Musicians should not appropriate black culture for popularity

Photo courtesy of IMDb Ariana Grande performs in the music video for “thank u, next.”

Photo courtesy of IMDb
Ariana Grande performs in the music video for “thank u, next.”

BY NINA LARBI ’22

White artists in America have a long history of appropriating black culture to gain popularity in the music industry. Musicians often adopt black culture to create a “bad girl/boy” image. The release of Ariana Grande’s new album “thank u, next” and her changed appearance, especially in her most recent music video for her single “7 Rings,” has brought renewed attention to the issue. Grande has been called out on the internet because of her continuously darkening skin, heavy use of African-American Ver- nacular English (AAVE) and her trap-style music, in contrast to her previously pale skin, use of standard English and doo-wop sound. The change has been so dramatic that many do not even realize she is white — I didn’t until last December. Grande’s race, though, lets her slip in and out of her “bad girl” persona — though she acts one way in her music videos, her appearances in magazines like TIME or Vogue feature her with pale skin and a “good girl” image.

Her trajectory is similar to that of Miley Cyrus, only Grande has yet to return to her “good girl” image. Cyrus speci cally went through a “bad girl” phase from 2013 to 2017, mostly characterized by her infamous appropriation of black culture during this period. Justin Bieber is another prominent example. Both of them brie y took up “edgy,” hyper-racialized images, simultaneously acting out and appropriating key elements of black culture, and then abandoned this image when it no longer served them. This phenomenon of white artists taking black culture and us- ing it for popularity in the music industry, and then disposing of it — called “caucasian restorations” by Joe Budden and DJ Akademiks — seems to be almost an affliction.

This kind of appropriation is also made acceptable by present beauty trends, specially that of the “baddie.” The “baddie” trend is essentially Kylie Jen- ner’s image: an hourglass gure, tight clothing, fake nails, hoops and chains, gelled baby hairs and large lips, all of which are directly appropriated from black culture. But the beauty standard still doesn’t include black people. Those who are at the forefront of this trend are not black. Instead, models and celebrities like Jenner are labeled as “ethnically ambiguous,” and therefore, they are given more leeway regarding the appropriation of black and brown cultures. In reality, they are often white women with a tan and lip injections, like Grande and Jenner. It is the pinnacle of white privilege to be able to adopt a “bad girl” image without consequence, while black women are called derogatory names for exhibiting their own culture. Why were dreads edgy on Jenner and Cyrus, but made Zendaya look like she “smelled like patchouli oil or weed,” as stated by Giuliana Rancic?

Black culture has always been considered “cool” by white America. According to Cheryl Grace, the senior vice president of the U.S. Strategic Community Alliances and Consumer Engagement, “Black consumer choices have a ‘cool factor’ that has created a halo effect, influencing not just consumers of color but the mainstream as well.” Musicians take advantage of this, pandering to black audiences to gain popularity, and when they are done, they go right back to their “good kid” image. Bieber did this with “What Do You Mean” and Cyrus with “Malibu.” After her so- called “culture vulture” phase, Cyrus did a complete 180 and disparaged hip-hop in a 2017 interview, stating that she got out of the hip-hop scene because it “was too much ‘Lamborghini, got my Rolex, got a girl on my c*ck’ — I am so not that.” Many wondered why Cyrus was perfectly ne with this culture a few years earlier, when she made songs in the hip-hop genre, wore dreads and twerked.

Artists like Cyrus, Bieber and Grande are allowed to oscillate between various “concepts” because of their whiteness, while black artists are not. Black musicians seem to be con ned to the genres of hip- hop, R&B, rap and pop. No black singer would have been able to go from singing about doing molly in the bathroom with grills on to singing country-pop in a eld of wild owers without their career suffering.

The appropriation of black culture in music is a fully- edged double standard. The black community creates culture, something meant for them, while white America steals it and cries “reverse racism” when they are called out. Black musicians have to endure racism in their industry and are chained to certain genres. White musicians can take off their “blackness” at the end of the day, while black indi- viduals cannot. Grande, Cyrus and Bieber are most likely not ill-intentioned — and they can grow — but it is important to recognize the harm they are perpetuating.

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