When singer Jesy Nelson, who was originally a member of the popular British girl group Little Mix, released her debut solo single “Boyz” last week, she did so with the help of American star Nicki Minaj, who provides a guest cover for the song. Now Minaj is also helping his defense against accusations that the music video shows Nelson participating in Blackfishing.
Blackfishing and Blaccents are just the latest incarnations of minstrel shows and the use of blackface – and inevitably make black people feel inadequate.
Blackfishing — when non-black individuals change their appearance to try to appear more black for profit, where that profit often stems from throwing up stereotypes about black people — appears throughout the video. The production features colorful wigs and white individuals in dreads, gold teeth and earrings, all in an attempt to replicate hip-hop culture from the early 2000s.
The costumes decorate Nelson’s generic, auto-tuned R&B number about loving the bad boys — those her mother distrusts, those with “those tattoos and those gold teeth” that make her “feel like a villain.” In the video, Nelson, a Caucasian woman, has skin the same color as Minaj, a much darker tone than we have seen on her before. (Nelson stated that this came from tanning while on vacation.) The video contains several other aesthetic choices related to the black community.
When the allegations of Blackfishing broke out, Minaj jumped at Nelson and said that “singers tan a lot”, and that is “different than when someone comes out and pretends to be black.” Nelson herself denied the allegations, simply saying she praised what she loves.
But the controversy surrounding Nelson’s video highlights a much bigger problem than just a difference of opinion. It is a question: Who has the power to define black narratives? All too often, it is non-black celebrities who play with images of Blackness until they no longer find them interesting and perpetuate negative stereotypes about Blackness along the way.
In the video, Nelson has chosen to show black aesthetics in a vein that reinforces negative, time-consuming beliefs. She loves the “bad boys”, the ones who are “so hooded” and “a little taboo”. She herself wears a bandana around her head and chains around her neck. There’s no reason the video needs to use these styles to convey the theme of the song, but those were the ones she chose to illustrate her image of bad boys.
Just as troubling as the use of these stereotypes is the fact that the endless love of black culture they have to convey dries up when the artist who uses them becomes a bigger star. This, of course, undermines the claim that they were merely intended as a tribute rather than exploitation, while at the same time emphasizing that black culture is less than – and disposable.
Think of Miley Cyrus. In 2013, the former Disney star was looking for a new brand. She released a hip-hop album, “Bangerz,” calling her style choices of that era “a dirty-south vibe, a little ATL.” “Bangerz” went platinum, but Cyrus then left the hip-hop scene, blaming racist stereotypes that rap music was too misogynistic and materialistic. After making money on the aesthetics of hip-hop culture, she essentially rejected an entire, complex genre for being uncivilized.
Or think of Awkwafina, a rapper and actress in hit movies like the Marvel movie “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” She adopted a “Blaccent” (the use of African-American folk speech) for comedy roles such as the one she played in the 2018 film “Crazy Rich Asians” – and then immediately dropped it for more serious performances, as her Golden Globe-winning turn in ” Goodbye “in 2019.
Or think of Gen Z pop star Olivia Rodrigo, whose Instagram life went viral with the help of a Blaccent this summer. Fans quickly noticed that her accent was absent when they met President Joe Biden to encourage younger audiences to get vaccinated.
Celebrities have long adopted the characteristics of Blackness to seem funny and entertaining to only move on to something else when they will be seen as “respectable”. Blackfishing and Blaccents are just the latest incarnations of minstrel shows and the use of blackface – and inevitably make black people feel inadequate. Black children everywhere ask, “Why is the way my mother speaks a joke? Why is the way my sister speaks a voice you use to make your friends laugh? ”
At the same time, black people themselves are regularly punished for their blackness. In a single example, a study by economist Jeffrey Grogger found that “black workers who were perceived as sounding black” earn 12 percent less than “similarly skilled” white workers. This fall in wages was not present for black workers “whose race was not clearly recognizable by their voice.”
For generations, black activists have struggled to have a more positive representation in the media. Yet celebrities often choose to ignore the many, many criticisms of their behavior. For example, there have long been pieces written about Akwafina that say her Blaccent is offensive. When asked about it recently, she stated that she was “open to conversation.” The problem is that the conversation has been conducted. Celebrities simply have the power and influence to ignore these criticisms and prioritize their own comfort.
The issue of Blackfishing and Blaccents is a matter of power. Condemning non-black people’s use of them gives black people more control over the narrative surrounding our culture. It’s a small sign of respect, and it should not be so difficult for the celebrities who claim to admire the culture to express.