When singer Jesy Nelson, originally a member of popular British girl group Little Mix, released her first solo single “Boyz” last week, she did so with the help of American star Nicki Minaj, who provides a guest rap verse for the song. Now, Minaj is also helping her defend herself against accusations that the clip shows Nelson moonlighting.
Blackfishing and Blaccents are just the most recent incarnations of minstrel shows and the use of blackface – and inevitably they leave black people feeling inadequate.
Black fishing – when non-black people alter their appearance to try and appear blacker for profit, that profit often coming from regurgitating stereotypes about blacks – is on display throughout the video. The production features colorful wigs and white individuals dressed in dreads, gold teeth, and hoops, all in an effort to replicate early 2000s hip-hop culture.
The costumes decorate Nelson’s generic R&B track about love for bad boys – the ones her mother is wary of, the ones with “those tattoos and gold teeth” that make her “feel like a bad guy.” In the video, Nelson, a Caucasian female, has skin the same color as Minaj, a much darker tone than what we’ve seen on her before. (Nelson said it came from the vacation tan.) The video showcases several other aesthetic choices associated with the black community.
When the Blackfishing accusations erupted, Minaj jumped in to support Nelson, stating that “singers tan a lot” and that it is “different from when someone comes out and pretends to be black.” Nelson herself has denied the allegations, simply stating that she praises what she likes.
But the controversy surrounding Nelson’s video highlights a much bigger issue than just a difference of opinion. It’s a question: who has the power to define black narratives? Too often, it’s non-black celebrities who play with images of darkness until they no longer find them interesting, thus perpetuating negative stereotypes about darkness along the way.
In the video, Nelson chose to display the black aesthetic in a vein that reinforces negative and time-worn beliefs. She likes “bad boys”, those who are “so hood” and “a little taboo”. She herself wears a bandana around her head and chains around her neck. There’s no reason the video would use these styles to convey the theme of the song, but they are the ones she chose to illustrate her image of bad boys.
Just as disturbing as the use of these stereotypes is the fact that the endless love of black culture they are meant to convey dries up when the artist who uses them becomes a bigger star. This, of course, undermines the claim that they were simply meant as tributes rather than exploitation, while also reinforcing the fact that black culture is less than – and disposable.
Think of Miley Cyrus. In 2013, the former Disney star was looking to change brands. She released a hip-hop album, “Bangerz”, and called her style choices at the time “dirty south-south, a little ATL”. “Bangerz” went platinum, but Cyrus later left the hip-hop scene, accusing the racist stereotypes of rap music that was too misogynistic and materialistic. After making money from the aesthetic of hip-hop culture, she essentially rejected a whole, complex genre to be uncivilized.
Or think of Awkwafina, rapper and actress in blockbuster movies such as the Marvel movie “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”. She adopted a “Blaccent” (the use of African-American vernacular speech) for comedy roles like the one she played in the 2018 hit movie “Crazy Rich Asians”, then quickly ditched it for more serious performances, like his winning Golden Globe. appear in “The Farewell” from 2019
Or think Gen Z pop star Olivia Rodrigo, whose Instagram lives by using a Blaccent just went viral. this summer. Fans quickly noticed that his accent was missing when he met President Joe Biden to encourage young audiences to get the shot.
Celebrities have long adopted Blackness traits to appear funny and entertaining to move on when they want to be seen as “respectable.” Blackfishing and Blaccents are just the most recent incarnations of minstrel shows and the use of blackface – and inevitably they leave black people feeling inadequate. Black kids everywhere are asking, “Why is my mom telling a joke?” Why is the way my sister talks a voice you use to make your friends laugh? “
At the same time, blacks themselves are regularly penalized for their blackness. In just one example, a study by economist Jeffrey Grogger found that “black workers who were perceived to look black” earn 12% less than “similarly qualified” white workers. This wage cut was not present for black workers “whose race was not distinctly identifiable by their voice.”
For generations, black activists have fought for more positive portrayal in the media. Yet celebrities often choose to ignore the many, many criticisms of their behavior. For example, articles have long been written about Akwafina saying his Blaccent was offensive. Asked about it recently, she said she was “open to conversation”. The problem is, the conversation took place. Celebrities simply have the power and influence to ignore these criticisms and prioritize their own comfort.
The question of Blackfishing and Blaccents is a question of power. Exposing their use by non-Blacks gives Black people more control over the narrative surrounding our culture. It’s a little sign of respect, and one that shouldn’t be that hard to express for celebrities who claim to admire this culture.