The Trouble With Justin Timberlake’s Appropriation of Black Music (Participation)

The Trouble With Justin Timberlake’s Appropriation of Black Music

Justin Timberlake performs at the Brit Awards on February 20, 2013 in London. Photo: Matt Kent/Getty Image Entertainment

by Jamilah King

I have a confession to make: I really like Justin Timberlake.

And I really like “The 20/20 Experience,” which dropped Tuesday and is on pace to move 800,000 copies this week, according to Billboard.

As an aging backpacker just starting to lighten up to Top 40, I wasn’t able to say this kind of thing very recently. My turning point came last summer hanging out with a group of friends at a hipstery bar. It was near closing time but they were the political sort so we were talking about The World’s Important Things—until “LoveStoned” from Timberlake’s “FutureSex/LoveSounds” came on. I lit up and I thought I was the only one, but then I noticed one of my homies singing along. “I really like Justin,” I admitted with a shrug. “I do too,” she said. As we laughed about it, I felt the same exhilaration I once did when bonding with socially conscious health nuts who made late-night trips to McDonald’s. We knew we weren’t supposed to like him but we did like his music. And that, for reasons both absurd and obvious, was a problem.

My ambivalence toward Justin is, to a large degree, a matter of aesthetics. But it’s also rooted in a very real anxiety about white artists “borrowing” black music and style then taking a break when it becomes inconvenient. Yes, Timberlake has rightfully earned his place among modern pop music legends, but he also embodies the historical mistrust that exists between white performers and black listeners that dates at least as far back as Elvis Presley’s 1950s foray into what was then called “race music.

Changing Clothes

Justin Timberlake entered the industry as a kid on Disney’s New Mickey Mouse Club, he went on to front the hugely popular boy band ‘N Sync and gained lots of media attention for his supposedly chaste romance with Mickey Mouse castmate Britney Spears.

For Justin, launching a successful solo career meant exiting the boy-band space occupied by white crooners like the Backstreet Boys and 98 Degrees and entering one dominated by black R&B and hip-hop artists.

With production by Timbaland, The Neptunes and P. Diddy, Timberlake’s solo debut, “Justified,” thrived on his novelty: He was the white boy with the bleached blonde fade and vague hip-hop swagger who could really sing the black music he unabashedly recorded. Image-wise, he picked, chose and performed suave and often provocative black masculinities embodied by the likes of James Brown, Michael Jackson, and Prince. For that he was richly rewarded; the album sold more than 7 million copies worldwide and he won two Grammys, ironically for Best Pop Vocal Album and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.

But when shit hit the fan after the 2004 Super Bowl when he exposed Janet Jackson’s nipple on live television, he was able — after making a public apology on CBS — to easily revert back in the public’s imagination to the wholesome white boy who made pop songs for teenage girls. And that’s what becomes tricky with Justin, that his whiteness acts as both an entryway into a popular culture and a buffer against its criticisms. Janet’s career, on the other hand, stagnated. (Black comedy legend Paul Mooney famously dubbed the scandal her “n*a wakeup call.” And Chris Rock blamed her exposed “40-year-old breast” for creeping censorship in American television.)

20/20 Vision

Over the six years since Justin Timberlake recorded “FutureSex/LoveSounds,” he’s been able to do few what pop artists can: stay relevant. The new album picks up where he and longtime collaborator Timbaland left off then expands the ideas. Most of the tracks are about seven minutes long, throwing the proverbial middle finger up at the idea of the catchy, three-minute standalone that’s become the industry standard. Timberlake’s new work doesn’t even comfortably fit into the confines of pop music. The influences are vast, ranging from the hip-hop infused R&B of the first single “Suit & Tie,” featuring Jay-Z, to the Afrobeat influence of “Let the Groove Get In.” Nearly every track has what’s become Justin’s signature emotional change-up, in which the tone, melody, and somtimes message of a song directly contradicts everything that came before it. Much like the video announcing the album’s arrival where Timberlake doesn’t sing a note, “The 20/20 Experience” comes from a place of artistic confidence and freedom.

Creative Freedom

Justin wouldn’t likely have that musical freedom without his work in very white Hollywood. Despite early, notable flops (“Black Snake Moan,” “Alpha Dog”) he’s been able to build a movie career, generating Oscar buzz by playing Sean Parker in the “The Social Network,” doing raunchy, satirical comedy opposite Cameron Diaz (“Bad Teacher”), and straight-ahead romantic comedy opposite Mila Kunis (“Friends With Benefits.”) Without Hollywood, his wedding to Jessica Biel might not have landed them both the cover of People magazine. He’s also hosted “Saturday Night Live” five times, a testament to his comedic chops and a larger-scale Hollywood visibility that he wouldn’t likely have access to without his whiteness.

Of course, this isn’t all Justin’s fault. He’s just the latest and most newsworthy example of a phenomenon that’s existed as long as black people have been making art in the Americas. It’s neither a reason not to enjoy the “20/20 Experience” or rallying cry to keep others from doing the same. But as his first album in six years gets the notoriety befitting a Justin Timberlake Experience, it’s worth at least acknowledging all of the experiences that have gone into making it possible.

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10 thoughts on “The Trouble With Justin Timberlake’s Appropriation of Black Music (Participation)

  1. Personally upon listening to this album, I like a few songs but overall it is average for my ears. I agree Jamiah King on the fact that this album has a R&B, Pop sound which seems to be imitating black music. This phenomena of a white guy doing covers of black music is not a new thing. Jamiah is correct in stating that Elvis Presley performed this type of race music, but white artists covering black songs dates back to before Elvis rise to stardom. Pat Boone was the first white artist to do covers of black music. He took songs from black artists like Fats Domino and Little Richard. These black artists had trouble getting white radio air time and when Pat Boone came in and performed this race music a period of white artists performing black songs began. This phenomena is still present today and can be seen in Justin’s new album “The 20/20 Experience.” This album clearly has artistic value but the value of the art is overshadowed by a history of inequality in the music industry. Overall though it is a decent album that deserves its due credit but it is important not to forget the circumstances and privilege that allows this album to get the air time that it does.

  2. I disagree entirely with the suggestion by the author that being white let justin off the hook for the superbowl mishap and the claim that it ended janet jacksons because she is black. Justin was much more popular and younger than janet so it would stand to reason that he could recover from negative press easier than janet for those reasons and not his race. Also the damage to Janet’s career was more significant because she was the one actually exposed Justin was involved but remained fully clothed.

    • But didn’t JT play a role in the performance? Was he criticized with equal ferocity? If not, could age, popularity, along with race and gender, all play out. Given implicit biases, given stereotypes, can we say for certain that it does not matter?

      • Justin did play a role in the performance but I dont think its unreasonable to think that had Janet exposed Justin his career would have been more damaged. This is not to say it is impossible that race or gender played a role it just seems that there are other factors, like Brendon mentioned, his diverse music that could be used to explain his success that make more sense to me than his race. A privlage JT does cash in on though is his good looks. It seems like an incredible coincidence to me that all the best singers in the world with few exceptions are incredibly attractive.

  3. I think he’s so successful because both black people and white people enjoy his music… I don’t think the color of his skin matters, its the skin color of his listeners. He keeps his music diverse enough for both audiences

  4. I do not think that Justin Timberlake should have been left off the hook when he performed Janet Jackson’s song. Sometimes when a white guy or girl attempts to sing a colored persons song many times it does not end well. Mainly because they do not have the voice to go how the original singer sang it so it will sound completely different. I am not say he is a horrible singer but I think that some people just can’t sing black peoples songs because some people just don’t have it and sometimes when they try and make a great song sung by a black yours it is just does not turn out the same. Many times the song comes out way differently than it was originally meant to be. So I do not think that it was a good idea that Justin Timberlake sang Janet Jackson’s song. He should just stick to his music. -Nohemi Meza

  5. I think that even though many people think that Justin songs sound good many other people don’t like it. I think that he should stick to what he used to sing before starting all this. Many people can even be kind of offended in a way or feel like he shouldn’t sing those songs. I also think that it is really weird to start off with of why he even thought of starting to sing this type of music. He being a white person singing African American songs is something that really bothers many African Americans because of all the facts we know. Even though many people say “the past is the past”, many African Americans still today don’t appreciate white people and vice versa and they especially don’t like it when they sing there music. For some people it is almost as if he were making fun of them in a way. Even if he did just want to sing that type of music it would be okay, but I see no reason of why to go and even dress like he know many African Americans do.

  6. Personally, I have been a major fan of Justin Timberlake since he started his career with NSYNC. He has definitely evolved as an entertainer since his boy band days. In regards to his new album, I think the purpose of it was to push the envelope and try something totally new. Even though he is a white kid that started on Disney channel, he took influence from his roots growing up in Memphis and channeled artists like Elvis and the rat pack era to make this new album. I don’t think that there is anything wrong with that even if it is considered “black music”. JT has a very soulful voice and is extremely talented in that area of vocals. I think that he got to where he is today because he is an overall talented individual that people in my generation have grown up listening to. Just because he is white didn’t bring him his fortune.

  7. I personally don’t understand why there needs to be a division within music. There are icons such as Justin Timberlake and Eminem that have essentially “broken the lines” of color in music, branching into what is deemed as “Black music”, and being fairly successful at it as well. I don’t believe that he got the success that he has today from simply being white and taking the credit for music that is dominated by Black artists. I think it shows, rather, that JT is just THAT good at what he does. Maybe African American can try to step out of the typical hip-hop/rap comfort zones, and who knows what could happen; its a beautiful thing when racial differences are cast aside in the face of music and art.

  8. For myself, I really love Justin Timberlake. He is a clever and good singer. In my opinion, the thing that he sings black songs should not be a big problem. Music is belongs to the world, Justin just use his way to sing a different style of song to the world.

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