Last week, Jamilah King explained her ambivalence toward Justin Timberlake’s musical career, saying:
Yes, Timberlake has rightfully earned his place among modern pop music legends, but he also embodies the historical mistrust that exists between white performers and black listeners that dates at least as far back as Elvis Presley’s 1950s foray into what was then called ‘race music.’
Her piece raised a lot of questions about the difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. Here’s what you had to say.
I love this article. I too like Justin Timberlake…but Teena Marie (RIP), Jon B., or Robin Thicke he is not. Teena, in fact, said in an interview that when she entered the music industry she entered through the “black” door and that despite her actual “race” she identified herself as a “black performer”. Teena, Jon, and Robin have all been artists whose loyalty has been, first and foremost, not only to black music but the black community. For all three, their audiences have been predominantly black and at least two (Teena and Robin) performed at Essencefest in New Orleans (a black music extravaganza!!). Justin may like black music, and may perform it well…but not once has he shown any true interest in being embraced by the black community nor has that community been the one where he was primarily interested in establishing a loyal fan base.
Well, this isn’t Justin appropriating Black music, it’s White America via The Industry extracting Black Music from Black America. It’s an old story; as in jazz music when it’s Black music it’s worth almost nothing, but when it’s extracted by ‘classical’, predominantly White institutions, it very valuable indeed. An old story, an old colonial story.
I agree with all of this, except I think that gender bias as much the basis of Nipplegate as racial bias. That Super Bowl was replete with so many corrosively misogynist advertisements and music acts before Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake went on. Then SHOCK, A BREAST. Janet Jackson was scapegoated because she had the audacity to be a woman and amidst an entire event dedicated to the perpetuation of male culture, her lady parts were on display in a way that wasn’t controlled. The fact that Justin Timberlake didn’t defend her and their act together really bothered me. Stand by your art, and at the very least, stand by your fellow musicians.
I find this article both partly correct, and also intentionally dismissive of the other side of the equation. Let’s take a moment, and analyze this same paradigm as it applies to an arguably bigger star: Beyonce. She has “whited” herself incrementally throughout her ascent to the throne. And when it’s convenient, she leans back into her African American heritage. But she gets on stage with all the hair and skin tones that will be lauded over by 14 year old girls in every suburb across America. Should we fault her for straddling the “race” line when it’s convenient for her? Should we fault Justin? Should we fault the appetites of the consumer world in general? Or a deeper question, does fault need to be found at all? Or should we just sit back and appreciate those who are more talented than us, black, white, or if they feel the need, some chameleonic creature who can abate loyalties on both sides of an ever eroding cultural fence?
I think the striking difference is that one person can appropriate a style of music or performance, either to increase their popularity and sales or out of a passion for or it or whatever, and then be able to back off from that style whenever it is convenient. The other person is trying to navigate a mostly white music industry that requires a certain level of stealth so as not to distance potential consumers by being “too urban” or “too black”, regardless of the actual lived experiences of Ms. Knowles-Carter.
I don’t know how I should feel about this article because I get the impression that some of you want Justin Timberlake to genuflect at the altar of black music. He doesn’t have to overtly acknowledge who his influences are because you will know from listening or watching him perform. Music is for everyone to enjoy. I like JT’s music regardless if Pharrell, Timbaland or Diddy produced the tracks so long as he is respectful of the genre. As far as the Janet Jackson incident is concerned JT did what he was supposed to do & Janet would have faced criticism regardless if JT participated in “nipplegate” or not (i.e. Beyonce’s Superbowl half time performance & the power outage afterwards).To those of you who believe that its JT’s “whiteness” that gets him over then you are just hatin’ ‘cause the kid has talent!!
I think the problem isn’t white people sharing black musical heritage, it’s the fact that they do it without acknowledging their privilege, the history of black folks in the U.S re: white cultural appropriation and without being part of a struggle to share their privilege to the benefit of others. It’s really very human to share culture, we should actually be making art together and we all should and can benefit from it. How boring if we had no Kathryn Battle and no Justin Timberlake and how sad that we have to feel guilty to enjoy a beautiful voice and talent. What is not human, is the system of white supremacy in the U.S, and the negation that it exists.
Name one single thing that Justin has done WITHOUT the best top of the heap at the moment collaboration of songwriters, producers, comedy writers, etc. He is a VEHICLE for those collaborators through which to make money, and he was trained very well by Disney. His voice is no better than all the dime a dozen urban R&B male vocalists out there, worse than many. Charisma and sex appeal? I’d say cold as a fish on stage-and yes, I’ve seen him. Nothing. A blank nothing that people project themselves onto. So spend your money, justify your idolation. I’ll just walk away, thank you very much.
I felt the same way about Marian Anderson. Then I realized that crapping on artists for their race and musical style was small-minded, petty and reductive to our communal work towards true diversity.
Really? Can’t it just be music, either you like it or don’t? Not everything has to have deep sociological impact. This is not indicative of forward momentum.
John-Wesley Ωψφ Walker Jr:
…my grandmother would often say….the trouble with some of Our Folk is “…we think other folks’ ice is colder than our own…”
Steven Scooba Alexander:
I like his album, but this is history repeating itself. You can trace any musical genre back to African Americans, but eventually we get phased out. But damn this is a good album, that son of a bitch.
Andrea Millet Odom Driver:
Whenever I am troubled by some non-black person’s foray into “black” music, I just flip the script and think if I would feel the same way if a person of color was questioned for playing so-called “white” forms of music. I would be fighting mad and highly insulted at that. Enjoy the music. It’s okay. All the flavors in the candy store belong to ALL of us. When the world tries to politicize my choices in life, that’s where I tell the world where to get off!
Anita J. Wright:
Good music is good music…I don’t care if a two headed giraffe is singing - if the giraffe can blow - I will download the song…
Dude needs to stop colonizing. Thank you Colorlines, finally someone agrees with me.
JT is a talented musician and he is a soul musician. He’s not stealing from black people. what about the black people that are in heavy metal bands, and singing folk music? That music did not originate with us.
I like JT - I gather that he provides work for writers, producers etc. from diverse backgrounds, so even if some describes his music as ‘black music’ I don’t have a problem…
He grew up in the South, makes sense that he would have a lot of black influence in his music. Are people hating on Robin Thicke too?
Playing field ain’t level yet… don’t get touchy guys… our sistah Jamilah ain’t talking about the music, she’s making a point about how hypocritical it is for somebody to jump between worlds…
Justin Timberlake has more soul than Darius Rucker, who in turn has more twang than Kid Rock. Music is universal, and the blurring of color lines can be a beautiful thing.
You hire the top producers and session musicians and pay for unlimited studio time and post-production, and the product might sound good. That’s what Timberlake is, a product. There are thousands of singers of all races with infinitely more talent, but he is intentionally placed as a face for a black sound because the industry says that a non-threatening white face like his will sell all over. This is all obvious and nothing new from the Beatles to him. Timberlake is there to be safe for people who like to consume music in as ahistorical a context as possible.
Thank you! This has been my discomfort since hearing the first cuts. Especially after his and Jimmy Fallon’s interpretation of the history of rap.