of Los Angeles via Flickr using a Creative Commons license. To see a short film based on the Jelly D. vs. Lady Sovereign incident, please check below.)

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