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Cultural Appropriation or Appreciation?- Jesy Nelson’s Blackfishing Controversy

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

Former Little Mix star Jesy Nelson has caused waves through the music and social media industry in the past few weeks after the release of her new single ‘Boyz’. This in itself is confusing, as her main reason for leaving the girl group was that she was struggling to deal with the fame and online hate that accompanied it, yet she has now decided to pursue a solo career. 

The single features Nicki Minaj and the accompanying video was immediately accused of blackfishing by viewers online. For those unfamiliar with the term, ‘blackfishing’ is used to describe white people who change their appearance and alter their mannerism to appear Black. In the video, Nelson has considerably tanned skin, braided hairstyles and in some scenes is wearing grills. Whilst there is arguably nothing wrong with White women using fake tan, in the video Nelson’s skin is the same shade as Minaj’s, who is of Trinidadian descent. The colourful wigs and exaggerated jewellery can be seen as a tribute to early 2000’s hip-hop, a genre dominated by Black artists. This is not to say that White musicians can’t be hip-hop artists, nor that they can’t be influenced by Black artists, Nelson defended herself against the allegations by saying she was simply “praising what she loves and has grown up with”. But does the video actually show an appreciation of Black culture or does it just further negative stereotypes? 

The backing dancers in the video, presumably representing the ‘bad boys’ Nelson is singing about, wear bandanas, chains, gold teeth and are heavily tattooed. The lyrics even go as far to say as the boys she likes are “so hood” and “a little taboo”. This stereotype of Black ‘hood’ cultures being used to represent ‘bad boys’ reinforces the old fashioned, criminalising view of Black culture rather than celebrating it. 

Whilst her representation of ‘bad boys’ is questionable, is Nelson actually blackfishing? She does have naturally very curly hair and spent a few weeks in Antigua before shooting the video, which could explain the darker skin tone. Whilst she has defended herself, claiming it was “never her intention to offend people of colour” some viewers feel that, like many other pop artists, she has enhanced certain features such as big lips and curly hair, in a way that is similar to women of colour’s natural features.

As a White woman, I cannot say whether her video is offensive to the Black community. However whole concept of blackfishing is problematic as it means artists benefit from exploiting certain aspects of blackness without experiencing the discrimination that often comes with. As Johanna Yaovi (founder of The Curl Talk Project) explains, “it’s about picking and choosing common Black traits and characteristics for one’s benefit while we continue to face discrimination on a day-to-day basis”. It implies that only certain aspects of blackness are cool or desirable, whilst completely erasing the struggles of actual Black people. Black women need to constantly fight for more diversity and representation whilst mainstream celebrities can take advantage of Black features for their own profit. 

What makes the controversy even more shocking, and a little sad, is how vocal Leigh- Anne Pinnock (another Little Mix member, who is mixed race) has been on how racism in the music industry has affected her, even making her own documentary on it. This implies Nelson is fully aware of the negative impacts blackfishing can cause in the industry. 

If Nelson truly loved and supported the Black hip-hop and RnB culture like she claims, surely, she should listen more to the outrage of her fans? 

This article is part of a themed week spotlighting Black History Month in the UK

I’m a second year student studying Anthropology at Bristol, I particularly enjoy photography, writing and travelling- when I’m able to again :(
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