Column: The impacts of blackfishing in entertainment

The scene begins with the picturesque “Perfectville.” Pristine and well-manicured lawns. A clear blue sky.

The scene begins with the picturesque “Perfectville.” Pristine and well-manicured lawns. A clear blue sky. Ambient music and the faint sounds of birds chirping. A neighbor out to get his morning paper. 

Suddenly, the music stops, the wind picks up and a thunderstorm begins to brew. A black car and a tour bus pull in and security is recruited. A group of women descend the steps of the bus, and as the last one, Jesy Nelson, steps down, the beat comes in. Nelson is rocking thick silver chains, an oversized jacket and jeans and a voluminous curly wig. This is the music video for Nelson’s new song, “Boyz,” featuring Nicki Minaj. 

“Boyz” is Nelson’s debut single as a solo act, after the singer left Little Mix, a popular UK girl band, in December of 2020. Not soon after the visuals for her song were released, Jesy was accused of blackfishing and appropriating Black culture. 

Blackfishing takes on many forms, but typically involves white women cosplaying as Black women on social media. Deep fake tan, curly wigs, acrylic nails and full lips are some markers that allow racial ambiguity to be perceived on women who are not mixed-race. Wanna Thompson, a journalist closely associated with the term, writes: 

“​​In recent years, Instagram has become a breeding ground for white women who wish to capitalize off of impersonating racially ambiguous/Black women for monetary and social gain. With extensive lip fillers, dark tans and attempts to manipulate their hair texture, white women wear Black women’s features like a costume. These are the same features that, once derided by mainstream white culture, are now coveted and dictate current beauty and fashion on social media, with Black women’s contributions being erased all the while.”

Rather than posting on social media, Jesy’s video is blackfishing in action. She is decorated with Black dancers, a classic hip-hop beat, a Black female rapper feature and a cameo by Diddy. While she could have easily performed a song about wanting a “bad boy” with tattoos and a certain “edge,” she clearly desires a specific type and race can’t be left out of the conversation. 

Speaking with Vulture about her burgeoning solo career, Jesy spoke about how her new sound apart from the girl group was more rooted in her passion for R&B and hip-hop. This is the music she feels the closest to, and “Boyz” is the song that best describes her. She is not the first white artist to embrace hip-hop and rap. There’s Mac Miller, Eminem and even Macklemore, all rappers who share the same appreciation for hip-hop’s unique sound — carving space for themselves in the genre while retaining their own styles. 

The difference between appreciation and appropriation, however, is that neither of the aforementioned artists cosplay Black culture the way she has. She joins Iggy Azalea, a fellow white, female rapper, who was also accused of blackfishing in a recent music video. Azalea chalked up the criticism as hate toward her, ignoring the concerns that she used darker makeup to appear Black. 

Of course, all Black women are not a monolith. We do not all wear acrylics, have full lips, wide hips or curls that reach down our back. It would be wrong to say that all Black women have to fit the mold that artists like Iggy and Jesy are trying to embody. 

The real issue is that white women are allowed to pick ethnic characteristics and profit in ways that women of color broadly, and Black women specifically, cannot. Non-white women still remain ostracized from ideas of beauty even when they are the source of inspiration. 

The history of blackface in this country makes it difficult to approach this subject naively or with innocence. As more individuals get called out, it is less likely that others can feign ignorance. And it is not just an issue for celebrities. Thompson talks about the Instagram models and influencers, but these women set trends for everyday users of social media, including those at UNC. 

When these styles of dress or adornment get taken up by white people and evacuated of its specific racial context, it may be too late to claim them once again. But as tanning, long nails and curly hair repeatedly become new “trends,” non-Black people should think before they line their lips and consider whether being on trend is worth racial insensitivity. 


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