Despite appropriation, vampiric whiteness will never be able to suck the blood out of Black art
Removing Blackness from Black culture has always been at the core of appropriating the art we create.
I haven’t trusted Billie Eilish since I became aware of her nearly a year ago. The context in which I learned about her was a valid and necessary social media post which lamented how fucked up it is that Eilish has apparently gone out of her way to dress “modestly” so as to not be sexualized while in the public eye as an angsty teenage pop star. It’s sad that she had to play into the bullshit concept of “modesty” in order to feel safe, but I completely understand the decision to do so, I thought.
It’s when I began to see more and more images of the singer and finally heard her speak that the distrust began to creep in. It was painfully obvious to me who her style influences were. Her “street” look is a vision harkening back to rap and hip-hop icons and culture of a bygone era—remnants of which continue to influence Black culture today.
Through her carefully cultivated aesthetic, not-so subtle Blaccent, and usage of AAVE, Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O’Connell intentionally evokes Black Cool.
As a general rule, I don’t really trust white people to begin with. And I especially don’t trust white musical artists who employ Black aesthetics as part of their persona. It too often borders on or wades all the way into minstrelsy.
The conversation around Eilish has centered on cultural appropriation in recent weeks, particularly after she made a statement about rap and hip-hop that mirrors sentiments from Post Malone and the Miley Cyrus minstrel act that came before her:
“Just because a story isn’t real doesn’t mean it can’t be important. There’s a difference between lying in a song and writing a story. There are tons of songs where people are just lying. There’s a lot of that in rap right now, from people that I know who rap. It’s like, ‘I got my AK-47, and I’m fuckin’,’ and I’m like, what? You don’t have a gun. ‘And all my bitches…’ I’m like, which bitches? That’s posturing, and that’s not what I’m doing.”
It’s an attempt to separate and elevate herself as an artist who “creates characters” and “tells stories” from the apparently “lying” and “posturing” artists in rap and hip-hop—both of which exist as genres of oral literature and tradition that have used storytelling and character study as key elements in distinctive, hugely influential ways for decades.
As per usual, a white artist demonstrates how compulsory it is for white people to offer their opinions on Black cultural artifacts, having always viewed themselves as the rightful arbiters of knowledge, quality, and authenticity in art. And as per usual, they are wrong.
In the wake of Eilish’s unwarranted thoughts on things she is not qualified to speak on, some Black Twitter users argued that elements of Black culture have become so integrated into mainstream entertainment and pop culture that it would be difficult for someone her age to clearly distinguish it as being specific to Blackness. This was not in an attempt to apologize or make excuses for her, but instead to comment on just how much and how often Black culture is and has been appropriated.
I think it’s a fair argument to make, to an extent. In the past few decades, the advancement of technology and the increasing rate at which entertainment can be disseminated to the masses has made it progressively easier for trends to carry over from one culture to another. Basically, we exist in an era in which appropriation happens more quickly than it has in the past.
Furthermore—and even worse, in my opinion—some things have been appropriated for so long that their original authors are beginning to fade from some pockets of public consciousness. The consumption of—and subsequent appropriation of—Black art, aesthetics, and language is so normalized and has been for so long that they are often not even recognizable as originating in Black culture anymore.
French philosopher George Bataille explored the concept of appropriation in 1930 with “The Use Value of D.A.F. de Sade (An Open Letter to My Current Comrades).” In it, he examines society’s reaction to Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade, a French nobleman and philosopher who wrote extremely unsettling erotica and was ostracized during his life (and rightfully so, if you ask me), but celebrated years after his death. He argued that de Sade was “only an object of transports of exaltation to the extent that these transports facilitate his excretion (his peremptory expulsion).”
When the dominant culture is presented with philosophies that do not align with its accepted, comfortable ideologies, it will always react in a way that centers its own need to maintain the status quo and assure its power.
This means that the mainstream will reject the philosophy entirely, or it will reject it and then accept it only after it has been sanitized. Only after it has been neutralized can it be rendered safe for consumption by those invested in maintaining the status quo. See: white liberal exaltation of Martin Luther King, Jr. only after the expulsion of his truly radical nature.
Though Bataille’s work maps how society reacts to certain philosophies and taboo erotic ideas, his theory can easily be applied to our cultural artifacts and the vampiric consumption of them. What repeated cultural appropriation reveals is that Black culture can only be appreciated in the mainstream when Blackness itself has been expelled from it. Once whiteness has attempted to suck it dry.
Billie Eilish and the current conversation surrounding her is a reminder that cultural appropriation is about more than others simply stealing from us and failing to give credit where it is due. Removing Blackness from Black culture has always been at the core of appropriating the art we create. It is first rejected by the mainstream and then accepted only when it has been made safe by attaching it to something or someone less threatening to the status quo.
Aesthetic is its own language, and clothing tells a story. The art we create always serves a purpose. Rap and hip-hop—in terms of sound, aesthetic, clothing, and language—have found purpose through political resistance, defiant braggadocio, comically tall tales, (semi)autobiography, character creation, memory, hyperbole, and many more forms of creativity, artistry, and storytelling.
To reduce this rich and culturally significant tradition to “lies” in any capacity, while painting her own work as a somehow more elevated and sophisticated form of art is transparently anti-Black. To me, what this means is that Eilish’s place as a member of a generation acclimatized and desensitized to the appropriation of Black culture is ultimately irrelevant.
To me, what is equally as insidious as cultural appropriation is the phenomenon that so often accompanies it: reframing the narrative around our art to situate it as frivolous and immoral, usually to feed the delusion that the violence of appropriation has somehow approved upon it.
But like all white opinions on Black art, this child’s is of little importance to me. I concern myself with it only so far as it allows me to illuminate the narcissism and vampiric nature of whiteness. Black art will always matter, in any form. The characters we devise, the stories we tell, the memories we keep, the sounds we create, the clothes we wear, the styles we cultivate. Everything.
They will always try to strip everything Black from our creations to use it for themselves, and they will always try to lie on our art and its creators to pedestal their own. But we know what’s true. We know what matters and why. We know who we are and who we create for. I know that we will keep telling our stories.