It all started when Jesse Williams gave an incredible acceptance speech at Sunday’s (June 26) BET Awards. Justin Timberlake was so moved that he tweeted, “@iJesseWilliams tho…#inspired #BET2016.” Then, because there’s nothing quicker, swifter and more receipt-holding than Black Twitter, one user responded to Justin’s moment of elation with, “So does this mean you’re going to stop appropriating our music and culture? And apologize to Janet too.” Everything would have been copacetic and the world would have moved on, but Justin’s response – sprinkled with remnants of “All Lives Matter” rhetoric – left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth: “Oh, you sweet soul. The more you realize that we are the same, the more we can have a conservation."
Oh, you sweet soul. The more you realize that we are the same, the more we can have a conversation.— Justin Timberlake (@jtimberlake) June 27, 2016
For all intents and purposes, Justin has received a pass over the years. He’s funny and attractive. He’s a boy from the South with roots in Memphis, Tennessee. Yet, there’s no way around it, Justin has appropriated Black culture over the years through his music and his attire. Because of his talent and charisma, we all looked the other way. For many, he was doing it right by getting co-signs from producers like The Neptunes and Timbaland. Artists jumped on board too. Jay Z, 50 Cent, Snoop Dogg, Nelly, Ciara, Juicy J, T.I and Beyoncé are among the artists that have employed his artistic ability to deliver and write R&B tunes and hooks. He’s good at it – heck, he’s great at it.
With Justin’s rude awakening that he is privileged and has derived a lot from said privilege, many are just noticing that he even had it. All it took for us to notice it was his attempt to turn one of the most powerful speeches in recent memory about Black America, equal rights and police brutality into a “We Are One” anthem. But here’s the thing: His white privilege has been on display for years.
We need to look no further than the Super Bowl debacle of 2004, when Janet Jackson’s Halftime Show ended in a nipple reveal. The fallout was huge. Janet was blacklisted from radio with a recovery that many feel never happened. Justin, on the other hand, was only two years into his solo career and did damage control the only way he knew how: by apologizing while he received his very first GRAMMY Award. In effect, he left Janet out to dry by allowing her to take most of the blame for the incident. There was a distinct possibility that he had no idea the consequences were coming down on Jackson, and that’s a privilege he rode straight out of the situation. He was young and had a career to look out for, so he dipped.
Three years later, he talked about how he could have handled the Super Bowl fall out better and admitted that, at the time, he didn’t realize there were ways he could have helped Janet. He acknowledged that he got “10% of the blame” and Janet got the rest and that America is “harsher on women” and “ethnic people.” See, he knows about privilege.
There have been smaller doses of his white privilege peeking out through his career as well. Take for instance when he flips the switch during press with Black women interviewers and turns on the “girl” and finger snaps. Or that time he mocked Rihanna’s mom and her Bajan accent on national TV, only to receive laughs because there’s nothing funnier than an accent. There’s also that time a Brazilian reporter compared him to Black singers and dancers and left him visibly uncomfortable after she offered to teach him to dance like a “Black Brazilian.” His response? Directing his PR team to deal with the situation.
This isn’t Justin’s first foray into the race relations rodeo. This time around, he seemed to have forgotten the lessons he learned in the past – like acknowledging your privilege and deferring comments and opinions to those who have the right to have them. It’s a harsh reality many of the blue-eyed artists have had to deal with in the age of social media. Didn’t we learn anything from Iggy Azalea in 2015? It’s a reality worth accepting, especially when immense talent is involved.
Plus, no one gets any pleasure from disinviting anyone to the cookout.
(Photo: Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images)