When singer Jesy Nelson, originally a member of popular British girl group Little Mix, released her debut solo single “Boyz” last week, she did it with help from American star Nicki Minaj, who provides a guest rap verse for the song. Now Minaj is also aiding her defense against accusations that the music video shows Nelson engaging in Blackfishing.
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.
Blackfishing — when non-Black individuals alter their appearance to try to appear more Black for profit, with that profit often coming from regurgitating stereotypes about Black people — is on display throughout the video. The production features colorful wigs and white individuals in dreads, gold teeth and hoop earrings, all in an attempt to replicate early 2000s hip-hop culture.
The costumes decorate Nelson’s generic, auto-tuned R&B track about loving the bad boys — the ones her mother distrusts, the ones with “them tattoos and them gold teeth” that make her “feel like a baddie.” In the video, Nelson, a Caucasian woman, has skin the same color as Minaj, a much darker tone than we’ve seen on her previously. (Nelson stated this came from tanning while on vacation.) The video features several other aesthetic choices associated with the Black community.
When the charges of Blackfishing erupted, Minaj jumped to back Nelson, stating that “singers tan a lot” and that’s “different than when someone comes out and pretends to be Black.” Nelson herself denied the allegations, stating simply that she was praising what she loves.
But the controversy around Nelson’s video spotlights a much larger issue than a mere 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 Blackness until they no longer find them interesting, perpetuating negative stereotypes about Blackness along the way.
In the video, Nelson has chosen to display Black aesthetics in a vein that reinforces negative, time-worn beliefs. She loves the “bad boys,” the ones 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 needs to use these styles to convey the theme of the song, but they’re the ones she chose to illustrate her picture of bad boys.
Just as troubling as the use of these stereotypes is the fact that the endless love of Black culture they are supposed to convey dries up when the performer using them becomes a bigger star. That, of course, undermines the claim that they were merely intended as tributes rather than exploitation, all while reinforcing that Black culture is less than — and disposable.
Think of Miley Cyrus. In 2013, the former Disney star was looking to rebrand. She released a hip-hop album, “Bangerz,” and called her style choices in that era “a dirty-South vibe, a little ATL.” “Bangerz” went platinum, but Cyrus then left the hip-hop scene, blaming racist stereotypes about rap music being too misogynistic and materialistic. After making money off the aesthetic of hip-hop culture, she essentially rejected an entire, complex genre for being uncivilized.
Or think of Awkwafina, rapper and actress in hit films 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 hit 2018 movie “Crazy Rich Asians” — and then promptly dropped it for more serious performances, like her Golden Globe-winning turn in 2019’s “The Farewell.”
Or think of Gen Z pop star Olivia Rodrigo, whose Instagram lives using a Blaccent went viral just this summer. Fans quickly noted her accent was absent when meeting President Joe Biden to encourage younger audiences to get vaccinated.
Celebrities have long adopted traits of Blackness to seem funny and entertaining only to move on to something else 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 ask, “Why is the way my mother talks a joke? Why is the way my sister talks a voice you use to make your friends laugh?”
At the same time, Black people themselves are regularly penalized for their Blackness. In just one example, a study by economist Jeffrey Grogger found that “black workers who were perceived as sounding black” earn 12 percent less than “similarly qualified” white workers. This drop in pay was not present for black workers “whose race was not distinctly identifiable by their voice.”
For generations, Black activists have fought to have more positive representation in the media. Yet celebrities often choose to ignore the many, many critiques of their behavior. For example, pieces have long been written about Akwafina saying her Blaccent is offensive. When asked about it recently, she stated that she is “open to the conversation.” The issue is that the conversation has been had. Celebrities simply have the power and influence to ignore these critiques and prioritize their own comfort.
The question of Blackfishing and Blaccents is a question of power. Denouncing 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 one that shouldn’t be so hard for the celebrities who claim to admire that culture to express.