Miley Cyrus performs on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” on June 14, 2017
The world of art raises countless unanswerable questions, such as: who has the right to dictate what an artist should or should not create? The issue of appropriation raises justifiable cause for concern regarding this very question.
Recently, pop sensation Miley Cyrus released new music for the first time in several years, and accompanying her new music is a return to her bucolic, fresh-faced, good-girl persona. In an interview with Billboard magazine, Cyrus explains her personal “evolution” as an artist, as she compares Kendrick Lamar’s song “Humble,” to other popular rap: “I love that because it’s not ‘Come sit on my d*ck, suck on my c*ck.’ I can’t listen to that anymore. That’s what pushed me out of the hip-hop scene a little. It was too much ‘Lamborghini, got my Rolex, got a girl on my c*ck’ — I am so not that.”
While it’s true that artists evolve and take influences from other genres, Cyrus’ case must not be treated lightly, for the genre which she condemns here — especially its hypersexualized aspects — is exactly what she used to propel her career throughout the past four years. Between her sudden obsession with twerking, her wearing of faux dreads, and her use of only black backup dancers while she performs lyrics such as, “To my home girls here with the big butts, shaking it like we at a strip club,” it is undeniable that Cyrus has appropriated Black culture.
There is an important distinction to be made between artists evolving through gaining influences from other people and cultures in a respectful manner, and artists temporarily exploiting the cultures of undervalued communities so as to establish their authenticity, only to discard them soon after they acquire enough fame and success.
Given her recent comments on the genre of hip-hop, Cyrus’ privilege as a white individual in America is more prevalent than ever; with essentially the snap of a finger, she is allowed to drop her “ratchet,” stereotypical Black persona as though it never even happened.
Darnell Hunt, Director of African American Studies at UCLA, insists that Black artists, on the other hand, are not granted this same luxury. Hunt offers insight as to the ways in which the American entertainment industry has historically treated its audiences: “It was always the white audience that was more important,” he says. And oddly enough, what this brings to light, as Hunt further explains, is that despite a longstanding history of oppressing African Americans and viewing them as inferior, white audiences have always been captivated by Black culture:
“At base, there is this profound ambivalence about Black culture in America; on the one hand, it’s reviled. It’s seen as less than. It’s seen as inferior. But on the other hand, it’s seen as provocative, as earthy, as sexy, as dangerous, and therefore, desirable. So you have this weird, almost schizophrenic cultural relationship in mainstream America with Black culture; it’s something that can be harnessed, and if it’s contained in a non- threatening way, it can be very profitable.”
In this sense, Cyrus perfectly fits into this dichotomous tradition of shaming certain aspects of Black culture, while simultaneously feeding into its intrigue by using it for personal profit. However, this concept is not limited to Cyrus; in fact, it seems to be an industry-wide issue.
It is no coincidence that Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Justin Timberlake, and countless other white artists all have one thing in common — they have all temporarily appropriated Black culture and subsequently shed its image soon after, as though it were merely a costume that was fun to try on.
Take Bieber, for example. For the first several years of his career, he was known for his squeaky-clean image, often being mocked for his high-pitched, girly voice. While this may have been cute or endearing at first, it was simply not a sustainable image; eventually, his fans grew up and desired something more intriguing and sexy. Thus, as time went on and his voice began to drop, Bieber was forced to mature alongside his fans. However, his “growth” can be cited with phases of him sagging his pants, dabbling in rap, and even styling his famously shaggy, flowing hair in dreadlocks. By capitalizing on stereotypical aspects of Black culture, he attempted to propel his career into its next phase. Now, a quick Google Images search of Bieber in 2017 shows that he has returned to a more “tame” image — wearing fitted blue jeans, a white tee-shirt, and coiffed hair.
All of this considered, it is safe to say that Cyrus is not the only perpetrator of such behavior in contemporary mainstream media. Additionally, this issue dates back far before the early 21st century, with white artists such as Elvis Presley becoming extremely popular and successful off of traditionally Black musical styles. Hunt explains the detrimental implications this has on African American artists:
“Back in the day, Elvis Presley appropriated all kinds of Black musical styles in his performances and became this mega-star, whereas some of the Black artists whose names, to this day, we don’t know, originated a lot of that stuff. But they weren’t given the same opportunities to monetize it in the marketplace because of the way that the industry treated audiences — it was the white audience that was more important.”
This reveals an ugly truth about the marketing of American mainstream media: it is all about the white audience. Therefore, it is hard to make the case that white artists who temporarily try on Black culture are simply going through organic processes of self discovery when in reality, as Hunt explains, they are being told by their record labels exactly how to look and act in order to increase their marketability to a disproportionately prioritized white audience.
As Hunt states, it is much more difficult for Black artists to make it in the industry when white audiences have proven to be more interested in seeing white artists emulate Black styles than they are in actually seeing their black originators perform them.
Hip-hop artist Nicki Minaj held the MTV VMAs accountable in 2015 for not giving due credit to Black artists, and instead rewarding white artists like Cyrus who appropriate Black culture, when her video for “Anaconda” was not nominated for Video of the Year.
Amidst a whirlwind of backlash against Minaj for “attacking” Cyrus, Minaj defended her position by telling Cyrus in a New York Times Magazine interview, “If you want to enjoy our culture and our lifestyle, bond with us, dance with us, have fun with us, twerk with us, rap with us, then you should also want to know what affects us, what is bothering us, what we feel is unfair to us.”
As Minaj points out, the issue goes much deeper than the acts on the surface, such as twerking, rapping, or having fun. Unfortunately, however, white artists and media were quick to write off the altercation as merely “another cat fight.” Reactions like this — trivializing a serious issue into a silly, girlish feud — only serves to silence necessary conversations pertaining to race relations in the US.
Furthermore, when Cyrus defends her recent comments on hip-hop by saying, “At this point in my life I am expanding personally/musically and gravitating more towards uplifting, conscious rap! As I get older I understand the effect music has on the world & Seeing where we are today I feel the younger generation needs to hear positive powerful lyrics!” she is perpetuating the idea that the genres of rap and hip-hop are only worthwhile when they deliver powerful social/political messages — a standard simply not expected of other mainstream genres, such as country or pop, to which Cyrus is now reverting back.
Why is Cyrus allowed to offer a critique of this historically African American genre, without acknowledging that not long ago, she herself partook in the more “unconscious” aspects of it that she now apparently finds problematic? The answer is simple: because she is not the one who will have to deal with the repercussions.
Cyrus’ critique of “unconscious” rap places Black artists in a box, undermining their freedom to create even if their songs, just like the majority of Cyrus’, do not serve an explicitly political message.
Unfortunately, the damage to Black culture does not stay within the boundaries of the art world. Representation matters, and as Hunt points out, images have the potential to either reinforce stereotypes or to possibly help liberate African Americans from stereotypes:
“When the images are primarily in the hands of people who aren’t Black, who have a limited awareness and appreciation for the Black experience, then the odds increase for images that are more stereotypical than not — images that don’t do justice to the dynamism and the rich variation of Black experiences. Instead, what we get are very narrow representations of Black life: stereotypes of the criminals, or the hip-hop artists. The idea that you can have Black intellectuals or Black doctors or Black writers and journalists is seriously lacking. So young kids growing up don’t imagine that as something they might want to or be able to do. Instead, the white-dominated media often reinforces the status quo, as opposed to creating possibilities for progressive change.
The fact of the matter is Black youth are losing out on opportunities to have role models because of these skewed depictions of Black culture.
Additionally, when white artists capitalize off of Black stereotypes only to later discard them, they insist to all Black young people that their culture is merely something to grow out of, or of which to cleanse oneself. When Cyrus is said to be “back to normal,” this equates normalcy to whiteness, and “ratchet” craziness to Blackness.
American sociologist C. Wright Mills writes about what he calls “the power elite” in his book “The Power Elite.” He suggests that there are only three sectors of society which have power: the economy, the government, and the military. While he considers the economy to be at the top of the chain, he believes that, “At the bottom are the great masses of people. Largely unorganized, ill informed, and virtually powerless, they are controlled and manipulated from above.” According to Hunt, it is no surprise that those at the head of the power elite “actively court celebrities in order to establish their legitimacy.” With this is mind, it becomes increasingly more difficult to believe that the ways in which white artists exploit Black culture are part of an organic process of self discovery. Rather, it is a contrived process designed to sustain the power of those already at the top, while minimizing opportunities for minorities.
The exploitation of Black culture in the media far surpasses Miley Cyrus; it even surpasses 21st century practices and generations of the tradition of this practice.
Let us not be fooled: to be white is to have power in America. When white artists exploit Black culture, only to soon return to the luxury of their whiteness, not only do they reinforce their privilege, but they actively rob the Black community of opportunities to rise to power and control their own image. Therefore, we must be aware and critical of what we consume; especially considering the individuals who hold the highest positions of power in America today, we cannot afford to be mindless.