Op-Ed: Justin Timberlake Isn’t a “Cultural Appropriator”
(Editor’s note: This is an opinion column from guest writer Evon Burton.)
During Sunday evening’s BET Awards, actor and Temple alum Jesse Williams accepted the President’s Humanitarian Award and gave one of the most rousing acceptance speeches of all time. One of the many enamored by Williams’ words was triple-threat superstar Justin Timberlake. I, like most of Black Twitter, was a bit caught off guard by his well-intentioned tweet about it, since he has chosen to stay rather silent on issues affecting African Americans, a pattern we have seen quite frequently across America. However, as an aficionado of R&B music, the reactions of Black Twitter were more alarming and concerning to me.
— Justin Timberlake (@jtimberlake) June 27, 2016
Timberlake broke the internet when he retweeted and responded to local journalist, colleague and friend Ernest Owens’ critique of his “cultural appropriation” and the Janet Jackson Super Bowl incident. While I agree that Timberlake could have been much more vocal on behalf of Janet Jackson, when it comes to music, he isn’t a “cultural appropriator.” Not in the least bit. He’s just one of the many “privileged” Caucasian artists who have benefitted from a white-run media landscape while truly honoring his musical influences that are primarily African-American. Big difference.
The term “cultural appropriation,” which is negative in its connotation (and, to be honest, needs its definition fleshed out), fails to acknowledge the earnest power of influence and inspiration in music. I was in high school when Justin Timberlake’s groundbreaking debut album Justified came out back in 2002. That’s back when artists actually did aggressive press tours and interviews to promote an album. During that time, we got to understand Justin Timberlake as an artist. He spoke of his life in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was introduced to soul music by his grandfather. We heard him on programs such as MTV’s TRL acknowledging some of his favorite singers, including Michael Jackson, Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder and Brian McKnight — all of whom are heavy hitters in the field of R&B, and all of whom are easily identifiable not just on Timberlake’s debut but all throughout his career. If “Still on My Brain,” “Rock Your Body” and “Nothin’ Else” aren’t direct descendants from Stevie and MJ’s classic eras, I don’t know what they are.
Every time we use the term “cultural appropriation” in this regard, we tell a white artist that they can’t appreciate and honor Black music solely because of their skin color. That doesn’t make sense and is, at worst, unfair. Especially when Black artists reference other Black art — and work created by white artists, too. Shall I list out all of Miguel’s classic rock-inspired work, and all of the electronic-based R&B songs that are spawns from Radiohead tracks? That will take all day.
If there is any issue at all, it’s that white artists who are inspired by Black artists are provided much larger platforms than their African-American colleagues, a phenomenon that we have seen time and time again since the Elvis days. Many critics, including radio host Charlamagne tha God, have said that if Philly natives Jill Scott and Jazmine Sullivan looked more like Adele, they would be household names. Why? Because R&B songs are not crossing over to mainstream radio stations at the same rates that similar-sounding songs from Adele and Sam Smith are crossing over to urban radio stations and receiving more critical acclaim.
Sadly, we already know the rationale. It’s the classic conditioning that white artists are more “commercial” than Blacks. Is it 2016 or 1966? Clearly, things haven’t moved that much. A lot of artists have been speaking out on this issue for a while now, including the aforementioned Sullivan, Tank and Tyrese, who made headlines for calling out mainstream radio stations for not playing his song “Shame,” which was a megahit on urban radio while his album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, a rarity in today’s climate for R&B artists.
So instead of being mad that Justin Timberlake, Adele and Sam Smith are adopting our African-American styles, let’s work toward the answer to the larger question at hand: Why are we allowing radio stations, record labels and media outlets to silence our artists?
Evon Burton is a PR and events consultant, and the creative director of the Anderson Street Project, which promotes concerts, programs and parties to Philadelphia’s R&B fan base. Follow him at @the_mistere and the Anderson Street Project @andersonstphl.