Jesy Nelson ‘blackfishing’ controversy: How to appreciate – not appropriate – black culture

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Jesy Nelson ‘blackfishing’ controversy: How to appreciate – not appropriate – black culture
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Former Little Mix singer Jesy Nelson has found herself at the centre of ‘blackfishing’ allegations after releasing her first solo music video, Boyz.

The video – featuring Nicki Minaj – shows Nelson with what some people are calling a darker skin tone than usual and big curly hair, as well as wearing another style with braids.

During a recent Instagram Live the 30-year-old credited her tan to a recent holiday in Antigua and added: “I personally want to say that my intention was never, ever to offend people of colour with this video and my song because like I said, growing up as a young girl, this is the music that I listened to.

Jesy Nelson (Yui Mok/PA)
Jesy Nelson (Yui Mok/PA)

“These are the videos that I watched and thought were the best. For me personally, ’90s/2000 hip hop, R&B music was the best era of music. I just wanted to celebrate that. I just wanted to celebrate that era of music because it is what I love.”

The comments came after reports Nelson’s former bandmate Leigh-Anne Pinnock had warned her about blackfishing.

Kubi Springer, CEO of SheBuildsBrands (shebuildsbrands.com), describes blackfishing as “where somebody who is not of the ethnicity they are replicating, and do not give enough kudos and credits to its origins, and try and mimic it rather than being inspired by it”.

Blackfishing is often reduced to having a dark tan, but it’s wider reaching than that. “If we take it to Jesy’s video, one could argue it’s the braids in her hair, it’s the Afro extensions,” explains Springer. “She’s not in the video as a pale-skinned, brown-haired white lady – she’s in the video as a tan-skinned, Afro-haired white lady.”

Nelson’s song also strongly draws on hip hop and R&B – genres created by black musicians. For Springer, who has worked with P Diddy, Beyoncé and Mariah Carey over her career, blackfishing can be damaging “because historically, particularly in the music, entertainment and fashion industries, blacks and ethnic minorities who have maybe been the birth of the art form don’t get the credit necessary”, she says.

“We have seen this time and time again, where it’s on the fringes of pop culture when it’s a dark-skinned person – but it becomes mainstream when it’s [someone who is] lighter-skinned and definitely commercially successful when it’s somebody who is white that does it.” Springer gives the example of Elvis Presley bringing rock and roll to the mainstream, when it originated from black musicians.

Another issue Springer raises is how black culture can get misrepresented when not championed by black people. “It is generally seen that the more overly sexualized side of black art is picked up and then commercialised,” she explains.

“It could be argued that’s because that is what it’s believed R&B and hip hop is all about, but actually R&B – whilst there are music videos with people booty shaking, which is what we see at the beginning of Jesy’s video – R&B also had people like Jazmine Sullivan, Snoh Aalegra, Lauryn Hill, Nas and Common – who are very conscious in their lyrics, and very thought-provoking in their lyrics, and it’s not about flashy cars and Rolls-Royces and booty shaking.”

For Springer, it’s “frustrating when black art is taken, and that’s the side that is seen as a representation of black art, and the side that then becomes commercially successful”.

She suggests things are different for the younger generation, who have all “grown up on R&B as mainstream culture – for a lot of them, they don’t necessarily in their experience see it as a black thing, because they’ve experienced it from birth and therefore see it as their thing”.

Jesy Nelson at the NTAs 2020 (Ian West/PA) (PA Archive)
Jesy Nelson at the NTAs 2020 (Ian West/PA) (PA Archive)

However, Springer still has advice for the younger generation on how to appreciate black culture – instead of appropriating it. “I would encourage young people growing up to just respect the origins of it,” she says. “You can enjoy it, you can utilise it, you can work with it, you can recreate it – but respect the origin.

“And when you do it, be true to your authentic self. I think if Jesy had created an R&B song and just been true to her authentic self, being in the video as she is and as her personal brand should be represented – one, she would inspire white girls everywhere, rather than now making white girls feel like they need to wear Afros to be sexy and cool. And secondly, she would be respecting black girls who have Afros naturally. I think in this day and age, we just need to stand in our truth.”

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