Black Twitter, Justin Timberlake and Free Speech: How Speaking My Mind Was an Act of Black Liberation

My tweet to one of the most privileged white celebrities in pop culture was another push for making Black issues a worldwide conversation.

When I called out one of the biggest pop stars of our generation, Justin Timberlake, I never imagined that I would spark a viral discussion that would have him trending worldwide.

Several days later, as the smoke begins to settle, the conversation is still going. Mission accomplished.

But as I was inspired by actor/activist Jesse Williams’s incredible BET Awards acceptance speech, I experienced in real time the type of systemic racial oppression that he spoke so vividly about online. Motivated after hearing his words, I basked in the Black empowerment that social media began spreading. Black Twitter felt his words and we weren’t going to “take it no mo’.” In the words of Birdman, we wanted folks to put some respect on our name. And moreover, on our entire culture. 

So while this was going on, Justin Timberlake inserted himself in the conversation, talking about how “inspired” he was. That’s cool, JT — if you actually know what you were inspired about. So, in pure Black Twitter form, I simply called him out on it — and I was dead serious. Was he going to stop appropriating our Black culture and music and was he also going to apologize to Janet Jackson too? 

Jesse Williams’s speech spoke on respecting Black women more and cultural appropriation. What happened to the legendary Ms. Janet Jackson after the Super Bowl halftime show was a complete tragedy. She was slut-shamed and blackballed by many mainstream media groups while the “President of Pop” who also participated in the accidental stunt went on to have immense fame while also dissing her later in a song. Timberlake also took shots at the late, great Prince as well.

But — yeah, let’s just get back to him being “inspired.”

He responded to the tweet and basically told me that all lives matter and “bye.” He didn’t actually answer my questions or try to address the subject matter. But I guess when you are the beneficiary of rich white straight male privilege, you don’t have to consider the issues being raised by a 24-year old Black gay journalist.

In that instant, my phone and Twitter began to explode. Notifications were so heavy, the Twitter app on my phone became inactive. I couldn’t see what was going on — my phone became a back vibrator. I went to my laptop and it was as real as I thought it was. Timberlake has 55 million Twitter followers and at first they were the only ones I could spot in my notifications. I was called out of my name beyond reason, threats came by the dozen. Folks with less than 20 followers — and no profile picture — felt bold with racially insensitive replies.

And that was the point when I went off. I wasn’t going to sit back and take this. I got woke.

I continued to address the previous points I was making to Timberlake. I told him how condescending he was to whitesplain my legitimate concerns. Sure, one can argue that the presentation of my initial tweet was shade — but behind real shade is real truth. That’s what makes it shade. “Message.”

He didn’t reply back to my other response tweets, but it didn’t matter. Black Twitter came to the rescue and had my back. Suddenly, I began to see images of when Justin Timberlake wore cornrows and rocked bandannas like he was about that life. And folks began to share old YouTube videos of him throwing Ms. Jackson under the bus and coming for her and Prince in the song “Give It to Me.”

In other words, my people came with the facts and receipts. What I said was backed by a decade of people who always questioned Mr. Timberlake’s true interests in the black community after that Super Bowl black lash. That’s what cultural appropriation is — people liking our music, but not respecting our people. Timberlake has made millions off of the style and flow of Black soul R&B artists. His presence alone helped marginalize Black musicians who had more raw talent than he ever will, but will never be heard because they aren’t white. I don’t care if he is from Memphis and listened to B.B. King growing up. Cool, but if you are saying to the world on Twitter that “we’re all the same,” then you are tone-deaf to the struggles and hurdles of the very Black musicians you claim to appreciate.

You can’t truly appreciate Black music — the sounds, inventions, soul, and creation — and not have a real profound respect for the originators and influences behind it. When you try to take jabs at legends like Prince and Janet Jackson, you clearly are feeling yourself. I guess you “Can’t Stop the Feeling” of white privilege, Justin. I’m not surprised; it’s institutional. 

“Blue-eyed soul” is gentrifying what used to be R&B. When white artists sing soul music, it’s not R&B — it’s considered pop music. And such “pop music” gets played on regular radio stations in addition to Black ones. Ask Iggy, Macklemore, Justin Bieber, Adele (love her, but let’s keep it 100) and Justin Timberlake what it’s like to be on every station without having to actually address the struggles of the very people you rip off. Macklemore has stepped up and talked about this in his song “White Privilege, Pt. II.” But as for Mr. Timberlake, he has never been held accountable on the world stage until I wrote the tweet that led the movement.

Justin Timberlake trended worldwide on Monday not for his music, but because Black Twitter finally called him out on his privilege. His Canada Dry apology was still corny as he took the role of a victim. But there is no victimhood for a white man who tries to belittle the sentiments of a person of color who questions their privilege. I will no longer pretend that I like Justin Timberlake. I will no longer listen to his music again.

The past few days have been quite interesting to say the least. The morning after the tweet, Charlamagne tha God made me the “Donkey of the Day” on The Breakfast Club as well as the other Black Twitter followers who got Justin together. I have to admit I was surprised by his defending of JT’s initial tweet. He fell for the “inspired” Kool-Aid Timberlake was serving. Charlamagne and I have since tweeted on and off again about the situation with some of his followers also questioning his initial take on the issue.

But he wasn’t the only one who missed the point. The View the same morning discussed the tweet and left my name out. Whoopi Goldberg tried to make the argument that “we all appropriate” — but once again, she was not getting it. There is a difference between appropriation and assimilation. Black people can never appropriate white culture — because most of that isn’t even theirs to begin with. And no, I can’t be racist either — because, like cultural appropriation, I, as a Black man in America, do not hold the majority of institutional and systemic privilege that benefits me as others become oppressed. That form of power belongs to white people.

In other words, people of color must adapt in predominantly white spaces as a means of survival. It’s not appropriation if you’re doing it to survive. Wearing weave, cutting your locs and appealing to European beauty standards is what institutionalized racism has done to Black culture for years. We didn’t choose this, it was infringed upon us through centuries of slavery and legalized discrimination. That’s not the same as what Justin Timberlake and other white artists choose to do when they appropriate our culture. They get the luxury of flip-flopping for fame as commercial convenience. Historically, there have been many white artists, including Elvis, who have sung songs written and produced by Black artists and have garnered more recognition for the production. Those white artists can cherry-pick when they want to associate themselves with our Blackness, but Black people can’t do the same with whiteness.

In other words, there’s levels to this systemic oppression and it’s larger than just music. 

As the mainstream white media companies began to publicize the Twitter controversy, JT was given the face of an innocent man who didn’t understand what was happening to him. As many of them showed my tweet on the screen — they didn’t show my face or say my name. The Daily Show on Comedy Central blurred my Twitter handle and face while others didn’t even acknowledge my profession. None of these major stations reached out to me or asked for my take. Local Philly publications did because I had some connections and have previously interned or worked for them. But as for the rest of the world, many were attempting to give Justin Timberlake the same pass that exonerated him during the Super Bowl. He was striving to capitalize off of his privilege while his media friends tried to ignore my involvement.

So allow me to re-introduce myself, my name is Ernest Owens. I am a 24-year old openly black gay journalist who graduated with an Ivy League degree in communication and public service from the University of Pennsylvania. I am the editor of a LGBTQ section of Philadelphia Magazine called G Philly and one of the youngest weekly columnists in the nation with my column entitled The Ernest Opinion for Metro US. I have spoken about these social issues and topics on cultural appropriation for years in publications such as The Huffington Post, USA Today and my local television talk show at Philly Community Access Media called Ernestly Speaking!

I’m not invisible or just a mere “Twitter user.” I am a Black professional that made the socially conscious decision to apply my background in Black pop culture to check the privilege of one of the biggest appropriators of it. As time began to pass, I had come to realize how my own people were trying to disregard my sentiment. There were Black apologists like Stacey Dash that were trying to make herself relevant by commenting on my tweet. I hit her with the “Bye Felicia” reply and kept it moving. There were Black “friends” on my own Facebook page that were making subliminal jabs at the newfound attention that I was getting — and yeah, the unfriend and block button got used. Folks that would often talk to me were silent and act as though they didn’t know what was going on. Only a few checked in to see if I was handling all of this alright. And yes, there were the opportunists. I had some folks I hadn’t seen since middle school add me online and profess their “unknown love” for me. My boyfriend and I laughed at the girls who hadn’t known I came out years ago. Others used this moment as a way for me to try to promote their own endeavors in the spotlight. Some even tried to capitalize off of my buzz by purposely playing devil’s advocate in public forums to deflect from the real points I was originally making. In other words, people were bothered and the lowest point in all of this was that it came from folks I thought I knew.

In some situations, many in my community began to describe me as a “troublemaker,” “troll,” and “attention-seeker.” Some spoke about the issue and referenced me in third person as if we hadn’t known each other at all. It just got real phony so damn fast. The jealousy even had some trying to say what happened with Justin Timberlake was unfair and that my tweet was a distraction to Jesse Williams’ remarkable speech. In other words, haters were using this moment as a scapegoat to discredit my open expression, intent, and overall integrity.

And I would like to take this time right now and tell them all to “sit down.”

Here’s what you’re not going to do (yes, I’m going in, but this is in defense of Black Twitter and activists of any kind): not criminalize my legal right of free speech. When you call black youth “troublemakers” for speaking their mind in a non-violent, non-defamatory way -- you are playing the role of the oppressor. Fear-mongering critics who like to always tell outspoken black people to “be careful” is in many ways subconsciously attempting to intimidate their confidence, their power, and essentially their voice. “Be careful,” is a euphemism for don’t make “them” mad. “Them” being whiteness. I can’t count how many black colleagues told me I was “starting trouble” and didn’t realize how that language was used on our grandparents’ back in the day. Back then, it was racist white officers who who would come up and harass them with phrases like “you startin’ trouble, boy.” It was that same belittlement that was given to me by some of my black peers. The self-oppression is real y’all.

But as I began to navigate my voice through this tsunami of instant belovement and betrayal, I grew even more confident that what I did was the right thing. I stood up for a black women whose music has forever inspired me. I defended black artistry and culture and endured cyber-bullying for it. But most of all, I got the world talking more about the very black issues that often get placed under the table for far too often.

And no, this didn’t deflect from Jesse’s speech — it elevated it. For many years, Jesse Williams has been speaking consciousness in our communities. That’s why he received the BET Humanitarian Award Sunday night. Like Jesse, I’ve been using my own media platform to help raise awareness on the very issues and was the one who actually felt “inspired” by his words enough to help keep the conversation going. What happened on Black Twitter that night was a manifestation of what Jesse vividly spoke about that rang true to so many for far too long. Folks were fed up. Clearly Timberlake didn’t hear the same speech I did, otherwise there would be no controversy like this if he did.

Overall, what I did was an expression of Black liberation that was uncomfortable for too many people to swallow. Critics would like to call that “divisive” as a poor excuse to ignore what is being addressed in the act itself. Because how often does white privilege being checked worldwide happens on a regular basis? Our Black culture is forced to give “teachable moments” to white people who should already know better. But who is going to give them “checkable moments” when they come out of pocket in the worst way? I choose to that night and I am unapologetically proud that I did.

It’s not cockiness, arrogance or bragging — it’s Black magic. Google it.

Originally from Chicago, Illinois, Ernest Owens is an award-winning multimedia journalist and editor for Philadelphia Magazine's G Philly. At 24 years old, he is the youngest weekly columnist for a major American city with his iconoclastic column,The Ernest Opinion for Metro US. A graduate from the University of Pennsylvania, he is currently producing and starring in his own television talk show Ernestly Speaking! at Philadelphia Community Access Media where he is the youngest television host to have a talk show in Philadelphia. He is currently a contributing writer for The Huffington Post, where he covers a variety of social issues regarding society, race, and entertainment. His work has been featured on USA Today, The Advocate, The Root, and other media outlets. Later this year, the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists will be awarding Owens their prestigious Trailblazer Award for his innovative, barrier-breaking contributions to media. 

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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