With the Associated Press dropping the i-word and climate-change legislation back on the table, I feel kind of silly talking about the India.Arie “Cocoa Butter” kerfuffle. But it’s another case of gendered colorism as marketing, so I have to call it out.
To recap: India.Arie, the dark brown skinned vocalist best known for the hug-yourself anthems “Video” and “I Am Not My Hair,” recently launched “Cocoa Butter,” the lead single from her new album out on June 25th. Sonically and thematically, the song isn’t distinct from, say, “Brown Skin” or “Chocolate High.” (That’s a good thing. Her alto is from another time and her runs are lullaby-worthy.)
Sadly, since she’s no Justin Timberlake, it’s unlikely that Arie would have received early coverage from non-music media such as AP, TMZ, Business Insider and The International Business Times. She did get attention though because in the digital image accompanying the song, Arie’s famously dark skin appears to have been bleached, oddly lighted or digitally altered to resemble Simba’s at dusk.
Earlier this week, I thought about writing something sensitive. Then I kept remembering Arie’s tweets in response to bleaching accusations. A curated sampling:
Personally speaking! i’m happy to say I have NOT BLEACHED my skin LOL!ROTF at the thought.— India.Arie (@indiaarie) March 29, 2013
The “SongVersation” hashtag is particularly important because it’s the title of Arie’s first album in four years. So now we’re supposed to have a random, open-ended, potentially stressful “songversation” about how white supremacist beauty standards hurt our feelings? A “skinversation” that happens to enshrine an album title?
I didn’t major in marketing, but I worked in entertainment long enough to recognize Big Top circus business when I see it. This looks like some Eric Benet-style colorism trolling.
What irks me about this particular stunt is how it messes with the simple joy and sensuality of cocoa butter on black skin. Where I come from (Philly by way of African America), brown skin sparkling from and smelling of cocoa butter is old-school sexy. Add an ankle bracelet the way Arie did on the cover of her single, and you’re really doing something.
Even amongst the mainstream and “natural” concoctions being marketed to women of color, cocoa butter remains one of the best—and most democratic—ways to pamper yourself or someone you love. It transcends skin-shade hierarchies, gender identity and socioeconomic boundaries. Mothers coca-butter babies. Lovers coca-butter each other.
So when India.Arie, or Motown, or her photographer, or her social media team use cocoa butter to create unnecessary controversy, it’s black beauty blasphemy.
I am not trying to knock any artist’s individual hustle, particularly one who tries so hard to demonstrate self-love. But this particular tactic is Wallace Thurman old. And it’s that painful.
Check out the Wednesday April 2 HuffPo Live roundtable, “The Color Complex,” hosted by Marc Lamont Hill for a less cranky and maybe even productive exploration of the underlying issues. It features Drs. Yaba Blay and Britteny Cooper and cultural critics Michaela Angela Davis and Esther Armah.