“Blackfishing,” a term used to describe women — primarily white women — who portray themselves as Black, has been the topic of conversation on Twitter for the past few days. This stems directly from the backlash that has surfaced following Jesy Nelson’s new “Boyz” video featuring Nicki Minaj.
Immediately after the video dropped, social media users began digging deeper into whether or not Jesy was portraying herself as a Black woman to garner traction. The allegations speak to a larger problem that’s been hard to ignore in recent years on social media: white women dressing themselves up with aesthetics and styles created by Black women. From influencers like Kim Kardashian West (and her sister Kylie Jenner) to rappers like Iggy Azalea, each has been accused of co-opting Black women’s aesthetics — sneakers, streetwear brands, and a foundation that’s darker than their normal complexion — and gaining large online followings and success in the process.
The term Blackfishing has become normalized over the past few years. Coined by writer Wanna Thompson, Blackfishing is “when White public figures, influencers and the like do everything in their power to appear Black. Whether that means to tan their skin excessively in an attempt to achieve ambiguity, and wear hairstyles and clothing trends that have been pioneered by Black women,” as she explained to CNN.
Leslie Bow, a professor of Asian American Studies at the University of Wisconsin, also spoke with CNN about the term, defining it as “a racial masquerade that operates as a form of racial fetishism…In reality, Blackfishing situates that style as a commodity. It has the effect of reducing a people with a specific history to a series of appropriable traits or objects.”
Black-centric aesthetics were on full display in Nelson’s “Boyz” video, which currently has over 7 million views on YouTube. In the video for the “Bads Boy For Life”-sampling track, the former Little Mix member dons heavy makeup that appears tan (it was also a recreation of the 2001 clip). In addition to the strange complexion, the entire visual features elements that aren’t just cringy, but show just how reliant it is on the fetishization of blackness. It appears in the form of long acrylic nails, drawn on full lips, baggy jeans, and sneakers. The “bad boys” she speaks of also feed into that fetishization, from the lyrics “So hood, so good, so damn taboo” to the stereotypical garb used to show what “bad boys” look like — shirtless and wearing basketball shorts with a grill, or wearing tall tees with hats and durags (wife beaters are also acceptable). Countless stereotypes are emphasized throughout the video.
According to Newsweek, on Monday night, Jesy said on an Instagram Live with Minaj that it was “never ever” her intention “to offend people of color with this ‘Boyz’ video.” She also said: “For me personally, [the] nineties, 2000s hip-hop and R&B, is the best era of music that was made. I just wanted to celebrate that. I just wanted to celebrate that era’s music because it’s what I love.”
This is not the first time Jesy has been called out for utilizing Black aesthetics, in 2018 she was heavily criticized for wearing locs. In a recent Vulture feature, she alleged she never received criticism for her appearance while in Little Mix, and only did after she left the group — even though she feels like her appearance hasn’t changed since becoming a solo artist.
“But I mean, like, I love Black culture. I love Black music. That’s all I know; it’s what I grew up on,” Nelson said to Vulture. “I’m very aware that I’m a white British woman; I’ve never said that I wasn’t.”
Black culture is a costume to some entertainers and artists who can pick and choose to wear it, and then take it off when it’s convenient for them. This is especially true for white women who make themselves look darker.
“Women who were white-presenting previously, now looking darker, lips look fuller, hair in more ethnic style per se…We continue to be the fetish, we’re more than our full lips, we’re more than the different shades in brown that our skin comes in,” nurse Dara Thurmond said on the issue of Blackfishing in a 2018 Al Jazeera Plus video.
What’s going on with Nelson appears to be a similar case, whether she realizes it or not. And it hasn’t helped that Minaj has sided with Nelson. The rapper made her stance clear during her Instagram Live with the artist, saying: “There’s a lot of women out here in the United States that tan, get bigger lips, get all types of s*** done to themselves. As long as you’re not hurting anybody or speaking negatively about anyone’s race or culture, you should be able to enjoy your body, your make-up, how you want to.”
There were other conversations happening online when Nicki was speaking up for Nelson. Ex-bandmate Leigh-Anne Pinnock entered the discourse when her fans created enough noise to get Minaj to call her “messy” during the Live. The rapper also tweeted in support of Jesy after a screenshotted conversation was released online by an influencer, where Pinnock allegedly said Jesy was Blackfishing. (Pinnock hasn’t publicly addressed if the conversation actually happened). Minaj accused Pinnock of speaking out about Blackfishing now as a way to take a dig at Nelson while she’s establishing her solo career.
Regardless of if the conversation is real or not, Pinnock — a Black woman — wouldn’t be wrong to call out Nelson for the video. It’s offensive in its nature: a case study for appropriation and fetishization. There’s a fine line between appreciating a culture and appropriating it, and Jesy’s tasteless “Boyz” video is effective in proving the lengths pop acts are willing to go to diminish Black women while repurposing what makes us unique.
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