Artists like Ariana Grande, who sometimes imitate Black culture through aesthetics and sound, have been accused of “blackfishing” in the music industry.
In music, blackfishing refers to historical uses of blackface and minstrelsy, said Shana Goldin-Perschbacher, a professor of music studies and music history in the Boyer College of Music and Dance. It is a form of cultural appropriation, which, in general, has a storied history in the music industry, she added.
New Zealand Herald deputy lead of entertainment Siena Yates and others accused Grande of bronzing her skin to the point of looking like a woman of color, using a “blaccent” and appropriating different cultures in her “7 rings” music video released in January.
“White musicians who cover the music that is often created by people of color…are credited with inventing it and make more money than the people who often originated this music,” Goldin-Perschbacher said.
The phenomenon appears to be more widespread than the “thank u, next” singer, and some students have raised questions about the music industry as a whole.
Instagram influencers like Aga Brzostowska and Emma Hallberg were accused of darkening their skin in photographs last year to appear more Black, the BCC reported.
“[Ariana Grande]’s not doing everything by herself,” said ZyMoon Gillespie-Anderson, a junior music major and an electronic and hip-hop musician in the Philadelphia area. “Clearly, in the music industry, there’s some sort of formula going on, and that’s where the appropriation of Black culture in pop culture starts.”
While it is important to condemn blackfishing and appropriation at-large, it is important to not segregate cultures from one another in music and recognize that a lot of genres are hybrid, Goldin-Perschbacher said.
“[Blackfishing] essentializes people,” Goldin-Perschbacher added. “[But] racial and ethnic categories are inventions meant to separate us.”
Additionally, because not all Black people wear the same jewelry or hairstyles, calling out Grande for “blackfishing” because of those things presents a narrow definition of Black culture, Gillespie-Anderson said.
“Everyone plays into the creation of this image that is what a Black person is, even Black people,” he added.
Hannah Strong, a master’s music student specializing in musicology, went to high school with Mac Miller at Winchester Thurston, a preparatory school in Pittsburgh. Miller, a white rapper who died in September, used inspiration from Black culture in his music.
Due to his upbringing and the neighborhood he grew up in Pittsburgh, Miller’s style of music wasn’t authentic to his own culture, Strong said.
“The way that Mac talked was not his natural accent or dialect,” Strong added. “I don’t think Mac was fake tanning or getting lip injections or anything like that, but he was doing a lot of other stuff. I think it’s just easier for us to criticize women.”
Goldin-Perschbacher also noted that women are more often accused of blackfishing than men, but the problem is not strictly female.
However, Miller’s music was applauded by Black artists like Jay-Z and Chance the Rapper, who expressed sympathy on Twitter after Miller’s death.
“I loved him for real,” Chance the Rapper tweeted on Sept. 7. “I’m completely broken.”
Miller also supported the Black community through the Black Lives Matter movement.
If a musician uses elements from other cultures, it is important they pay respect to that culture and recognize that those elements are borrowed, Strong said.
Aaron X. Smith, an Africology and African American Studies professor, pointed to Eminem as an artist who is respectful of using other cultures in his music.
“[Eminem] always gives deference to other artists and knows the history is the main reason, even among Black consumers of hip-hop,” Smith added. “It’s about being genuine.”
Replacing blackfishing and other forms of appropriation with respect can be possible, but it takes education on both sides and conversation about perspective, Gillespie-Anderson said.
“Communication could solve a lot of problems,” Gillespie-Anderson added. “People miss that step because they’re so worked up.”