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Nicki Minaj’s Defense of Jesy Nelson’s Blackfishing is Weird and Disappointing

The perception of blackness is evolving. The black phenotype, defined by brown skin, kinky or curly hair and stylistic trends revolving around various black hip-hop aesthetics, has existed for years. Still, these cultural characteristics have cemented themselves in society through the dominion of rap, hip-hop, trap and black pop stars. As these aspects of black identity grow increasingly prevalent in the modern music industry, conversations surrounding cultural appropriation, racism and “blackfishing” have quickly bubbled to the surface. 

Blackfishing is a term coined by black journalist Wanna Thompson in a 2016 op-ed for Paper Mag. As defined by Thompson, blackfishing is the phenomenon of “white women’ cosplaying’ as Black women,” typically by way of unnaturally dark makeup, severely overlined lips, curly wigs or hair extensions, and other methods of imitating black features. Seen by many as a form of black minstrelsy similar to historically oppressive practices like blackface, the conversation about the frequency of blackfishing has gained public attention, most recently in the case of former Little Mix member Jesy Nelson.

Nelson, born Jessica Louise Nelson, hails from Romford, United Kingdom. While she was born and raised in Britain her whole life, images from 2016 to the present show that she proudly dons a dark spray tan and frequently wears curly wigs. As a matter of fact, her close friend and celebrity lash artist Charlotte Driver, owner of the brand Lash Perfect, routinely does Nelson’s spray tans. But why does all of this matter? 

On Oct. 11th at 3 pm, rapper Nicki Minaj and Nelson went live on Instagram to dispel the blackfishing accusations faced by the British singer following her debut single, “Boyz.” In the video for the song, Nelson was present in her signature tan, sporting various outfits aligned with hip-hop street fashion but also signature black American “hood” fashion and culture. She and her backup dancers sported gold teeth, American sports jerseys, bucket hats and long acrylic nails while riding lowriders and bicycles. The song itself was pop with hip-hop elements.

It’s hard to watch the music video and not see a distinct act of mimicry, namely of black hood aesthetics that black people have been actually demonized for wearing. Recently, a black Baltimore mother watched her son be prohibited from eating at the Ouzo Bay restaurant in July of last year due to his shorts allegedly being against dress code policy. The restaurant’s dress code, which was posted outside the eatery, prohibited items such as baggy clothing, athletic wear, jerseys, brimless headgear and backward hats, which seem like a checklist for the attire featured in the “Boyz” music video.

In order to contextualize why this is problematic, black people have had to face oppressive dress codes inside and outside the workplace for years as an extension of white supremacy. In a seminar by Stanford professor Richard Thompson Ford, the oppressive nature of dress codes for black people is linked to the Negro Acts of the 1700s, in which black people were not to “dress above their condition.” When history is examined in this way, it adds insult to injury when a white woman from the UK clothes herself in black cosplay for a song about fetishizing black men. While black men weren’t the only men captured in the music video, why exactly were the black aesthetics present? Why aestheticize blackness at all; can’t the sentiment of loving men be expressed without appropriation in conjunction with blackfishing? 

With these questions left hanging in the air, the aforementioned Instagram live between Minaj and Nelson further soured the bitter taste in the mouths of all who take issue with Nelson’s racial controversy. In the live, Minaj verbally called out current Little Mix member Leigh-Anne Pinnock, the only black member of the group who has been open about her experience of enduring racism.

With tension evident between Pinnock and Nelson following the controversial music video, given Pinnock’s outspokenness about issues such as antiblackness and fetishization, Minaj took to Nelson’s defense. Instead of validating another black artist in the industry, Minaj didn’t mince any words as she implied that Pinnock was jealous of Nelson’s newfound solo career, deflecting from the issues of blackfishing and appropriation at hand.

“If you want a solo career, baby, just say that,” Minaj said in the live, addressing Pinnock directly. “Now, all of a sudden, she’s not in a video with you; you have some negative, evil thing to do and say? Stop.”

When it later emerged in the media that Pinnock brought her concerns about blackfishing to Nelson directly when Little Mix was still a quartet rather than a trio, Minaj did not take back her words.

Disappointing is an understatement. Minaj has been a vocal advocate for herself when talking about her own experiences of racism as a prominent black woman within the music industry. The lack of solidarity within that live was shocking. Pinnock has been notably silent throughout the entire ordeal, making Minaj’s words seem like more of a one-sided tirade in defense of blackfishing instead of what could have been an open-ended conversation between two influential black artists.

So, what’s the big picture here? The reduction of the very real issue of blackfishing to just petty friendship squabbling was a waste. This is one of the hottest celebrity stories occurring in the media right now, and it could have opened the door for valuable discourse about modern blackface, appropriation of black culture, racism and more. It shows us all that there is more to be done in the department of racism and delineating the utilization of popular culture and modern trends to black culture.

And for goodness sake, let’s hope Nelson wipes off that tan.

I am a longtime writer with a passion for storytelling and narratives. Lifestyle writing is my specialty but I can do it all!
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