Written by: Ethan Ayer and Ko Narter
Ariana Grande wants you to know she is wearing a weave. With her latest single, “7 Rings”, off of her upcoming fifth studio album, Thank U, Next, Grande channels her inner Rachel Dolezal, twerking in the front yard of some home that is allegedly set in Japan, with lyrics like “you like my hair? gee thanks, just bought it” and a tan that makes her look darker than some of the actual people of color in the video. However, this type of cultural costuming is not new in pop music.
In 2013, Miley Cyrus was criticized for her radical “artistic evolution”, going from Disney Channel starlet to what Jody Rosen for Variety likened to a “minstrel show” during her VMA performance promoting “We Can’t Stop”, the lead single off of her fourth album, Bangerz. The music video for Cyrus’ song contained equally deplorable behavior, with Kia Makarechi of The Huffington Post calling attention to her use of black people as props, disregarding their individuality while simultaneously exploiting their culture for her reinvention.
With “7 Rings”, the setting - a house party - and context of the music video is eerily similar to “We Can’t Stop.” However, Grande’s incorporation of hip-hop and black culture has been more gradual throughout her career than Miley’s, causing the cultural conversation to turn to blackfishing. While Miley just looked like a racist white lady, Grande’s transformation has been more covert; a progressively darker tan coupled with the slow addition of hip-hop elements to her music (“Side to Side”) than her usual R&B.
It reeks of blackfishing, a term used to describe “someone accused of pretending to be black or mixed-race on social media”, according to a December 2018 BBC piece on Aga Brzostowska, an Instagram influencer who people noticed was gradually changing her appearance to have “darker skin, fuller lips, bigger thighs and bums, and hairstyles that include curls and braids.”
Grande has not donned cornrows yet, but her usage of these traits, commonly associated with black females, seems almost like stylistic jewelry, evident even further with the Japanese writing and stereotypes she utilizes throughout the video. After flashing a license plate from the Shinagawa district of Tokyo, Grande sings the first verse of the song next to a bottle of sake, intermittently eating pieces of sushi. Apparently, Grande has the talent to appropriate two cultures at once.
Despite the problematic imagery, sonically, the song features Grande singing - though she would probably call it rapping - declarations of wealth over an arpeggiated trap beat that sounds like a moodier version of “Nobody’s Perfect” by Hannah Montana. Interpolating “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music for the verses though, Grande ends up sounding like a vanilla version of Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money,” emulating an Iggy Azalea affectation. Perhaps the most incriminating lyric is when Grande over-confidently spits, “I don’t mean to brag / But I be like, ‘Put it in the bag. / Yeah / When you see them racks / They stacked up like my ass / Yeah / Shoot / Go from the store to the booth / Make it all back in one loop / Gimme the loot / Never mind, I got the juice.” The use of AAVE (African American Vernacular English) only adds to the blackfishing, making the song an uncomfortable listen rather than the empowering friendship and female empowerment anthem she intended. Especially as the track is somewhere between “a copy of previous tracks and ideas by Soulja Boy, Princess Nokia and 2 Chainz” according to XXL Magazine, the feminism and girl power Grande preaches on Twitter almost everyday fails to materialize here. She even has the audacity to boast, “Write my own checks like I write what I sing”, when there are multiple people of color with writing credits on the track, essentially erasing their contributions to uplift her own.
While Grande has since apologized for the blatant cultural insensitivity and harm - "Thanks for opening the conversation and like… to everyone for talking to me about it. It's never my intention to offend anybody." - the “7 Rings” song and music video display her and her team’s apathy towards relating to any sort of audience that includes people of color, somehow managing to appropriate both black and Asian culture in under four minutes. Instead, the situation is indicative of the current state of social media culture, which allows for this type of blackfishing and cultural appropriation in the entertainment industry, nevermind it just being a tacky song.
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