Watching Jesy Nelson’s new video, Boyz, feels 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.
The video is short on original ideas, each scene mimicking classic 2000s hip-hop videos, in particular TI’s 2008 What Up, What’s Haapnin’ and P Diddy’s Bad Boys for Life, which the song also heavily interpolates. Nelson, who identifies as white British, wears grills on her teeth and sings about liking men who are “so hood”. In one scene she has her hair in braids; in another she wears a bandana – and her skin is darkened in a way that makes her appear nonwhite.
Nelson has been widely criticised for “Blackfishing”, a term coined by Wanna Thompson to describe imagery in which Black culture and aesthetics are imitated but Black people themselves are erased.
Did Jesy Nelson intend to hark back to decades of oppressive media imagery? Probably not. It’s likely that she (and others who do this, most famously the Kardashians) are simply 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.”
Nelson, perhaps aware that her choices might inspire this line of criticism, has leaned on the co-sign of Trinidadian-born Nicki Minaj, who is featured on the song. Curiously, in their shared scenes, Nelson (who has previously had a very peaches-and-cream complexion) is the same shade as Minaj (Nelson claims this is because she had just been on a tanning holiday in Antigua).
Minaj has gone on record defending Nelson as well as attacking Nelson’s former Little Mix bandmate Leigh-Ann Pinnock, who is mixed-race, of Barbadian and Jamaican descent. Pinnock naturally has many of the features Nelson would like to co-opt. In apparent leaked private messages, Pinnock called Nelson “a horrible person” and referred to the Blackfishing controversy. Minaj retorted by attacking Pinnock on Instagram, saying: “Only jealous people do things like this. It makes you a big jealous bozo.” Nelson 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 insist 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.
In many ways Nelson is relying on an age-old trick to make an otherwise unremarkable white artist relevant, or, in some cases, relevant again. Stars like Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, and Justin Timberlake have been criticised in the past for cultural appropriation. Each of them had an “urban” phase that saw them deviating from pop or country to embrace an “edgier” aesthetic – from Perry’s padded-buttocked backup dancers to Miley Cyrus feigning what she described as a “dirty-south” persona for a few years as part of her rebranding from child star. 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.
This isn’t only a problem among white artists. In the Korean pop industry, groups like Mamamoo have had to apologize for wearing blackface, and other stars, like Big Bang’s G-Dragon, have repeatedly crossed the line by appearing in everything from Afro wigs to what appears to be blackface (the latter incident, he claimed, was a tribute to Trayvon Martin).
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.
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