OPINION: Ariana Grande accused of brown face, appropriating black culture

The internet flipped when Ariana Grande released her much-hyped “7 Rings” video, a trap-bop about basking in obscene wealth and looking good while doing it. The internet flipped yet again when rapper Princess Nokia accused Grande of ripping off her song. However, the outrage wasn’t for quite the right reason.

It all started with hair. The lyrics in question are Grande’s “You like my hair? / Gee, thanks, just bought it!” Princess Nokia compares it to “Beauty shop supply cashier ringing up them numbers / Rock my many styles then go natural for the summer / Hair blowing in the hummer / Flip the weave, I am a stunner / It’s mine, I bought it.”

You don’t have to strain to see the similarities. Princess Nokia isn’t impressed either. In the now-deleted video, she says, “Ain’t that a little song I made about brown women and their hair? Sounds about white.”

The video may have been deleted but that didn’t stop the deluge of accusations from pouring in: Grande’s house party closely mirrors 2 Chainz’s trap house promoting Pretty Girlz Like Trap Music;” the cadence is similar to Soulja Boy’s “Pretty Boy Swag;” Afropunk even points out a nod to the Notorious B.I.G’s “Gimme The Loot.” Dozens of articles linking every moment of the song and video to another existing facet of trap music have been written but the trouble goes beyond similar flow and lyrics. Between accusations of copying, the real issue lies with Grande’s persistent problem of appropriating black culture.

Related: Stop blaming Ariana Grande for Mac Miller’s death

Ariana Grande is white. She is of Italian descent, a fact that fans toss about with the same gusto as Grande dumping champagne all over her pink trap house in the “7 Rings” video. Presumably, this is to justify her aggressive tanning which has manufactured a guise of ethnic ambiguity. “She’s Italian! She tans easily! That’s all it is!” Her status as ethnically ambiguous is compounded by her Latinx-sounding last name.

At first glance, self-tanner doesn’t seem particularly damning until you consider how much it’s allowed her to get away with. Most casual fans would not guess that she’s white. Because her ethnicity has become so ambiguous thanks to liberal use of Jimmy Coco spray tan, most people come to their own conclusions based on the information immediately available: her appearance and her sound. Often, the (erroneous) conclusion is that she is a woman of color. Assertions of brown face/blackface have been met with resistance from stans but it’s incredibly telling that, even while standing beside Nicki Minaj, their skin tones are virtually indistinguishable.

Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj Side to Side 2016 MTV VMAs
Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj perform together at the 2016 MTV VMAs

This aesthetic is nothing new and she’s been receiving criticism over it for years. However, as a largely unproblematic figure, and a talented one at that, she’s been able to avoid courting too much controversy. At second glance, though, Grande looks like she’s doing a smoother, less absurd version of what Miley Cyrus pulled in 2014. During her Bangerz phase, Cyrus notoriously used black people as props, over-sexualized black women, and made them the backdrop to their own sound and aesthetic. She became one of the most talked-about cultural icons and when it no longer suited her, she shed the look and reverted to her good girl country roots.

In Grande’s defense, her music has always incorporated elements of R&B, hip hop, and even reggae, whereas Cyrus’ foray into black culture started and ended with shock value. However, this does not absolve her of the misleading tan, over-lined lips, and even the “blaccent” she’s adopted. It hasn’t escaped people’s notice that Grande has been using AAVE (African American Vernacular English), on- and off-mic, and not everyone is impressed.

In contrast to all this, when Grande appeared on the cover of Time in May 2018, shot by Jimmy Marble, she looked peculiarly pale. Marble is known to favor dreamy, pastel colors in his work so it was easy to attribute to his artistic style. However, a string of high-profile magazine covers soon followed, all using the same image: an uncharacteristically un-tan Ariana.

Grande’s 2018 covers on British Vogue, Time, & Elle

While fans are quick to say “it’s not that deep,” even in the midst of the bleached magazine covers Twitter was absolutely convinced that Ariana Grande is black. If fans are trying to convince anyone who will listen that a white woman is black, then there’s trouble.

And what are we to take from the magazine cover debacle? There are troubling implications that come with capitalizing on being ethnically ambiguous and then abruptly shedding that ambiguity when other lucrative and prestigious opportunities come along.

While musical taste regularly crosses genre lines, as a largely R&B artist, Ariana Grande specifically benefits from appearing racially ambiguous to her fanbase. Appropriating black culture and creating ethnic ambiguity are troubling alone and damaging when coupled together. They perpetuate the idea that white people can dissect, selectively adopt, profit from, and shed black culture and identity without any of the systematic oppression, whereas black people, largely the innovators of American cool, are called everything from unprofessional to hood to trashy for boasting the very trends they created.

Does this mean Ariana is cancelled? That she’s a bad person? I don’t think so. However, like all white women, she needs to examine the intersection of her privilege with the culture she is exploiting.

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Lauren Zaknoun

Lauren Zaknoun is an artist, photographer, music enthusiast, and founder of BANSHEE ZINE. With no musical talent to speak of, she supports her local scene by going to shows, shooting bands, and loudly reminding everyone that Paramore is the best band in the world.

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