Joni Mitchell is a certified legend. As one of the most influential singer-songwriters of all time, Mitchell helped shepherd in the folk boom during the 1960s, transcended the genre for her own idiosyncratic tastes in the 1970s, and continued to evolve as the decades continued to pass. She’s given up her fame in the music industry and returned with applause and acclaim in more recent years, embracing her undeniable status as one of music’s greatest figures. But Joni Mitchell, like all human beings, is not perfect.
In a move that would be widely ridiculed and condemned in modern culture, Mitchell pushed the boundaries of good taste by appearing in blackface on the cover of her sprawling 1977 album Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. Complete with an afro wig, Mitchell took on the persona of ‘Art Nouveau’, a hipster character that combined some of the more stereotypical elements of 1970s black culture, including a pimp suit and gold jewellery.
Mitchell had actually originated the character during a Halloween party in 1976. “There were a lot of people out on the street wearing wigs and paint and masks, and I was thinking ‘What can I do for a costume?’” Mitchell recalled in David Yaffe’s biography Reckless Daughter. “Then a black guy walked by me with a New York diddybop kind of step, and he said in the most wonderful way, ‘Lookin’ good, sister, lookin’ gooood.’ His spirit was infectious and I thought, ‘I’ll go as him’”.
Yaffe attempted to parse the difficulties of Mitchell’s fast and loose handling of race. “What made this blonde from Saskatoon believe she had the right to use it? Joni believed she had an inner black person, and she would bring him out more over time, making even more extravagant provocations, all in an attempt, however foolheartedly, to break barriers.” That inner black person eventually manifested into Art Nouveau with problematic results.
Mitchell was dating a black man, percussionist Don Alias, at the time and frequently cited the works of Ray Charles, Miles Davis, and Charles Mingus, the latter of whom she would later pay tribute to on the 1979 LP Mingus, as inspiration for her own work. With that mindset, Mitchell likely didn’t see the deeply offensive minstrelry of what her costume and persona evoked.
“Al Jolson’s not a Stepin Fetchit,” Mitchell told Yaffe, referencing both Jolson’s performance in blackface in 1927’s The Jazz Singer and the black performer who often wore blackface was accused of perpetuating negative stereotypes. “He’s a Jew in blackface, so he’s always getting the better end of the deal, kind of like Bugs Bunny. And I didn’t see anything derogatory. But the prejudice was enormous. When I did that, people thought it was a bro, and it wasn’t stereotypical, it was individual. Why I got away with it… I got the greatest reviews for [Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter] in black magazines. They saw the brother, they reviewed it, and they got it”.
Yaffe clarifies that he wasn’t sure how many black journalists or black magazines actually reviewed Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, and even makes a point to highlight the offensive connotations of Mitchell’s blackface appearances. “Joni’s provocation – a white woman dressed as a black male boss pimp – comes with historical baggage, much of which was unknown to her.” Yaffe also cites the support of Chaka Khan and Vibe journalist Greg Tate as defenders of Mitchell’s blackface character.
Art Nouveau eventually made another brief appearance during Mitchell’s Shadows and Light concert film during the final verse of ‘Furry Sings the Blues’, a song specifically about the pilfering of black culture. Nouveau made his final appearance in the 1982 short film ‘The Black Cat in the Black Mouse Socks’, where Mitchell’s character attends a costume party as Nouveau.
See some of Mitchell’s problematic appearances in blackface down below.