Are We Justifying Justin Timberlake’s Appropriation Of Black Music?

Alright so it has finally happened! We’ve got a new Justin Timberlake album, and Lord knows my life needed it. During the first promos I didn’t even ask “Why am I logging onto MySpace?; Didn’t I give that up halfway through the enrollment page in ’05?” Nope; we all did it because we just needed a taste.

In the recent landscape of Top 40/Pop, “The 20/20 Experience” seems like a beacon of hope. Mostly everything else getting radio play has been informed by a still sluggish economy and the ‘pop music factory’ phenomenon. The result? A sound once reserved for trashy tourist trap hole-in-the-wall European discos  that lure you in with shots of bargain basement liquor is the norm; that or easy listening. Of course you could tune into NPR but when you’re already in traffic headed to work? Nah. Nobody wants to aggravate their grogginess with heavy doses of auto-tone while SOBER.

Happily JT’s album picked up where he left off with these 6-8 minute songs, and thankfully most of them will get radio play. They mesh together elements of classic soul, Timbaland’s production and a full-on band. Also, his excellent live performances feature his trademark showmanship. It’s magic at first sight and on second glance you can easily see it’s the witchcraft of cultural appropriation.

As usual, though, he’s being lauded for bringing pop music back to it’s larger than life roots. The Atlantic is calling him the 21st Century Sammy Davis Jr.  In the article, “Justin Timberlake, Our Sammy Davis Jr,” Hampton Stevens writes:

One hallmark of the song-and-dance man is versatility. Timberlake may not be the best singer and dancer on earth, but he’s very, very good at both of them. He also drips with charisma. More crucially, like Sammy and like all the great song-and-dance men before him, Justin moves freely between one form of entertainment and the another, with no part of his appeal seeming like that of a dilettante or novelty act.

Now I thought we were all being polite with this open secret but how can his performance not be seen for what it is? It’s black. Just like his beat progressions, almost all of his band, vocalists and his ‘call and response’ ad libs reflect the aforementioned statement. It’s the tradition of Southern soul music born in the juke joints of his native home, Tennessee. It’s the same formula Elvis (also a Tennessee native) used except America wasn’t ‘comfortable’ seeing us on TV much back then.

Although nobody is asking Justin Timberlake to ‘bow down,’ we’ve seen this formula over and over again from our own artists. However, the song and dance has been done and many black artists tend to be left unsung or even critically acclaimed. In the post, “The Trouble With Justin Timberlake’s Appropriation of Black Music,” Jamilah King takes a look at Timberlake’s work and wants us to take a look at his journey throughout his music career. She writes:

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.

I’m left wondering of all the other handsome suit-clad male vocalist who pay homage to soul while performing pop music from this generation; could any of them get as much attention (or money) as JT? Or are new genres being invented out of thin air to isolate them from mainstream success? See also Urban Contemporary.

What do you think about Justin Timberlake? Do you feel he is afforded opportunities because of his skin, talent or all of the above?

Joel is a native of Queens,NY raised in Atlanta,GA and currently residing in Oakland,CA. As a new writer and music buff his distinct background informs his unique perspective. This background includes a great deal of experience in the healthcare industry as a medical interpreter/translator and advocate for lower income families. His interests focus on further promoting gay men from all areas of the African diaspora.

  • JonJon

    So bc Justin Timberlake is soulful he wants to be black? Ugh. We will always find a way to make something about us. Smh.

    • Angela

      Right, because white people created rhythm and blues and soul music. Why don’t us darkies stay in our place and stop making everything about us, lol.

      • http://twitter.com/JoelJavier Joel-Javier

        +1

      • Cam

        !!!

  • DeeDee

    This is the problem with so called black culture. People are damned if they do and damned if they dont. Just let he boy sing. Is too far of sctrech to think that he enjoys R&B, why is he stealing black music, if he makes a R&B record. Come on now. acting like he literally went and stole someone else music right out the studio.

    • http://twitter.com/JoelJavier Joel-Javier

      Thanks for the opinion. It feels more like “Black culture” only being well received if a non-Black person delivers it.

      • Cam

        You hit the nail on the head. If this was John Legend or Miguel no one would even know the song!

  • Satchel

    OMG, give me a break. Let the guy sing what he wants to sing. I love JT. He’s a corny white guy with soul. Most of the African American male artists are singing about crap…so Yes, I like JT and his new artist. He’s not trying to be black. He married a white woman…Hello. I’m a black male and I give his new album two thumbs up.

    • Angela

      Stop throwing black male artists under the bus to prop up Justin. He does not have “soul”. His falsetto is awful and contrived.

      • http://twitter.com/JoelJavier Joel-Javier

        He can definitely carry a tune but the evidence is DAMNING. Also he’s said it himself that musically he identifies a lot with Southern soul music and Black music.

  • http://twitter.com/dreanabeana Dreana

    Sadly, today, it’s more acceptable for a white person to sing r&b than a Black person. People have forced Blacks to conform to mainstream music in order for them to be accepted, whilst complaining about the watered down music produced by those who’ve assimilated. As a result, musical gentrification is forcing our people to cross over to musical suburbia.

    • http://twitter.com/JoelJavier Joel-Javier

      This.

    • Cam

      Amen! Can’t win!

  • Shawn

    Like are we really doing this? Blacks will pull anything out of their asses to make a point no one cares about.

    • Jane Lane

      Unlike white people who insist that racism is dead while accusing “blacks” of making things up.

      • http://twitter.com/JoelJavier Joel-Javier

        +1

  • Bubba

    Thank you for this article. There is nothing wrong with pointing out that appropriation is still happening, even if it’s from a lovable person like Justin Timberlake. He’s been influenced by and riding on the success of R&B/Soul since his days in N’SYNC (let’s not pretend they weren’t a “mainstream” version of Boyz 2 Men, they even admit this). I will say the difference between Elvis and other artists from the Pre-Civil Rights Era, who took African-American music and repackaged it for white America, and JT is that the latter is able to openly fellowship and collaborate with us without receiving backlash from the greater society. Thus JT can have black vocalists and musicians in his band without issue. Yay progress!
    What irks some people is that Justin and Adele will still outsell artists like Solange, Frank Ocean, Miguel, Meshelle N’degeocello and other groundbreaking black soul acts. You can blame it on racism, piracy, black people not supporting new avant-garde acts as opposed to familiar radio confection, or the lack of promotional dollars those artists have as a resource, but for many of us it still stings when others can take our sounds and make more money off it than we do. It’ natural to be suspicious with JT and his success, especially given the history of race and american music. If we want our culture to survive and receive the accolades in history it deserves, then it’s what we need to do. 20/20 is a GREAT work of art, that wouldn’t be in existence without our people’s contribution.

    • Angela

      I wouldn’t say they were a mainstream Boyz II Men (BIIM wasn’t some underground group) but they were definitely the only boyband of their time that harmonized like them and could actually dance and put on a show.

      • http://twitter.com/JoelJavier Joel-Javier

        True.

    • http://twitter.com/JoelJavier Joel-Javier

      Appreciate it! Yeah it just left me thinking that MORE progress would’ve been made by 2013. Also as Black folks we are still only a small portion of purchasing power. Ironically, Black art (or influenced art) is very very marketable. Cheers!

  • http://byazrov.com/ Miamor

    I wish I could smoke weed like you so every mediocre album would sound perfect to me too.

    • Cold Fire

      OK!

  • Allika B

    Normally I’m all for calling out white privilege and appropriation but you’re reaching for the stars here, friend. Also I don’t think you know what appropriation quite means cause it’s not workin here.

    • http://twitter.com/JoelJavier Joel-Javier

      Is it not appropriation because there are Black people singing back up vocals?

  • Jane Lane

    You can’t be serious with this. The “white people appropriating black music” ship sailed before I was born and, I’d wager, before you were born too. It’s a little late to get shirty about it now. And since JT is not the first white musician to adopt black pop music, and I’m hard pressed to believe he’ll be the last, why is he on the hook? And you’re going to have to deal with the fact that cultural fusion happens. Southern Jazz was inspired, in part, by European Classical music. Rap by early German Techno, listen to some Kraftwerk once, it might sound familiar. It’s time to get over it. This isn’t like someone putting some feathers in their hair and claiming to have a spirit animal, it’s not someone painting themselves black and putting on an afro wig. It’s music. It’s art. Art bleeds over. Let it go.

    • http://twitter.com/JoelJavier Joel-Javier

      “Good Artists Borrow. Great Artists Steal.” – Picasso

    • Cam

      Thank god black artists keep inventing new things to steal lol

  • Angela

    LOL the comments in this post is proof that Justin has blacks eating from the palm of his hand. They will defend him to death. I’ve never seen mediocrity so highly praised.

    • Cam

      Lol yup. Thank god a white man made this song because if a brother made it they would’ve critiqued him with no shamw

  • BlackPegasus

    What the hell is “Black Music?”

    Is it the opposite and equal to “White Music?” People of color (namely Blacks) can sometimes be so stupid and hypocritical.

    • Cam

      Smh lemme guess we live in a color-blind society where all ethnicities have similar backgrounds and similar cultures? No need to have black History month or Africana studies I suppose…

      • http://twitter.com/JoelJavier Joel-Javier

        Ok so the horrible thing about racism is it treats people UNEQUALLY but says that everyone is on a level playing field. Not true. Black culture can’t be compared to White culture. Both don’t share the same history or privilege.

  • Cam

    Lol cultural appropriation seems to be successful: black people don’t notice it. I’ve been a JT fan since NSYNC and when I first heard Suit and Tie I thought it sounded so inauthentic and corny I was turned off. I play his older CDs regularly and while most artists grow, JT hasn’t grown he just took Bruno Mars and ran with it. People do stand for blue-eyed soul than they do black soul, that’s just how it is. We should start supporting more of our own artists (if their products are good) but sadly they don’t get heavy promotion from labels. Some of these commenters want to pretend we live in a color-blind society where this no “black music” or “white music” but all ethnicities have a culture and in a color-blind world the minority cultures are overlooked.
    It’s a shame how the Grammys treated Miguel, who was nominated multiple times, in comparison to JT, who didn’t have an album in years and got a full performance. Explain that sh*t

  • Cam

    It’s no wonder why Eminem is the highest selling rap artist of all-time. It’s no wonder why JT “new sound” is popular. Think about how many Kenny G jazz albums there are. Its clear as day what’s going on. I work in the industry so I know how it is. But, black people don’t want to acknowledge cultural appropriation because they actually enjoy the music. And black artists try to keep up by making more and more pop songs, then everyone calls them a sell-out. When our black girls were singing like Adele, nobody listened. So our girls tried to pull a Britney Spears, and that wasn’t good enough either. Black artists can’t win.

  • http://www.aimertoujoursvivretoujours.com/ El Swiss

    when people think of black artists lil wayne + nicki minaj types come to mind first

  • Pingback: Expectations vs. Reality: What World Are You Living In?()

  • Apollo 26

    I applaud Justin Timberlakes latest effort. It is a damn good piece of work! Listen, the man is talented period. He obviouslyhas a sincere love of classic soul music and the artists that produced those rich classics. Since when is music delegated to a specific race? Please give me a legitimate reason. Jimi Hendrix was well recieved in the world of rock. Hailed practically as superior to all of his white counter parts on the guitar. White people did not go into a hue and cry over Hendrix appropriating ANYTHING. To the contrary they essentially worship the man to this day. Black people NEED TI GET OFF OF THIS STUPIDITY. Nobody OWNS anything. Music is a universa art that should be appreciated as such by EVERYONE regardless of race. Period. Justin is not the greatest singer but the man can sing AND dance very well. Also unlike black artists, he doesn’t resort to degrading women in his music nor does he come off trashy as a lot of the others guys do. A talented artist,actor and businessman is Timberlake. He enjoys what he does and so do I. And if you must know, Im Black. Cheers

  • Apollo 26

    One other thing. Unlike most of his peers, black and white, Timberlake got it RIGHT. Meaning NO SCREW UPS. NO SCANDALS. NO DRUG EPISODES. ZERO. Way to go Justin. Keep trucking on my friend. No hate or racial hangups and whining from my corner of the world.

  • Apollo 26

    Black artists cant win? Michael Jackson seems to not have had a problem. Whitney Houston who to me personally was a bit overrated did extremely well. Prince did fabulous. I could go on but it won’t be necessary. JT has a way of making just the right fusion of soul and pop that is favorable to the ears of a wide range of people. Fair or unfair a lot of people when they hear a typical r&b song they are undoubtedly bracing for the inevitable over the top wailing and gross overture for sex. This is a FACT. JT takes the best element of pop and soul and forms a musical marriage that works.