No matter what any of his more ardent and equally ill-informed fans might suggest, Kanye West’s complaints about the fashion industry are as bogus as a pair of counterfeit Gucci sunglasses picked up in Chinatown. His constant shouts of being outright wronged due to racism have been discounted by fashion writers, real students of design, and people of color alike. Though racism in the fashion industry is undeniable, Kanye’s own failures within that world can be more easily attributed to hubris.
Yet even if he is an imperfect spokesperson on the subject of racism, Kanye West is the only person of his clout actively using his platform to speak on the frustrations that come with being a black creative. If there’s any lesson to be learned from this year in pop culture, it’s that even in 2013, black culture is widely appealing and plenty profitable so long as the person commodifying it isn’t a person of color. In that respect, Kanye is right to be pissed off that brands can bank off our aesthetic and point-of-view but make it so difficult for us to do so on our terms and with similar success. Still, it’s ironic to see him feign shock over this revelation, as if it hasn’t happened repeatedly in his own world of music.
By now everyone has heard about how Miley Cyrus has appropriated aspects of southern black culture and used black women as props in her videos and performances, but as exhausted as many are of hearing about it, so, too, are black people of having to explain why it’s offensive. The same goes for explaining the problems with her more “evolved” peers like Lily Allen, who are just as guilty of calling for respect as a woman as they exploit the bodies of their black female brethren.
It’s already happening again. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Justin Bieber explains of his R&B music, “I’m very influenced by black culture, but I don’t think of it as black or white… It’s not me trying to act or pose in a certain way. It’s a lifestyle — like a suaveness or a swag, per se. But I don’t really like to say the word [‘swag’] anymore. It’s kind of played out.”
Get it? Blackness is a “lifestyle,” a testament to his new “don’t give a f— what they say” mantra. By the way, Justin, “swag” is “played out” because of people like yourself “borrowing it” and then deciding something that’s been around for a very long time is essentially over because you’ve become bored with it.
Not that it matters. The same way Justin Timberlake can go top five on Billboard’s Hot 100 with “Suit & Tie,” which is typically known as an “urban adult contemporary” track, the Mileys and Biebers of the world can get crossover airplay for their spins on black music. Meanwhile, with the noted obliteration of black radio, when black artists do it they are relegated to far less airplay on select stations. It’s exactly why no matter how annoying it was to hear Usher abandon R&B to go be Uncle EDM and party with all the rave kids, it was understandable because it seemed like a shrewd survival strategy.
R&B may be rising again and, admittedly, produced the biggest single of the year, but it came by way of Robin Thicke (with Marvin Gaye’s ghost in the background, allegedly). And this same burden has bled over to other facets of pop culture. Many outlets were surprised that The Best Man Holiday did so well at the box office, as if Think Like a Man didn’t happen just last year. They must’ve also forgotten the Eddie Murphy-led Boomerang decades prior, which proved that a black romantic comedy could make a lot of money like all the other rom-coms.
Likewise, these days everyone talks of “shade” and “boots” and “get your life” and other terms that entered mainstream culture without the faces of the black gay men who coined them.
It’s so interesting that, as a writer, I am told by certain outlets that my ideas are “rigid” and my references too “in-group.” And yet if a white guy writes about rap or R&B with the same sensibility and slang to boot, he’s “cool” and “culturally aware.” Even in this space, my words mean more to the general public than they do if published in a black media outlet.