How Ariana Grande uses “Black Cool” in her incremental appropriation game
Black people are not marketable, but Black music is.
by Ayika Tshimanga
Ariana Grande recently released a music video for her song, “7 Rings”, a repetitive pop-trap&B tune with all the necessary ingredients to bring out your innermost bad bitch. The bouncy trap beat, braggadocious lyrics, and an attempt to ooze the kind of confidence radiating from pop stars like Beyoncé on “Apeshit”, or Rihanna on “Bitch Better Have My Money”, or and Kelis on “Bossy”. All of these elements quickly established it was a hit. However, just as the product was certifiably enjoyable, every element of the work was categorically appropriative.
Upon the video’s release, Black women on social media rightfully interrogated Ariana’s use of what writer Rebecca Walker has termed, Black Cool. The conversation veered into Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic album cycle territory because of the competing variables of a widely adored artist and accountability. I knew the discussion would ultimately fail to unanimously recognize Ariana’s aesthetics and sound as appropriative because, just like with Bruno, the music is popular and the artists are labeled “unproblematic.” However, that is intentional. Ariana’s approaches to co-opting Black sound and aesthetics are strategic. Her participation in this tradition in comparison to her white contemporaries, such as Miley Cyrus and Iggy Azalea who’ve employed egregious racial caricature depictions of Black people to strip themselves of childhood images or give them an edge, appears to be less harmful.
To many, Ariana does not appear to appropriate Black sound and aesthetics because she has utilized an incremental strategy as opposed to introductory or overnight turnaround into Blackness. Grande’s stardom and musical sound have stockpiled on elements of Rap and R&B from the very start of her commercial music career.
“The Way” featuring the late Mac Miller, was the singer’s first single from her debut album, Yours Truly (2013). The track is based on the piano melody from Brenda Russell’s 1979 song “A Little Bit of Love” and has melodic and lyrical similarities to Big Pun’s 1998 song “Still Not a Player”. The second single from the album, “Baby I”, followed suit in the R&B and pop sound. Not only did the 90s inspired record take sonically from R&B of the past, but Ariana’s vocal delivery also drew directly from Mariah Carey, fueling already existing comparisons between the two singers. My Everything (2014), Dangerous Woman (2016), and Ariana’s compilation Christmas albums all followed her now solidified musical framework of pop and R&B. It wasn’t until Sweetener (2018) that the singer upped the ante with trap sounds.
While it is almost impractical to find fault in the use of Black American sound references given the reality that the majority of contemporary music has its foundations in Blues, it is fair for white and non-Black people of color to remain accountable for any suspected abuses of these cultural references.
Ariana’s slow shedding of her Nickelodeon heydays didn’t just rest on a dive into Black music, but it was also present in her visual presentation and speech, all of which relies on Black Cool. When Dangerous Woman was released in 2016, fans and critics noted a more mature shift in the singer’s musical style and visual aesthetics. This was also the album that enlisted features from all Black artists.
Because of Ariana’s rising popularity among adults and optical and sonic proximity to Black artists—usually a telltale sign of flagrant co-opting on the horizon—most people missed the start of her Blaccent. In 2018 every other word Ariana said was “issa”, whether clarifying possible Travis Scott shade in defense of Nicki Minaj, teasing new music to fans, or advertising an athletic brand deal everything was “issa.” So how it came as a shock to viewers, two years later, when the singer displayed a vernacular contrast in a 3 minute Billboard video [2:26 – 2:38] speaks to the incremental transformation Ariana has been able to pull off. Based one of her most recent tweets which has garnered nearly twenty-four thousand retweets, her use of African American Vernacular English seems not to be going anywhere anytime soon.
Outside of the music and vocabulary, Ariana’s physical appearance also serves as a testament to her marketing commitment to racial line dancing. Ariana’s look has gone from unmistakably white to racially ambiguous with an increasingly drastic tan. This ambiguity has led to the singer being confused for Latinx and Hispanic. Even if Italians were regarded as people of color—they aren’t—Italy is a country in Europe, making Ariana of European decent, not Latin American.
Not only has her tan sparked controversy in this regard, but it has also supported an online joke suggesting that the singer is Black. The successful method in which Ariana has gone about co-opting Blackness has not only lead to her evading the pitfalls of previously accused appropriators; it has even led to Black fans naming themselves Mocha Grandes out of admiration for the singer as she charges forward in her exploitative use of Blackness.
Ariana also strategically seeks out Black cosigns in ways that are not as obvious as with other artists. In the case of Miley Cyrus, her cosigns from Mike WiLL Made-It, Jay Z, and Pharrell worked, not to disposition her as an authority, but to enforce her right to use Black aesthetics and redefine them for her purposes—such as in the case of her transition away from cookie-cutter child star to interesting adult artist. In Ariana’s case, her purposes are the same, but she goes about it in another direction; she does not aggressively take the cosigns of Black people’s presence in her art as a way to obviously permit her authority but instead positions them as tags of citation. When she includes brilliant artists and songwriters, Tayla Parx and Victoria Monét, in the music videos for songs they’ve written for her and television performances, the portrait implies that she can’t be stealing since the originators are in the picture.
Tayla Parx and Victoria Monét may not be grossly displayed as big black booty dancers whose literal backsides are a point of fascination [1:30][2:00], but instead, are presented as a part of Ariana’s girl-gang. However, their presence ultimately serves the same overall purpose as Miley’s use of Black bodies during her Bangerz era—a cosign to do with the music and aesthetics whatever she likes.
Ariana slides past claiming to have created the Black things she uses, but the actions of taking on the music and looks are authoritative nevertheless. Black viewers and Ariana fans are made to feel at ease because with a bit of investigation they can readily point to the Black originators behind Ariana’s new marketing endeavor. This tactic is meant to leave audiences less queasy about Ariana’s use of Black genres and the imagery particularly in the case of “7 Rings”. It also serves to distance her from an Elvis Presley-like legacy, which institutionally hides the true creators of the facets of various white and non-Black people of color’s artistry. Similarly, because she does not take on a status of originator or overt authority on Blackness, her inevitable return to whiteness won’t be as clumsy and hypocritically tinged as Miley’s condemnation of Hip Hop when Black Cool no longer suits her motivations.
Ariana’s enthusiastic verbal citation of Black artists as influences is also is enough for many to cease any and all critique. Her admiration for Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Destiny’s Child, Brandy, and India Arie, coupled with Black legends like Patti LaBelle lovingly calling her a “white Black girl” makes for an even better and lasting impression of cultural appreciation versus appropriation.
Unfortunately for viewers, Mocha Grandes, and Arinators, Ariana Grande is not unique; she is only the artist du jour. She is not the first artist, nor will she be the last, to become a subject of appropriation because the issue is much more expansive. The quandary stems from a profit-driven industry that has created the idea that Black people are not marketable, but Black music is, a notion inextricably linked to white audiences’ unwillingness to accept Black art unless delivered from non-Black and white bodies. The artists too are willful and complicit participants for using Blackness in capitalist ventures while their Black contemporaries, with the same sound, are institutionally and systemically shut out of the mainstream.
A watchful eye must be applied to obstruct power inequities in music. There is an absolute point of shame when the artists like Tayla Parx and Victoria Monét have proven to be profitable musicians, yet the commercial success of their music is only realized when coming from a body unlike their own. Sevyn Streeter, another one of Grande’s songwriters and an artist in her own right has also referred to her intuitive knowledge that her song and Ariana’s first hit, “The Way”, could have only been massively successful with a white artist at the forefront [23:43].
It is the imbalance of socio-economic and political power that grants members of a dominant group to partake in a cultural aspect(s) from an originating group with lesser power and yield benefits not accessible to the originating group that defines these actions as appropriation.
What is needed is active engagement and critical viewership, rather than passive consumption. For viewers and fans alike, this means assuming responsibility for our part. As history has shown, social responsibility seems to the lesser chosen path, but beautiful change can come about with the application of critical thought.
I find Ariana to be an amazing relief from unidimensional singers and forced accents; furthermore, I look forward to her growth as a vocalist. I can believe this and still feel incredibly uncomfortable with all of her Blaccent and Black Cool gimmicks. Being critical of the things and people you enjoy is possible and necessary. It does not make us hypocrites, but the belief that it does keeps us silent and emboldens systems that allows and encourages these acts of appropriation.
Ayika is a midwest-raised Congolese-American writer and creative entrepreneur. In the fall of 2017, she founded The Femme Oasis, a feminist magazine geared towards the actualization, progression, and elevation of all women and femmes.
Ayika’s dedication to the marginalized is rooted in feminist ideology—specifically the work and ideas of Black woman artists, scholars, community organizers, activists, and freedom-fighters. Since coupling her intuitive attention to the disparities created by social stratification and her academic background, Ayika has committed her work and art to the survival of oppressed people within dominating systems of power.