The Trouble With Justin Timberlake’s Appropriation of Black Music

He's a talented singer and actor who has rightfully earned his place among modern pop music legends. So why can't some of us listen to Justin Timberlake in peace?

By Jamilah King Mar 22, 2013

I have a confession to make: I really like Justin Timberlake.

And I really like "The 20/20 Experience," which dropped Tuesday and is on pace to move 800,000 copies this week, according to Billboard.

As an aging backpacker just starting to lighten up to Top 40, I wasn’t able to say this kind of thing very recently. My turning point came last summer hanging out with a group of friends at a hipstery bar. It was near closing time but they were the political sort so we were talking about The World’s Important Things–until "LoveStoned" from Timberlake’s "FutureSex/LoveSounds" came on. I lit up and I thought I was the only one, but then I noticed one of my homies singing along. "I really like Justin," I admitted with a shrug. "I do too," she said. As we laughed about it, I felt the same exhilaration I once did when bonding with socially conscious health nuts who made late-night trips to McDonald’s. We knew we weren’t supposed to like him but we did like his music. And that, for reasons both absurd and obvious, was a problem.

My ambivalence toward Justin is, to a large degree, a matter of aesthetics. But it’s also rooted in a very real anxiety about white artists "borrowing" black music and style then taking a break when it becomes inconvenient. 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.

Changing Clothes

Justin Timberlake entered the industry as a kid on Disney’s New Mickey Mouse Club, he went on to front the hugely popular boy band ‘N Sync and gained lots of media attention for his supposedly chaste romance with Mickey Mouse castmate Britney Spears.

For Justin, launching a successful solo career meant exiting the boy-band space occupied by white crooners like the Backstreet Boys and 98 Degrees and entering one dominated by black R&B and hip-hop artists.

With production by Timbaland, The Neptunes and P. Diddy, Timberlake’s solo debut, "Justified," thrived on his novelty: He was the white boy with the bleached blonde fade and vague hip-hop swagger who could really sing the black music he unabashedly recorded. Image-wise, he picked, chose and performed suave and often provocative black masculinities embodied by the likes of James Brown, Michael Jackson, and Prince. For that he was richly rewarded; the album sold more than 7 million copies worldwide and he won two Grammys, ironically for Best Pop Vocal Album and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.

But when shit hit the fan after the 2004 Super Bowl when he exposed Janet Jackson’s nipple on live television, he was able — after making a public apology on CBS — to easily revert back in the public’s imagination to the wholesome white boy who made pop songs for teenage girls. And that’s what becomes tricky with Justin, that his whiteness acts as both an entryway into a popular culture and a buffer against its criticisms. Janet’s career, on the other hand, stagnated. (Black comedy legend Paul Mooney famously dubbed the scandal her "n*a wakeup call." And Chris Rock blamed her exposed "40-year-old breast" for creeping censorship in American television.)

20/20 Vision

Over the six years since Justin Timberlake recorded "FutureSex/LoveSounds," he’s been able to do what few pop artists can: stay relevant. The new album picks up where he and longtime collaborator Timbaland left off then expands the ideas. Most of the tracks are about seven minutes long, throwing the proverbial middle finger up at the idea of the catchy, three-minute standalone that’s become the industry standard. Timberlake’s new work doesn’t even comfortably fit into the confines of pop music. The influences are vast, ranging from the hip-hop infused R&B of the first single "Suit & Tie," featuring Jay-Z, to the Afrobeat influence of "Let the Groove Get In." Nearly every track has what’s become Justin’s signature emotional change-up, in which the tone, melody, and somtimes message of a song directly contradicts everything that came before it. Much like the video announcing the album’s arrival where Timberlake doesn’t sing a note, "The 20/20 Experience" comes from a place of artistic confidence and freedom.

Creative Freedom

Justin wouldn’t likely have that musical freedom without his work in very white Hollywood. Despite early, notable flops ("Black Snake Moan," "Alpha Dog") he’s been able to build a movie career, generating Oscar buzz by playing Sean Parker in the "The Social Network," doing raunchy, satirical comedy opposite Cameron Diaz ("Bad Teacher"), and straight-ahead romantic comedy opposite Mila Kunis ("Friends With Benefits"). Without Hollywood, his wedding to Jessica Biel might not have landed them both the cover of People magazine. He’s also hosted "Saturday Night Live" five times, a testament to his comedic chops and a larger-scale Hollywood visibility that he wouldn’t likely have access to without his whiteness.

Of course, this isn’t all Justin’s fault. He’s just the latest and most newsworthy example of a phenomenon that’s existed as long as black people have been making art in the Americas. It’s neither a reason not to enjoy the "20/20 Experience" or rallying cry to keep others from doing the same. But as his first album in six years gets the notoriety befitting a Justin Timberlake Experience, it’s worth at least acknowledging all of the experiences that have gone into making it possible.