Justin Timberlake Isn’t Appropriating Black Culture, But He Isn’t Defending It Either


As Jesse Williams accepted the 2016 BET Humanitarian Award Sunday night (June 26) for his unwavering activism, he chose to use his allotted time to acknowledge Black Lives Matter organizers across the country as well as the individuals who, in losing their lives unjustly, served as catalysts for the movement. Among those touched by the Grey’s Anatomy star’s words was Justin Timberlake.

The 20/20 Experience singer was berated by people who found this comment hypocritical and repeatedly accused him of appropriating black culture while failing to speak up on the Black Lives Matter movement and police brutality. Timberlake tried to defend himself, but only seemed to deepen the hole he dug himself into.

I’d like to assert that “cultural appropriation” has become a phrase that has so often been used that many are misinterpreting it’s meaning. I believe Amandla Stenberg defined it best: “Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated, but is deemed as high-fashion, cool or funny when the privileged take it for themselves. Appropriation occurs when the appropriator is not aware of the deep significance of the culture that they are partaking in.”

There is a very thin line that separates appropriation and inspiration, but it does exist. Those who are purely inspired by another culture are not always seeking to exploit characteristics of that culture for personal gain. Christina Aguilera has been open about her admiration of black female performers such as Whitney Houston, Nina Simone and Etta James, and their influence is evident in her sound and style. She is aware of the significance of their contributions to the music industry of today. In contrast, Miley Cyrus is a clear appropriator of black culture. From the former Disney star’s twerking music videos that use black women as props to her reference of Snoop Dogg as “Mammy” during the 2014 Video Music Awards, it is obvious Cyrus is willfully ignorant of black history in America and the struggles we have endured. She makes use of the parts of black culture she finds amusing and, to borrow Jesse Williams’ phrasing, discards the rest “like the rinds of strange fruit.”

Aside from some questionable fashion choices in the early 2000s, I do not consider JT, with his baptist choir boy, Memphis-grown roots, an appropriator of black culture. There is nothing threatening or disrespectful about his approach. Timberlake has always expressed his deep admiration Michael Jackson, to whom he credits the success of his solo career. The two artists talents were eventually united for MJ’s posthumous single, “Love Never Felt So Good,” which was included on the Xscape compilation of unreleased tracks. Timberlake has admitted that influences from “The Purple One” can be found in every song he’s ever written, most notably the FutureSex/LoveSounds tracks, “Sexy Ladies” and “Until The End Of Time.” This same man drew great inspiration from D’Angelo’s Voodoo, and said it “got him off his a**” and into the studio to start his first solo album. It’s clear Timberlake has spent years studying the work of many great black artists and his musical catalogue is a tribute to his appreciation for them; the inspiration he would be lost without, not an appropriation of their blackness.

On the other hand, Timberlake is not completely innocent in this situation. I believe that as someone who has benefited from the creative, trailblazing magic that is black culture, JT owes the black community his voice, yet he has remained silent. There is no reason he, or any other non-black artist who has been welcomed into the black community with open arms, shouldn’t be screaming from the top of their lungs about the importance of protecting black lives. It is a slap in the face to black fans who have faithfully supported artists and for them to turn a blind eye to racial injustice. It is ridiculous that Justin, who has benefited so greatly from the work of black singers and performers, has not felt the need to step into the fight to protect the culture from those who devalue it.

“The more you realize we’re the same, the more we can have a conversation,” Timberlake said in rebuttal to those criticizing his BET Awards tweet. We’re not the ones that don’t know we’re equal, Justin. And although you may not be the problem, you’re not seen actively helping to find the solution either.