This week, country(?) pop star Taylor Swift premiered the video for her new single “Shake It Off,” the lead off for her latest album 1989. The video features Swift in a variety of aesthetics, including rocking a baseball cap and ghetto blaster boom box while b-boys (that look like Abercrombie models) break dance around her. There’s also a segment where she’s surrounded by booty shaking chicks in short-shorts and door-knocker earrings. The video prompted swift criticism from many on Twitter who felt Swift was mocking hip-hop style and culture; and with the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, looming over virtually everything right now; seeing a blonde pop star appropriating black tropes was especially irritating. It should also be noted that Swift features other types of dance in the video — but there are no black girls during the ballerina segment; though there are plenty for the booty-shaking.
Of course, this is nothing new for Swift. Two years ago, she collaborated with robo-crooner T-Pain on the single “Thug Story,” and the video featured the duo thuggin’ it up for the cameras in big chains and sagging pants.
Of course, music is universal in that it can be enjoyed and even created by anyone who wants to embrace it. But with the current wave of pop stars, including Swift, Katy Perry, Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus, appropriating black aesthetics in what appears to be a superficial ghetto fabulous fad, questions have to be raised. Currently in America, we have black youth being marginalized, stigmatized and even murdered because of white America’s fear of them. That fear of black youth in gold teeth and sagging pants and big chains has contributed to much of the tragedies we see playing out on the news every day; and the ignorance in that fear keeps a target painted on the backs of black youth. From Renisha McBride to Mike Brown, white peoples’ internalized fear of blackness causes considerable pain and suffering for a community — especially the young people. There are laws being passed that criminalize sagging, natural hair is being scrutinized everywhere from the boardroom to the military; so often, blackness is viewed through a negative lens. Except when it’s being appropriated by trendy white folks.
Miley Cyrus can rock a gold grill without a hint of worry as to whether or not it stigmatizes her. If anything, it makes her “edgy” and cool and rebellious to the people that buy her music. And in doing so, she makes it “cool” for an entire generation of hip, “I’m not racist” white kids to do the same thing. But the black kids who originated that look don’t get the benefit of the de-stigmatization. Justin Bieber may sag his pants every day, but that won’t stop the young black kid walking around the mall with sagging pants from being eyeballed by security.
Earl Sweatshirt of Odd Future tweeted his criticism of Swift and white fans “borrowing” from black culture without understanding or caring what it means and without acknowledging the stereotyping they feed into.
“Haven’t watched the Taylor Swift video and I don’t need to watch it to tell you that it’s inherently offensive and ultimately harmful,” he tweeted. “Perpetuating black stereotypes to the same demographic of white girls who hide their prejudice by proclaiming love of the culture. For instance, those of you who are afraid of black people but love that in 2014 it’s OK for you to be trill or twerk or say ‘n—-.'”
If T-Pain wasn’t T-Pain, how would Taylor Swift react to him if she saw him walking on the street? Would Miley Cyrus get nervous if Juicy J was just an anonymous black man in an elevator with her? Who knows. But what we do know is that these pop stars seem to enjoy dabbling in black culture without really acknowledging the community that birthed it or just how painful that birth has been and can still be. Contrary to what many believe, most rappers are still tied to their communities in words and deeds. Mentoring programs, donations to schools, concerts in the community–these things happen on a fairly regular basis. While we don’t need pop stars who aren’t informed to speak out on issues such as what’s happening in Ferguson, it’s certainly not too much to ask that these suddenly “urbanized” white pop acts offer some semblance of gratitude to the kids in black neighborhoods whose swag they’ve been leeching off of lately. Give some free shows. Start a foundation.
Because, black kids by your records, too, Taylor. Stop selling them out to sell records.