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)

Timberlake has since come to Cyrus’ rescue, saying on New York’s Fresh 102.7 that she was just letting the world know that she’s growing up. 

OK. She’s 20 years old and needing to rage against the Disney machine. I get that part. But here’s the hell this creates when black cultural performance is used as a weapon of choice to rebel: It objectifies black female bodies as tools for expressing opposition toward some set norm of behavior, and reinforces deep-rooted stereotypes about the hypersexuality of black performance styles. Cyrus’ growing pains should not be experienced at the expense of black people and their culture.

To help me understand Cyrus’ identity crisis, I spoke to Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African-American studies at Duke University and author of Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities; Atlanta-based rapper Mike Render, aka Killa Mike (see Outkast’s “Whole World” and RAP Music (Grindtime/Grand Hustle); and a former Atlanta stripper who once twerked as a means to getting through college debt-free.

“Miley Cyrus needs an apprenticeship,” said Neal. “The bottom line is it was a bad performance. And because she can’t pull it off, it made it that much worse. The problem is that she thinks that she can, which is actually a reflection of the larger culture’s devaluing of what we do. This idea that anybody can do it.”  

“Twerking requires agility and a strong core,” added the former Atlanta dancer. “That’s one of the reasons why you see all of these pole-dancing classes popping up. It is more than a sexual exercise.”

This attention to detail is another reason for the poor execution. 

“Miley looked just like the 18-, 19-, 20-year-old white girls I see dancing to rap music at these wild parties,” Render admitted. “So I’m not interested in Miley Cyrus per se. I’m more interested in putting the soul back in to our music. Who stole the soul?”

Black music minus the soul equals minstrelsy. If Cyrus has a real affinity for hood culture as she claims, then like Timberlake, she should find a mentor to teach her about authentic black cultural production and performance. It makes economic sense for artists like Mike WiLL to work with her on his single “23” and for Big Sean to make her the subject of his video for “Fire.” However, these attempts, along with the Cyrus drug references in rap music, barely scratch the surface.

As alluded to by the anonymous stripper, “When these people do these things like mention [Cyrus] in drug metaphors and embrace her, she thinks it’s OK to perform like that and bite off their style, because to them it’s so cool and popular. But to those of us who were born into black culture and who have had to live that hood life out of choice or necessity, it is part of who we are.”

Joycelyn A. Wilson is an assistant professor at Virginia Tech and Hip-Hop Archive Alumnus Fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University.