Recycled Blackness in Recycled Music: Jesy Nelson’s 'Boyz'
Jesy Nelson exited Little Mix and her new single, “Boyz” has been creating quite an uproar but not for the reason one would think. The song is a sample of Diddy’s song, “Bad Boys for Life.” I don’t want this to seem like a drag on Jesy because she did exit her former group for mental health reasons, but her style and single has me and other people raising eyebrows because Jesy is participating in the trend of non-Black women parading around as Black. In other words, Jesy is guilt of Blackfishing. If you are unfamiliar, blackfishing it is when white and non-Black influencers or celebrities using their aesthetic to embody Blackness. The term was coined by journalist and digital programmer, Wanna Thompson, who described it as, “public figures using bronzer, tanning, Photoshop, or even cosmetic surgery to change their looks to appear Black or mixed race.” (Health.com). There have been others after her such as Leslie Bow who described Blackfishing as “a racial masquerade that operates as a form of racial fetishism. 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…Blackfishing is one form of racist love, how we appropriate otherness.”
Blackfishing has become an acceptable form of Blackface in the digital age and a form of cultural appropriation. Although, Jesy is not the first person to be guilty of Blackfishing, it’s important to talk about why this is harmful, especially to the health and wellbeing of Black women. Black women’ mental health and physical wellbeing is often discounted or ignored because of stereotypes and long-lasting racial caricatures. Black women are also very often over sexualized and Blackfishing adds to this collective trauma. Throughout history, Black culture and innovation has been taken, used, and manipulated.
The “Boys” video is a cultural disaster. Below are just a few examples throughout the video that made me both cringe.
Jesy’s video starts with her in Timberland boots, extremely tanned skinned, and a closely kinky hairdo. The aesthetic of the video gives a hip-hop vibe. Clearly, this is what Jesy is going for because of her sampling Diddy.
The video continues with recycled tropes that are often used by white audiences to create caricatures of Black people. There is a racially ambiguous man in durag and grill and in the next shot, a white man smoking what looks like a blunt, followed by Jesy on a bike with men behind her imitating rappers of the 2000s mannerisms. The fashion is made popular by Black artists in the early 2000s, including the satin scarf on her head, long acrylic nails, and use of the lollipop in the music video. Even the use of the term “baddie” stems from Black people. Yes, the song is a hip-hop sample, which explains the Diddy cameo and features Nicki Minaj because she is popular, yet this still seems like “see, look, I’m hip. I even know Black people.”
The entire video seems like a gag reel of a forgotten 2000s video, from the arrival of the tour to the mediocre dance sequence towards the end. That’s simply because it is. It’s all a performance of what popular culture thinks it means to be Black. The problems within the video lie within not only the visuals but the singer herself because Jesy was active in deciding this was necessary for her new sound and style. Jesy has tailored her look to seems more, “edgy” which translates to Black. Somehow when pop girls go solo, there image automatically shift from pink bubble gum popstar to cameos with rappers talking about:
Got a little attitude, but I think he's kinda cute So hood, so good, so damn taboo Know you know how to please me Like it raw, baby, sashimi
Now, don’t get me wrong, Little Mix has had some suggestive lyrics as well. However, the “so hood, so good, so damn taboo,” is extremely significant because not only does this summarize the idea of being adjacent Black culture, it also is an example of Jesy taking advantage of that very culture to shoot her solo career into the limelight. It’s new and it seems taboo, so it makes her appealing. The culture enjoys seeing things typically associated with Blackness on white bodies. (Think Kim K and Iggy Azalea as examples or even Jesy’s contour and lip lining.)
Black culture has permeated to pop culture, and this is where the issue begins. So much of the internet culture stems from what has become significant in Black culture. Black rappers and R&B artists worked hard to build the foundations of the fashions (from baggy pants and corn rows to grills and chain letter thongs) and simply existing within a world that rejected the Black aesthetic and sound for a rather long time. Hip-hop culture encourages going against the status quo and having a devil may care attitude. But this was necessary for Black artists to build their sound and messages at the time.
Jesy and her new single ignore the long history of Black exploitation and it is disappointing that another white artist is picking up elements of Blackness, trying it on like a costume, and using it for fame. More importantly, it is disheartening that Jesy denies these claims instead of potentially taking responsibility for the mishap and doing better moving forward. Instead, she denied the claims and says there was no spray tan used in the making of the video. As a Black woman, especially a Black American woman, we are so often dismissed or diminished to our body parts and what we can offer. It’s a tiring cycle that continues as we ignore important conversations about culture.