Josephine Baker and the Concept of Exoticism

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Music, apart from entertaining act as an element that helps describe the social structure and composition of an area. Through music, an individual can easily tell the ideologies that a particular society holds their views about life and the gendered structures present in the community. Josephine Baker was a great entertainer during the 20th century but also used her music as an element to address and challenge the racial prejudices and objectification of the African American female body.

Freda Josephine McDonald was born in St Louis Missouri on June 3, 1906.  Her parents mainly influenced her music life since they were all entertainers and brought her on stage during their performances. [1]

At a very young age, Josephine Baker danced in the streets and collected money from onlookers a routine that helped her be a member of the African American theatre troupe.[2]   During the 20th century, Baker became a renowned dancer in the Vaudeville shows. After moving to Paris, Baker was a top performer due to her unique costumes and dancing styles. Even though she performed mostly to the whites her, dances contained African styles and themes.[3]

During the World War II, Baker joined the French fight against the Nazi Regime.  While performing, she listened to the Nazi secrets and passed the information to the French Military through writing in invisible inks on her music sheets.   Baker was proactive in the fight against racial injustices.[4] For example, Baker would insist on performing to integrated audiences fighting the discrimination and segregation ideologies. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) recognized her efforts in fighting discrimination and segregation rules.[5]

Baker adopted 12 children from different races and named her family the Rainbow Tribe.[6]

Baker through the adoption tried to show the world that it was possible for people of different races to coexist.

Josephine Baker released the Song Ram Pam Pam in 1995 as part of the Exotique album.[7]  The music is a Jazz ensemble as Baker was also talented in singing Jazz Music. Many people believed that Baker’s Dance represented the Jazz spirit. Jazz was popular in Paris due to bands like the Seventy Black Devils and the Harlem Hellfighters.[8]  She speaks to the women all over the world through the lyrics of the song. Baker tells the women that they have to add a little Ram Pam Pam to their beauty and they can find love and keep a man. According to the lyrics of the song, Baker tells women that they can find love and dominate over men by adding a little Ram Pam Pam, which makes women attractive. She claims that the Ram Pam Pam will hide all their embarrassments and create a secret approval. Baker began her career in a period where racism and segregation beliefs were more profound from dance classes to medical care.  From 1920 to 1930, the commodification of the African American body and sexuality was on the rise.[9]

For example, Venus Hottentot, due to the size of her specific body parts became an object of study, observation, and African American racial discrimination.  The body of Venus Hottentot attracted the male gaze.[10] Josephine Baker was aware of the stereotypes and during her performances; she wore costumes that highlighted her body features. However, the main aim of Josephine costumes was to use the control she had over her body to destabilize the discourse of power that subjected the African American female body to exploitation sexually.[11]  Josephine used the body and dance moves to fight the themes of segregation in the United States.[12]

For instance, that is why she always insisted on performing to a mixed crowd, and people agreed to the request as she had captured their minds through her dance and body.

The song Ram Pam Pam Josephine talks about the difficulty in finding love and only a little seduction will help a woman get the man she wants and maintain the relationship.  Maria argues that after the Great War many women found jobs in the male domain.  Most women became typists, shop assistants, clerks a new revolution that provoked the ideologies of gender dislocation.[13]   The women that challenged the constructs of women working did not get the chance to marry, have sexual independence and social life.  The women moved far away from people they knew and lived an isolated life since they had challenged the cultural norms, traditional female values, and blurred gender roles that allowed them to have a family.[14]

Similarly, Josephine represents this woman in life as well as in behavior and appearance. Baker cut her hair and maintained a short hair and boyishly slimming dress.[15]  Additionally, her love life was far from perfect. In spite of her growing career and her industrious habit, Baker found a challenge in finding a husband. She dated several men like Jen Lion in 1937, Jacques Abtey in 1941, and Jo Bouillon in 1947.[16]

            Baker adopted children and challenged the social constructs of the new woman who could not have a family. The song Ram Pam Pam is a reflection of her life and the society at this period. Women, who challenged the stereotypes in the community, had a hard time finding love and starting their own families.[17] In the song, Baker states that people break their heads and despair when they cannot provoke passion. Baker tells women that they have the power to find love and keep a man with a little ram Pam Pam. She states that with their tender beauty, the women can seduce the men and dominate over them without their knowledge. The song is a call for women to refute the gender stereotypes in the society and get love when they feel they want to love. Baker also enacted the life of the new woman in some of the films like Princess Tam Tam (1935), Siren of the Tropics (1927) and Zou Zou (1934).[18]

As a character in the film, Baker illustrated how the new woman was unsuccessful in finding love. Through the lyrics of the song and her life journey Baker addresses the issues she sees in the society that seeks to degrade and chain women to patriarchal ideologies, denying them a chance to work and still have a family. The success of Bakers career was because of her ability to transcend the racial and gender stereotypes in the world at that time.[19] 

Additionally, the dances that Josephine performed were an entertainment element as well as a tool for the reproduction of the new social and cultural identity.[20]  Baker could discern the crucial features of a situation and use them to make the most out of life and fight racism and sexism premises.   As seen in the song, she acknowledges that women have embarrassments but the embarrassment s a delicate tool that creates secret approval. Baker used her body to get attention and manipulate the desires attached to the African American body and sexuality.[21] Baker used her songs, dance, and body to enlighten the African American women to shun from maintaining a status quo. She wanted them to challenge the crippling stereotypes in the society and gain the courage to be what they want to be. Baker rose to be a star in Paris discarding racial and stereotype limitations even though she faced racial discrimination sometimes in her life.[22]

Her life and the circumstances of life during this period paved the way for Baker to become Civil Rights activists. The song Ram Pam Pam challenges the ideologies that bound the New woman from finding happiness and love. She urges women to reject the constructs, find love despite their careers, and skin color. Moreover, her career made her more aware of the racial discrimination and the objectification of African American female body. The self-realization ensured that Baker realized the responsibilities she had in the society.  After the French resistance to the German Nazi’s, Baker became more active in the fight against racism and discrimination. For instance, in 1950, she refused to perform inform of a segregated audience and demanded an integrated audience.[23] 

Josephine Baker through her music and dance subverted the stereotypes that the African American sexuality was deviant and ugly. She created a new identity for women that their bodies were beautiful discarding the gendered and racial beliefs prescribed for women and more so the African American Women. Her life and the discrimination instance she faced made her become more active in the civil rights movement.


Amoeba Music. "Exotique (CD)." Amoeba Music. Accessed December 1, 2018.

Glover, Kaiama L. "Josephine Baker in Art and Life - Bennetta Jules-Rosette - Books - Review." Breaking News, World News & Multimedia - The New York Times. Last modified June 3, 2007.

Miller, Judith A. "Harlem Intersection-Dancing Around the Double-bind." PhD diss., University of Akron, 2011.

Norwood, Arlisha R. "Josephine Baker." DEV: National Women's History Museum. Last modified 2017.

Ruiz, María Isabel Romero. "Black States of Desire: Josephine Baker, Identity and the Sexual Black Body”." (2018).

Staszak, Jean-François. "Performing race and gender: the exoticization of Josephine Baker and Anna May Wong." Gender, Place & Culture 22, no. 5 (2015): 626-643.

[1] Arlisha Norwood, "Josephine Baker." DEV: National Women's History Museum.(Last modified 2017).

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6]  Kaiama Glover., "Josephine Baker in Art and Life - Bennetta Jules-Rosette - Books - Review." Breaking News, World News & Multimedia – (The New York Times. Last modified June 3, 2007).

[7] Amoeba Music. "Exotique (CD)." Amoeba Music. (Accessed December 1, 2018).

[8] María Isabel Romero, Ruiz. "Black States of Desire: Josephine Baker, Identity and the Sexual Black Body”." (2018) 130

[9] Ibid.,126

[10] Ibid.,126

[11] Ibid.,126

[12] Judith Miller."Harlem Intersection-Dancing Around the Double-bind." (PhD diss., University of Akron, 2011). 4

[13] Ibid.,128

[14] Ibid.,128

[15] Ibid.,128

[16] Ibid.,128

[17] Ibid.,128

[18] Ibid.,132

[19] Jean-François Staszak. "Performing race and gender: the exoticization of Josephine Baker and Anna May Wong." (Gender, Place & Culture 22, no. 5 2015) 2.

[20] María Isabel Romero, Ruiz. "Black States of Desire: Josephine Baker, Identity and the Sexual Black Body”." (2018) 132

[21]Ibid., 132

[22] Judith Miller. "Harlem Intersection-Dancing Around the Double-bind." (PhD diss., University of Akron, 2011). 12

[23] Jean-François Staszak. "Performing race and gender: the exoticization of Josephine Baker and Anna May Wong." (Gender, Place & Culture 22, no. 5 2015) 11.

October 05, 2023

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