Man shit hits the fan when people trot out the phrase “cultural appropriation”. This response has increased over the years with Miley Cyrus as the most notorious case of “is she or isn’t she?” It makes sense: the concept of cultural appropriation is something I’ve only just grasped as a senior cultural studies major. I totally understand the bewilderment that white people (like me) get when a video featuring black dancers that behave like the ones in “rap videos” gets cries of racism if the star of the video is white. Back when Kreayshawn first came on the scene I was one of them. I quickly googled definition of the term and immediately disassociated from the accusations. My response was the same as many people who are now defending Sky Ferreira (a tourmate of Cyrus) and other white female popstars. How do you even use someone as a prop? Sky wasn’t using the dancers as a coat rack! Why can’t we have black people dancing in a video? Should they not be there? Isn’t that racist?
Now it’s Sky Fierra’s turn. Since she released her video for the brilliant song “Blame Myself”, people have talked about the cultural appropriation apparent in Sky’s choice of “gangster” backup dancers who are all black men, as well as the LA-gang premise of the video. Sky fired back on Facebook, and Brian Padilla penned this piece for Noisey with a long interview with Grant Singer, the director of the video. The responses were confused and horrified at the possibility, and they way they reacted said to me that they perhaps didn’t fully understand the reactions, which is understandable since trying to distill something like colonialism and whiteness into 140 characters is basically impossible. So here’s me responding to them with 1000 words, and hopefully after I tag them on twitter they’ll take a look at it. I’m aware of my privilege in engaging this as a rhetorical thing and not a my-identity-is-being-used thing, but I can’t refuse the chance to say something to this pop star that I really like and want to succeed.
First off, lets talk about the common definition of cultural appropriation, which is that “she/he/they are just using POC as props!” Props is a misleading term. Think of it more as credibility booster. Or extra. The black people in this video help set the scene as a dark grim american reality, because we associate dark poor america with dark poor Americans The director Grant Singer even admitted to this to Noisy.
I should say they also had a look. They had to look like they existed in this environment which is important to the authenticity of the video. If I had cast someone who looked like Seth Rogan as a dancer it may not have looked as believable. Every medium whether it be film, TV, music videos, or commercials, you cast based on what the part is.
So Sky/Grant, by engaging in this concept without thinking consciously, you reinforce this association of black people with ghettos. By showcasing it in a pop video, you mark that association as cool. By making black ‘gangsters’ seem cool you push that idea on everyone who watches the video who will one day encounter a black person and be surprised when they aren’t some gangster from compton. IF those people even take the time to look past the association in their minds. Mostly they’ll think how cool Sky Ferreira is because she hangs out with people who they see as “dangerous”. She takes on the ‘subversiveness’ associated black bodies without the burden of racism. Also let’s be real here. Sky looks white, no matter how mixed she may be, so she benefits from white privilege.
People ask questions, like “should we have no black people at all? THATs racist!” But what’s racist is limiting the authenticity and roles of black people as well as other people of color to certain situations. So for instance, black peeps when Sky Ferreira shoots a video inspired by The Wire, no black people when she shoots in a punk nightclub. AND ALSO people claiming that they were’ thinking or weren’t trying to be racist is water under the bridge. It shows how much we as white people need to ALWAYS be thinking and ALWAYS be aware in order to dismantle white supremacy. It’s hard, but no one said this would be easy.
It seems Ironic (with a capital I) that the director of the video would defend the casting of his dancers as all black with “When you go to the area we shot the video in there are no white people. That’s just a fact. The intention was to make something that was authentic.” but the whole premise of the video puts Sky in a space where she isn’t expected. So if it’s authentic y’all were looking for, why not have her get arrested for drug possession? By doing this treatment sky enters the realm of fantasy, which awesome. I’m all about the fantastic. But if you’re doing fantasy, then you don’t have to make as “authentic”. There’s very little about a women escaping from chains while in police custody and then simply stripping down and seducing the cops in the room that feels authentic to me.
90s gangster rap videos (which are acknowledged by everyone as a influence for this video) showed the grim realities of inter city life. Sky you have faced a lot of shit. But your shit went down in boardrooms and on the side of the roads with police e officers and on sights like TMZ that jumped on the new like wildfire to feed into their narrative of you as a drug addict.
So yeah, if you’re gonna do fantasy, then DO IT and stop continuing the pattern of regulating black males to “gangsters” because they have “a look”. WE CREATE ‘looks’. Don’t make them just a face without a choice. A choice you’d never like to guess what they think above the shoulders. Create a new look. Thats what art and music is for. Innovation. Creativity. Even if aauthenticityis what you are seeking, then show black people doing all kinds of shit, as they as people are won’t to do. Black people are business people and punk rockers and sweet grannies and gangsters and priests and teenage girls and everything in-between. So it gets tiresome for us to only see them being shown onscreen as gangsters or twerking strippers. Especially if the story isn’t really about them, but about another white pop star.
If Sky or the director or anyone involved in this reads this, just know I’m only saying this things because I’m big fans of Sky’s music and want her to be fully aware of how people are seeing it. If you’re really interested in this idea, go google bell hook’s essay Eating the Other. Actually wait, I found it for you. Read, and next time someone levels that claim of cultural appropriation towards some pop star via twitter, maybe don’t dismiss them so much.
Also one final caveat: it may not be an artist’s responsibility to change how we perceive race and class in america. Maybe you just want to make art that gets attention and you did that here. But don’t try and victimize yourself when people call you out an reinforcing shit. Own it, or do something different.