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Now that black culture is so mainstream, can we really accuse people of appropriation?

We have a long way to go, but we cannot deny that mainstream institutions are finally realising that young black people – both in the UK and across the pond – are now pop culture’s main influencers

Natasha Mwansa
Sunday 03 February 2019 12:42 GMT
Ariana Grande named Billboard Woman of the Year

As the legendary Ms Patti Labelle presented the Billboard Woman of the Year Award to Ariana Grande late last year, she referred to Grande as “that little white black girl” – a statement that was met with a resounding “yasss” from black Twitter stans who were already way ahead of the soul icon.

Numerous memes and in-jokes about Grande now belonging to the black community had been circulating for a while, but it was only a matter of time before the masses turned on her. Her pop-trap anthem “7 Rings” has all the braggadociousness of your favourite trap rapper and seems to emulate the hip hop sound of the moment.

This isn’t helped by the pink trap house in her music video as well as accusations of appropriation via blackface (aided by the circulation of images of a much pastier Grande from her humble beginnings on Nickelodeon’s Victorious).

The backlash was inevitable, but in a world where hip hop is now the most popular genre and BVE (black vernacular English) is being used by lucrative brands and companies, should we be surprised that black is becoming the new mainstream? Or are we still battling cultural appropriation under new guises?

The month is February 2019. The Convert, a play directed and written by black women (Ola Ince and Danai Gurira respectively) has just finished its run at the Young Vic theatre. The front cover of Elle has been graced by Stormzy and Jourdan Dunn – a taste of the feature spread which spotlights the young black British stars currently making waves in arts and culture.

Books authored by black British women like Slay in Your Lane and What a Time to be Alone are flying off the shelves and fanning the flames for publishers who are now in active pursuit of BAME writing talent.

Though we have a long way to go, we cannot deny that mainstream cultural institutions and media outlets are finally beginning to wake up and realise that young black people – both in the UK and across the pond – are the main influencers of pop culture today.

If we’re being crass, we could even go as far as to say that frankly, black is where the money’s at. Almost every consumer-based industry from retail to music is jumping on the wave and it’s about time. Black influencers and creatives who started out carving out their own corners to platform their work are now taking up space in mainstream spaces.

Surely this is only the beginning of what will soon be a takeover of grand proportions where we become the new beauty standard, the new trendsetters and the new tastemakers... or are we getting ahead of ourselves?

While it’s great that that a pool of influencers and creatives are getting the attention they so rightly deserve, the issue of representation and giving the originators of certain trends their dues is still contentious.

This is a world in which Khloe Kardashian can profit from a clothing range which has allegedly copied designs from a black designer, and a black rapper from Brooklyn who started the viral “Milly Rock” dance has to watch his creation play out on a video game without receiving any kind of compensation in return.

It’s also a world where clothing brands like Missguided can hire models no darker than a Werther’s Original to market the vast majority of their products, while using social media copy which borrows from black (and often black gay/trans) vernacular to look cool.

Before the video for “Twerk” by City Girls and Cardi B was released, a callout for women to send videos of their best twerking efforts was issued.

The “top twenny” winners were then “flewed out” and featured in the video. Most of these winners were black and all were spectacular twerkers, but choreographer Lexy Panterra hit out at the rappers for not including white women in the video.

If you don’t understand how ridiculous this complaint was, just imagine a white British person taking offence to the winners of a Bhangra dancing competition being of Punjabi descent.

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It completely makes sense that a style of dance which is embedded in the culture of a specific ethnic group be performed at a superior level by members of that group more often than not.

The fact that the origins of popular cultural practises are still being disregarded is exactly why people get het up when they see Grande attempting to rap in front of a pink trap house or when women like Kim Kardashian slick down their baby hairs and wear cornrows.

What we need is for the heads of record labels churning out music with Afrobeat influences to actually be from the diaspora. We need the creative directors of fashion labels like Balenciaga which sell tracksuits and hoodies for hundreds of pounds to actually be ex-working class kids rather than Demna Gvasalia.

We also need to be given credit where credit is due and paid whenever some mainstream brand wants to copy our slang, our dance moves and our style.

Until we’re truly placed at the forefront of the new dominant culture, nobody out there trying to rip us off is safe from being dragged and called to task.

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