If you haven’t been living under a rock for the last couple of weeks then you are probably somewhat aware of the controversy surrounding Jesy Nelson and her highly-anticipated debut solo single, Boyz.
On Friday 8th October (ironically as we celebrate Black History Month in the UK) Jesy, formerly a member of British girl group Little Mix, released her new single accompanied with a music video. The song and video, which features Nicki Minaj and heavily samples the 2001 Diddy classic ‘Bad Boys For Life’, was met with strong criticism for a number of reasons – the main one being accusations of blackfishing.
This is not the first time that Jesy has been embroiled in a blackfishing scandal. In fact, if you Googled ‘Jesy Nelson Blackfishing’ prior to the release of her latest music video you would have found various articles on the matter dating as far back as 2018.
Yet, as with many other public figures who have faced the same criticism over the years – Iggy Azalea, Khloe Kardashian, Rita Ora and countless influencers – it seems to have gone ignored. This may be as a result of a lack of understanding as to the seriousness of the issue, or maybe they just don’t care.
In the video (which I have, admittedly, only been able to sit through once) Jesy is seen wearing clothing and hairstyles strongly associated with Black culture and is tanned to such a degree that she looks darker than Nicki Minaj . . . an actual Black woman.
There are so many things wrong with every single frame of the video but I am not here to dissect that. Instead, I want to use this latest appropriation row as the backdrop for a much more important conversation and delve a bit deeper into the heart of the issue; the history of blackfishing, the implications that it has for many Black women and where the line is drawn between appropriation and appreciation.
Blackfishing is a term that was coined by Canadian journalist, Wanna Thompson, three years ago in a Twitter thread that she started as a means to call out the sudden wave in “white girls cosplaying as black women on Instagram”.
The word is used to describe a white person, most commonly females, who attempts to present themselves as racially ambiguous/Black whether that be through enhancing certain features or wearing hairstyles and clothing that are all associated with Blackness or have been pioneered by Black people.
It can also go beyond the physical appearance. For example, the language they use and the music that they make/listen to can all contribute to this masquerade.
Though blackfishing is a fairly new term, the practice that it describes has been at the forefront of popular media for almost a decade.
The problem with it, and the reason behind Wanna’s thread, is that it gives white women (or so they hope) access to the parts of Blackness that they deem desirable or ‘cool’ because having a curvy figure and fuller lips, for example, is the current trend. However, they have the privilege of being able to disassociate from any of the suffering and challenges that come with actually being Black.
Wanna summed it up best in an interview with CNN as a practice that enables white people to participate in black culture without taking on “the full experience of Blackness and the systemic discrimination that comes with it.”
This becomes even more harmful and frustrating when blackfishing is monetized or results in opportunities being taken away from Black women.
In an interview with the American morning radio show, The Breakfast Club, Rita Ora was asked by host Charlamagne tha God whether she was Black, Spanish or Mixed as he was unsure of her ethnicity. Rita responds by confirming that she is Albanian and, therefore, of Eastern European background but that she likes the fact that people are not quite sure of her ethnicity because “it gets me places.” She then laughs.
This is a prime example of how blackfishing is often consciously used for financial and social gain.
Whatsmore, who’s to say that many of the opportunities that Rita Ora has been given have not been, in part, down to her racially ambiguous appearance and that these same opportunities would have gone to an actual Black musician had people known that Rita Ora is white.
Then what happens when this racially ambiguous look is no longer the ‘in thing’. We’ve witnessed how quickly trends can come and go so it’s only a matter of time before there is a new image that everyone wants to attain.
Those guilty of blackfishing can stop tanning, let the lip filler dissolve and jump on the next bandwagon leaving behind the appearance that they once desired.
But this is not a costume that Black women can take off when it’s no longer cool or stops gaining us access to certain spaces. We will continue to navigate a world where the colour of our skin, the texture of our hair and the shape of our bodies results in discrimination and marginalisation.
The Jesy Nelson situation is not an isolated issue, nor is it the worst case of blackfishing I have witnessed.
If blackfishing were an Olympic sport then the Kardashian/Jenners would hold the gold, silver and bronze titles with Kim and Khloe Kardashian and Kylie Jenner all being heavily criticised for blackfishing at least half a dozen times a year.
From using tan and filters to darken their skin and wearing their hair in braids to undergoing surgical procedures to enhance their bums and lips, the sisters have been called out time and time again but nothing seems to change.
One of the most popular rebuttals that we hear from these celebrities when they are accused of blackfishing is that they just “love the culture” and want to “embrace, celebrate or uplift Black music/fashion/beauty/people.”
As wholesome as that sounds, there are ways to do all of those things without altering your appearance so heavily that people start to question your ethnicity.
There is a fine line between blackfishing or cultural appropriation and showing appreciation or love for a particular culture and one person who has always stayed on the right side of the line is Jojo.
The 30-year-old singer, who is white, has been making R’n’B music since her teens. Though this genre of music was pioneered, and continues to be dominated, by Black musicians, Jojo has never felt the need to darken her skin or braid her hair to gain success and has, instead, relied on her talent and allowed her passion for the genre to shine organically.
It also doesn’t help that Jesy Nelson has never spoken up in support of black issues even when her former fellow band-member and friend, Leigh-Anne Pinnock, began to share her experiences with racism in the pop industry.
As someone who now claims to be such a fan of Black culture, Jesy has never aligned herself with any black issues or conversations in the past. That is not to say that she can’t start now or may have done so privately but I personally think that publicly speaking out against, let’s say, racism should come before the blackfishing – at least you then have a leg to stand on when trying to defend yourself later.
With all of that being said, this is in no way an attack on Jesy Nelson who has been extremely honest and vocal about her experiences with bullying and trolling over the years.
For the most part, any criticism that I have seen online has been respectful and used as a starting point for a wider, and very necessary, conversation around blackfishing.
In no way is she the first or only celebrity doing it, nor should she be cancelled or bullied for it, but it is always important to call people out when they do something that is damaging and hurtful.
Don’t get me wrong, we understand why it happens. Black is beautiful, excellence, aspirational, inspirational and all things great but it’s ours and we have had to, and continue to, fight for it. We have to bear the weight of every part of what it means to be black and not just that which is celebrated by popular culture.
So no, blackfishing is not a compliment, it’s not a form of flattery, it isn’t harmless and it needs to stop.