Miley, JT and the Politics of Appropriation

The VMAs showed us that there's a right and wrong way to use black music for profit.

Justin Timberlake (Jemal Countess/Getty Images); Miley Cyrus (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)
Justin Timberlake (Jemal Countess/Getty Images); Miley Cyrus (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

(The Root) — For as long as Africans in America have been producing music for the recording industry, there’s remained a tension between black performance styles and the mainstream society that benefits. This hasn’t always been a bad thing. There are times when the use of black style and form has moved pop culture to new heights, making the selling of black song, sound and dance very profitable for many black artists. Take Dr. Dre and Eminem, for example. Even consider Akon, who sprinkled a little bit of blackness on Lady Gaga when he signed her to Kon Live Distribution, and rocket-launched her career into the stratosphere by co-writing “Just Dance” for The Fame.

But at other times, the appropriation of black culture descends into rank minstrelsy, not only mocking the people, the community and the music it inspires but also devaluing the features and techniques that enhance these cross-cultural performances.

This tension was on display in its purest form last Sunday night at the MTV Video Music Awards. On the one hand we had the authentic: Justin Timberlake, whom Jimmy Fallon called the Prince of Pop. But on the other, there was Miley “Gone Mad” Cyrus.

In the span of about 45 minutes we saw the heaven and hell of appropriation, which once again reminded me that there’s a thin line between cultural exchanging and straight-up perversion. Artists similar to JT always add value to the soul aesthetic when they appropriate the right way. Their natural appreciation for it shines through effortlessly when they perform. However, those like Cyrus, who have yet to engulf themselves into the culture, just end up making a plumb fool of themselves and pissing off a bunch of people — black, white and in between.

For example, in a failed attempt at twerking, which is a form of dance rooted in the African Diaspora and performed by male and female dancers, the former Disney star gave Robin Thicke an amateur tipdrill during their “Blurred Lines” duet. Thicke looked like a Foot Locker employee, and Cyrus resembled a feline in heat, wearing pigtails on the top of her head that resembled cat ears. Poor taste, to say the least. The downer of the evening.

The controversy came out of left field just 45 minutes later when Timberlake took the stage for a 15-minute medley of hits. He began with his new single, “Take Back the Night,” and ended with “Mirrors.” Besides the fact that JT has that cool-white-guy-with-soul thingy down pat, there were at least two other highlights of JT’s mini-concert: the NSYNC reunion and the remix of “SexyBack,” in which he requests, “Let me see what ya twerkin’ wit,” before declaring, “I still run this bitch.” 

I’m not sure if JT was referencing anyone in particular in this shout-out, given that only a few minutes earlier little Hannah Montana failed miserably in an attempt at twerking. What I know to be true is that JT has developed a natural and unforced authenticity that fosters endorsement from the black community when he sings and dances. Cyrus’ style of appropriation looks forced, nnatural and disrespectful.

JT has figured it out partly because of his artistic development under the direction of super-producer Timothy Mosley, aka “Timbaland.” And Timbaland, being the musical genius that he is, saw a real sense of soul in a young Timberlake. JT doesn’t try to “act black.” He’s simply a white guy from Memphis, Tenn., who has been successful in crossing over from a majority only-white audience when he was with NSYNC to a substantial black audience post-NSYNC.