Tanning to the Top: Cultural Appropriation in the Pop Music Industry

From Ariana Grande to Rita Ora, Catherine Mullner discusses how selecting parts of Black culture and then denying Black women the right to their own heritage has become the most lucrative marketing scheme in pop music today

Image(s): purepeople.com


Author’s Note: Before I begin discussing the damaging effects of cultural appropriation by pop stars, I would like to first acknowledge my bias and position as the writer. I am writing this from the position of a Caucasian woman who has not felt the hateful racism of our Euro-American society. I will never understand what it is like to be hated because of my skin, but I can only hope to stand by your side, and recognise the issues at hand. Furthermore, I want to recognise that it is easier to criticise women than men in our society that relies on sexism to maintain social order. I have used examples of female pop artists to discuss cultural appropriation, as they seem to visibly appropriate Black culture more. However, male pop artists also appropriate Black culture, especially in their work and public persona. Male pop artists, producers, and managers need to be held accountable as well, especially as they often hold more power within the pop music industry. I hope through discourse like this, there will be more room for Black men and women to exist without being degraded by white colonial standards. Everyone deserves the space to create without fear. Thank you.

It’s been often thought that a little tan is healthy. You want that summer glow, that sun-kissed skin (it’s always a hot girl summer, right)! After all, what does a tan say? To many, it’s been associated with being “adventurous” and “experienced”.


Even if you’re not told to become that perfect shade of “sun-kissed goddess” every day, you can still feel the not so subtle reinforcement everywhere you go. Tanning shops as common as Starbucks, being told by your aunt that you look “tired” and “grey” (thanks, Linda). Yet, nothing pushes the Euro-American narrative that excessively tanning will enhance your attractiveness or “sexiness” than in pop stars. We often see pop stars in concert or in music videos, commanding the stage like they've been given the right by Zeus himself, and we think: “I want to be them. I want to be confident. I want to be noticed. I want to be brave.”


Yet, underneath this layer of confidence and ease that surrounds some pop stars, is the question of the ethics of their rise to the top. The truth is, looking at mega pop stars in the pop music industry today unveils a horrifically common pattern of appropriating and exploiting Black culture for monetary gain. Not all pop stars engage in cultural appropriation, however, to be blind to the fact that those who do have incredibly huge followings and influence would be reckless. This is an issue that needs to be addressed and goes far beyond a tan.


Let’s take a look first at the clearest offender, Ariana Grande. With three American Music Awards, one Brit Award, and a Grammy under her belt (besides other accolades), she can be declared one of the most successful female pop artists in the 21st century. Yet, one can not ignore the blatant appropriation of aspects of Black culture Grande invokes, and more importantly when she evokes them.


Grande’s first album, Yours Truly, debuted in 2013; this features Grande on the cover with her signature Nickelodeon red hair, and an adorable pink dress. Now hot in the pop music scene, Grande then released her sophomore and junior albums, My Everything and Dangerous Woman, respectively. In trying to switch Grande’s image from her Nickelodeon counterpart Cat Valentine to something more “mature”, Grande begins deep tanning and plumping her lips as she also dons more risque outfits -- all now a key part of her image. Next to Nicki Minaj at the 2016 MTV Music Awards, she is actually darker than Nicki Minaj, a Trinidadian-American woman.


If you look at her more recent album covers such as Thank U, Next, you will see Grande considerably darker than she naturally is. Ariana Grande, as well as other pop artists like Rita Ora, Iggy Azalea, Madison Beer, and more, have called out for cultural appropriation, or more specifically, “blackfishing”. This is specifically when a non BAME or POC man or woman alters his or her appearance, whether intentionally or not, to characteristics more traditional of African beauty. Before we discuss the problems blackfishing perpetuates for Black men and women in Euro-American society, I think it is important to analyze the correlation between appearing “mature”, and appearing Black. Why does Euro-American society deem culturally appropriating Black culture “sexy”?


Georgetown University’s Center on Poverty and Inequality’s Initiative on Gender and Justice Opportunity have released a 2020 study detailing this association. Titled Listening to Black Women and Girls: Lived Experiences of Adultification Bias, this study by Dr. Jamilia J. Blake and Rebecca Epstein, J.D., proves their theory of adultification bias.


As Blake writes, “This bias is a stereotype in which adults view Black girls as less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers, devoid of any individualised context”.


In their 2020 study, Blake and Epstein’s focus group findings found that in their study with Black women and girls aged 12-60 all routinely experienced adultification bias. As demonstrated in their report, this has led Black girls to experience, “...harsher treatment and higher standards for Black girls in school…” which will shape their self-esteem in adult life. Blake and Epstein also discussed negative stereotypes mapped onto Black girls from an extremely young age, including such stereotypes as the “angry Black woman”, the “moody Black woman”, and what most pop stars benefit from today, the “hypersexualised Black woman”.


Participants in the focus group discussed how from an early age they were assumed to be “...less innocent than their white peers”. This came in the form of school employees and peers hypersexualising them, assuming they were already sexually active from an inappropriately young age.


It was noted that in a discussion with the participants, many of them, “...traced the roots of hypersexualisation to the United States’ legacy of slavery and racism…”. The echo of racism can still be heard not just in the United States, but in many Western European countries that once thrived off of slave trading. Ultimately, this comes down to the public commodification of Black women and girls. Perceiving Black girls as older than they are makes it easier for society to objectify and sexualise them for their own gain, and whether many pop stars realise it or mean to, they are perpetuating this degradation.


So, let’s return to Ariana Grande five shades darker today than she was in 2013. Let’s go even further, and look at Rita Ora, an Albanian born English pop star, wearing braids while telling Wendy Williams on her show in 2016 that “she might as well be [Black]”. Let’s take a good look at Madison Beer sporting an extreme tan and newly plumped lips, Iggy Azalea using AAVE (African-American Vernacular English) to create a “baddie” rapper aesthetic.


Then, I would like to turn your attention to the National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community’s 2020 report:


“One in four Black girls will be sexually abused before the age of 18”.


I want you to read that again. One in four Black girls will be sexually abused before the age of 18. Not that “they might be”, or “there is a high chance”. They will. This means 25% of Black women in the United States will have experienced the trauma of sexual assault before they get their drivers’ licenses, go to prom, or graduate high school.


I want to clarify before we continue: I am not blaming these pop stars for these statistics. However, what I am trying to display is how these celebrities (and more importantly, their management team and producers) are allowing for a wide-scale perpetuation of the issues of racial commodification and degradation at the expense of Black women and girls. When these artists don an inappropriate amount of tan and when they misappropriate AAVE, they send two messages: that it is okay to appropriate Black culture, and that Black women’s culture is a public commodity to be used whenever they please. As Wanna Thompson, a freelance journalist who sparked debate on Twitter about blackfishing and cultural appropriation put it best:


“Black is cool, unless you’re actually black.”


Women are told to take up less space, to be smaller. Black women, in our post-colonial Euro-American society, are told to leave the room. To not exist. As these pop artists take intimate parts of Black men and women’s culture that do not belong to them, they effectively push them out of the conversation. There is no way to directly ring up Ariana Grande and her management while writing this and personally read her this out loud, however by recognising the problem here, we already are on the road to change.


Everyone has the choice to recognise their own bias, recognise their own privilege, and respect other people’s culture and boundaries. Although it is often publicised and perpetuated by Western Euro-American pop culture that it is acceptable to operate within a post-colonial mindset, I hope with further discussion on topics such as this people will learn to recognise and step outside of this thought process. No one can ever truly escape the racist context of our current reality, but you can actively fight against it for a future of equality and respect.


To end, I would like to share with you a new favourite song of mine. Princess Nokia, an LGBTQIA+ rapper who is a proponent of intersectional feminism, released “Mine in 2017, a song of empowerment that celebrates Black women’s natural hair. In 2019 Ariana Grande released “7 rings”, which featured a very similar chorus to Nokia’s “Mine”. An ironic act of plagiarism, today “7 rings” remains one of Grande’s most popular songs, and has almost two billion streams on Spotify.


Recognising Black artists' originality and work, especially when they are often degraded for drawing on their own culture, is the start to tearing down this colonial mindset within artistic industries in North America and Western Europe.


Give Black artists the room to create and the room to speak. Write a response to my article, and get me off the podium. I am here to listen and to learn, not to lead the conversation.


All I know for sure is that the world is formed through art.