Jesy Nelson will dispose of her Black costume when it no longer serves her
Mikki Kendall writes for the Guardian that watching Jesy Nelson’s Boyz video felt like a flashback to an era in which “mocking Black people’s appearance was welcome in pop culture but Black people themselves largely were not.”
So what’s wrong with the video? Firstly, a lack of original ideas, writes Kendall, secondly for a woman who identifies as white British she has darkened her skin in a way that makes her look nonwhite, her grills, her lyrics about liking men who are “so hood”, her braids and much more.
Jesy Nelson has been criticised for blackfishing – a term coined to describe imagery in which Black culture and aesthetics are imitated but Black people themselves are erased.
Kendall says that Jesy and the other celebrities who have found themselves in similar situations are “scrambling to remain relevant as the beauty standard changes.”
Tina Fey references this fear of being irrelevant in her book Bossypants: “All Beyoncé and JLo have done is add to the laundry list of attributes women must have to qualify as beautiful. Now every girl is expected to have Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin with a California tan, a Jamaican dancehall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet, the abs of a lesbian gym owner, the hips of a nine-year-old boy, the arms of Michelle Obama, and doll tits.”
Kendall suggests that Jesy could have been aware that criticism would be heading her way and it is why she leaned on the co-sign of Nicki Minaj.
Nicki has defended Jesy – via Instagram Live – and has also attacked Jesy’s former bandmate, Leigh-Ann Pinnock.
Pinnock, of Barbadian and Jamaican descent “naturally has many features Nelson would like to co-opt.” In what is believed to be leaked private messages, Pinnock accused Nelson of being a “horrible person” and of blackfishing. The alleged private messages were mocked and attacked by Minaj, and Jesy laughed along.
“Nelson exemplifies the exact attitude that makes this type of racist cosplay so desirable. She’s able to make jabs at the person whose appearance she’s seemingly jealous of and insists she’s not racist, too. Best of all for her, when this is over, she can wash off the tan, take off the wigs and return to white privilege without ever having to face the impact of her actions on a community. Nelson will not deal with the impact of the hyper-sexualization of Black and multiracial girls, who are more likely to be sexually assaulted and less likely to be protected.”
Kendall discusses the “age-old trick” that Nelson is relying on, the one to make an otherwise average and unremarkable white artist relevant. Many artists such as Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry and Justin Timberlake have had an “urban phase”. They moved away from pop sounds to an “edgier” aesthetic – one they later drop.
“In every case this conversion to Black culture lasts just long enough to get some hit songs under a star’s belt before they move on to another cultural costume.”
At every turn, the global influence of hip-hop or R&B is cited as an excuse, as if Black identities are now somehow in the public domain. On Monday, Nelson said she didn’t want to offend people of colour, but that she simply loved 2000s hip-hop and “just wanted to celebrate that era of music”.
The problem with these excuses is that artists confuse Black American hyper-visibility with power, assuming that the cultural influence of Black music reflects a level of access and protection for Black people that does not actually exist in the US, the UK or anywhere else. Anyone who complains about harm can be framed as overreacting – which is what Nelson seems to be asserting now.
How is it possible to understand the joy but not the pain? To identify with every part of the culture except the struggles that members face in their day to day lives? And to see hip-hop as global, but not to notice current events in your own country, or even the struggles of your own bandmate with racism in the group, much less the culture that you are mimicking for a profit?
As the author Greg Tate’s 2003 book Everything But the Burden: What White People Are Taking from Black Culture addresses, everything about Black culture is appealing to whiteness except the hard parts of being Black. And apparently that attitude is global, even among people who also experience oppression from white supremacy. It’s not the exaggerated red lip of yesteryear, but it still feels like blackface, albeit a version updated for the digital age.
Minstrel shows were among America’s first cultural exports and may well be the last import.
Read the full article, Jesy Nelson will dispose of her Black costume when it no longer serves her, by Mikki Kendall on The Guardian