Is The Trend Of White Pop Artists Exploiting Hip-Hop Finally Reaching Its Use-By Date?
For decades, white pop artists have used black music to revitalise their careers, with little thought of the consequences. But recently, this pivot doesn't seem to be working.
In 2016, when Vic Mensa was still a year away from releasing his debut record The Autobiography, and still considered an emerging rap star, he had some choice words for pop magnate, Justin Timberlake.
“We’re not feeling him being down when it’s beneficial to him and turning a blind eye when it could be dangerous,” he told Larry Wilmore on The Nightly Show. Up until this point, Timberlake’s solo records, from Justified and FutureSex/LoveSounds to The 20/20 Experience, were upheld as archetypal hip-hop albums.
“Our problem here is that Justin Timberlake himself, you know, is definitely benefiting from using black culture for his sound, his dance moves, his dancers and blowing up off of it,” Mensa continued. “But if you roll down Justin Timberlake’s Twitter for the past two years, which I just did, you see nothing that supports black people when it’s more difficult; when there’s a struggle.”
Ben Williams of New York Magazine wrote in a review of FutureSex/LoveSounds that we should “give him credit for being one of the few white men still brave enough to make black music.”
But when it comes to pop stars borrowing hip-hop producers, music and tropes to refresh their career only to revert back to their “authentic roots”, perhaps “brave” isn’t the right word.
Culture Vultures And Trap Temptations
The history of jazz and rock being co-opted and stripped of its cultural history is a fact of the industry. The colonisation of hip-hop at the hands of pop hasn’t gone unnoticed.
In their 2017 Year-End Report, market research firm Nielsen found that hip-hop had eclipsed rock as the most popular genre in the country for the first time in history. It confirmed what we were already seeing on the charts, from the success of Lil Uzi Vert’s Luv Is Rage 2, Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., Drake’s More Life and Migos’ Culture.
Today hip-hop is as lucrative, if not more so, than pop music. But even back in 2002, when Timberlake released the Timbaland produced Justified, we had already seen how powerful the co-opting of the genre in the hands of a pop star could be.
The pop music machine values reinvention but it’s only white artists that are given the freedom to try on any genre they please, any racial identity too, depending on the state of their career.
Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, and most recently Ariana Grande, have turned to the temptations of trap to transform their image, sound and album-sale numbers. The pop music machine values reinvention but it’s only white artists that are given the freedom to try on any genre they please, any racial identity too, depending on the state of their career.
Black musicians, meanwhile, are boxed in as being R&B and rap stars. In 2014, FKA Twigs told The Guardian, “when I first released music and no one knew what I looked like, I would read comments like, ‘I’ve never heard anything like this before, it’s not in a genre.’” She continued, “and then my picture came out six months later, now she’s an R&B singer.”
“When we put black artists in these boxes, we strip their ability to morph,” Moses Sumney told Pitchfork, “which is something white artists don’t have to deal with.”
Country Sweethearts And Southern Dance
But this isn’t the only frustration with pop’s often frivolous move to hip-hop.
It’s any wonder, with the backlash that Miley, Justin, and Katy received, why stars like Ariana wouldn’t learn from their mistakes. When these kinds of stylistic changes make stars look like spoilt, cash-grabbing culture vultures, is perpetuating the like of a Japanese-style pink trap house for the sake of album sales worth it in the long-run?
At the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards, which captivated a live audience of 10 million viewers, Miley debuted her new bad girl cosplay by shaking her latex-covered ass at the ageing, monochromatic crotch of Robin Thicke. “Much as Columbus “discovered” the Americas,” Justin Charity wrote in 2014 for Complex, “Miley Cyrus discovered a style of dance that Southern black dancers and DJs invented in the early 1990s.”
From this godforsaken moment onwards, twerking was propelled into the mainstream forever attached to the then weed-smoking, tongue waggling, rapper hanger-oner Cyrus, rather than its originators. If she did all this in the name of attention and sales, it worked.
According to Forbes, her VMAs performance saw a 112 percent growth in her social media following. Cyrus’ previous album, Can’t Be Tamed pretty much flopped, but Bangerz, released October 8, 2013, which made 270,000 in sales its first week and went number one, crossed the 1 million sales mark in less than five months and spawned three top 40 hits. Executive producer, Atlanta native, Mike WiLL Made-It collaborated with Pharrell Williams and will.i.am, to achieve Miley’s desired sound.
Reviews of the record were cognisant of the “attention-seeking” turn to R&B for a “raunchy reboot.” Journalist Kitty Price wrote that it was “driven by the inescapable purpose of Bangerz: a desire to wind people up for commercial, rather than transgressive, ends.”
That’s the nature of the beast though, isn’t it? The white pop machine is quick to trade in integrity with little to no thought of the consequences.
When It’s Convenient, Drop It
In May 2017, after an unexpected hiatus, Miley released ‘Malibu’, “a pop-rock singalong so breezy, it makes Sheryl Crow seem edgy.” Miley’s hip-hop moment was over.
“I never would’ve believed you if three years ago you told me I’d be here writing this song,” Cyrus said of the track, but for everyone else, it was a predictable reversion. Described as “gimmick-free pop-rock, unlike anything she has recorded before,” her speedy rejection of hip-hop and its culture, was not only clumsy but accompanied by a classic case of foot-in-mouth.
In an interview with Billboard, while explaining her stylistic changes, she said: “I also love that new Kendrick [Lamar] song [‘Humble’]: “Show me somethin’ natural like ass with some stretch marks.” I love that because it’s not ‘Come sit on my dick, suck on my cock.’ I can’t listen to that anymore. That’s what pushed me out of the hip-hop scene a little…I am so not that.”
Cyrus picked up and dropped the genre when it was convenient to her, and returned to her “roots” by rebranding as a good white girl, crooning country-tinged ballads dedicated to her fiancé.
It’s a move the likes of Nicki Minaj, Beyonce and Cardi B wouldn’t be given space to make. The reviews for ‘Malibu’ were positive and she was received by mainstream media with open arms and forgiven for her “untoward” ways.
“When people such as Adele get their props, they respect the culture,” James Peterson, Ph.D., director of Africana Studies at Lehigh University and founder of Hip Hop Scholars, Inc, told Ebony Magazine. “We’re pretty good at splitting up who is genuine. We live in a world that privileges Whiteness. The same thing happens in the music industry. You can be blackballed if you speak out against [cultural appropriation],” Peterson argues. “Music is but one iteration of institutional racism.”
Her insubordination may be thrilling, even inspiring to some, but it reeks of a white woman who refuses to listen to critiques of her mishandling of a genre and more widely, an entire culture and race.
Miley’s folky, whiter pastures on her sixth studio album, Younger Now, didn’t receive the certified triple platinum accolades that Bangerz achieved. Debuting at No. 5 on the Billboard 200, Younger Now sold a dismal 45,000 units in its first week and failed to even go gold.
This is what makes the late-2018 announcement of her return to hip-hop, with Bangerz producer, Mike WiLL Made-It, all the more frustrating. In an interview with 95.5 PLJ, Miley revealed plans for her next album. “We’ve got songs with Mike WiLL that lean more hip-hop and songs with Andrew Wyatt that lean more pop/alternative,” Miley said. “I just have kind of everything.”
Broader fans of music, especially hip-hop and pop, are frustrated with Cyrus. Her insubordination may be thrilling, even inspiring to some, but it reeks of a white woman who refuses to listen to critiques of her mishandling of a genre and more widely, an entire culture and race.
Miley And Justin Aren’t The Only Ones
We let Justin Timberlake escape his transgressions, especially in his role at the 2004 Super Bowl. In the now infamous performance with Janet Jackson, in which he exposed her bare breast, Timberlake was forgiven and even invited to perform at the Super Bowl again in 2018, while Jackson was left to pick up the pieces of her declining career. When Janet was blackballed by the industry, Timberlake failed to atone and escaped responsibility.
We may not be so forgiving now. Miley’s career feels marred by her 2013 cash grab, that wasn’t only blatant but seared in the memory of those who she’s trying to sell a repackaged, “conscious rap” version of herself to now. Katy Perry’s recent struggles with reinvention mirror Miley’s.
One of the best-selling music artists of all time, Perry has sold more than 40 million albums and over 100 million records globally throughout her career. Her last album, Witness, had a rather peculiar rollout. From the four-day-long, Big Brother style live stream inside Perry’s house, to her infamous (and awkward) SNL performance with Migos, the ‘I Kissed A Girl’ star’s once formidable grasp on the pop charts seemed to be slipping.
‘Bon Appétit’s success should have been guaranteed by Migos’ guest feature, but after peaking at No. 59, it quickly descended down the charts. Her following release, ‘Swish Swish’ featuring rap juggernaut, Nicki Minaj, did only marginally better at No. 46, but it was destined to a similar fate. Perry’s entire rollout was disingenuous, and trading in her clumsy albeit charming authenticity lost her a slew of faithful listeners.
Ariana Grande’s recent fondness for Atlanta trap aesthetics, saw her rapping on current No. 1 single, ‘7 Rings’. Artists including Soulja Boy and Princess Nokia accused the ‘Thank U, Next’ singer of stealing their flows.
Twitter users jumped in, criticising her lyrics, aesthetics and rapper cosplay. However, Ariana’s reaction was to share a fan’s post defending the lyrics, which read: “White women talking about their weaves is how we’re gonna solve racism.” Grande reposted the tone-deaf defence to her Instagram story (which was quickly deleted), writing that she has “so much love” for the user.
For someone with the breadth and talent of Ariana Grande, who’s commanded a loyal fandom with her inimitable style of pop bangers, it’s disappointing to see her move with such insincerity. Users on Twitter reported that Grande had started blocking black people criticising her appropriative rebrand, only for their mentions to be flooded by stans.
Are We Finally Becoming Exhausted By This?
Ebony Magazine’s then editor-in-chief, Kierna Mayo, ran a powerful statement on its 2015 cover: “America Loves Black People Culture.” “It’s an exhausting dichotomy,” Michael Arceneaux wrote for Teen Vogue. “But while the public at large loves facets of black culture, black people remain beset with lingering prejudices about who we are.”
Without respecting the cultures they have borrowed from, Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Justin Timberlake and now, Ariana Grande are no more than imposters. Their duplicitous hip-hop pivots will be a stain on their integrity, legacy and sales.
Timberlake’s Man of the Woods may have scored him a No. 1 spot, but memes, rude tweets, tepid reviews, and a forgettable Super Bowl halftime show indicate a larger cultural backlash against his rebrand as a white man. Culturally, we are likely to cast a suspicious eye over the upcoming album offerings from Cyrus, Perry, and Grande, especially as they attempt to package authenticity in less convincing manifestations.
“Thuggish”, hypersexual and rebellious streaks are favourable characteristics on white women but are in stark contrast to the struggles black women face for exhibiting those very same traits.
The issue isn’t whether white artists should or should not work within the realms of hip-hop. The problem is that stars like Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus steal black culture in a disingenuous bid for success. Taylor Swift’s attempt at rapping and Katy’s hip-hop collaborations failed to match their past success, because of their inauthenticity.
When it comes to hip-hop, Fordham University’s Dr. Aimee Cox, a professor of African and African-American Studies says it’s not about appropriation, but more about taking space away from black artists. “Thuggish”, hypersexual and rebellious streaks are favourable characteristics on white women but are in stark contrast to the struggles black women face for exhibiting those very same traits.
“It’s tricky when we use the word appropriation,” she told Complex. “We just use it to say they are stealing something and making money off of it, but I think there is something more dangerous that is happening. Not only in terms of the music industry — there are already limited spaces for black artists — but it does something dangerous for the creative potential of black women that has virtually disappeared.”
As easy as it is to ignore the consequences of our choices — and sometimes we are forced to just by living in such a complicated world — buying music by white artists who steal from a culturally-rich genre like hip-hop, as they actively restrict other black artists, becomes harder to ignore.
Witnessing Timberlake’s fall from grace and Miley’s new album being met with a perpetual groan are just small victories in a more accountable musical spectrum and are hopefully the beginnings of something better.
Kish Lal is a writer and critic based in New York City. She tweets about raccoons and Cardi B at @kish_lal.