After months of small teasers and sneak peeks, Jesy Nelson, who announced she was leaving Little Mix in December 2020, released the highly awaited music video for her debut single as a solo artist ‘Boyz’ on Friday 8 October. However, it didn’t take long for the video to receive valid criticism online for Nelson’s alleged obvious attempts at blackfishing. Blackfishing, which is derived from catfishing, is a term used to describe a form of cultural appropriation where a non-black person pretends to be black and appears black. The term is also used to describe white people who modify their appearance (in sometimes extreme ways) for a more racially ambiguous ‘aesthetic’.
More worryingly, it was Nelson’s response to those comments that made matters even worse. Instead, like chucking a toaster in a bath, the backlash she faced swiftly turned into a wild frenzy of Instagram and YouTube comments, Twitter threads and countless TikTok videos criticising the singer flooded our For You Page. What is particularly problematic about Nelson’s reaction to the growing accusations is her defence of blind ignorance to all of this, stating that she wasn’t aware of her blackfishing at all.
This is hard to believe when none of this discourse is new at all, as Teen Vogue writer Natasha Mulenga stated, “As Black artists continue to drive popular culture, we keep seeing white artists, models, and creatives create lacklustre imitations of us while gaining huge rewards.” We prefer to spin in circles and avoid standing still long enough to talk about how truly inexcusable this kind of behaviour is in 2021.
Since George Floyd’s death shook the world in 2020, it seems hard to forget the year that followed—one filled with protests against racism and the systematic oppression of black people. Taking this into consideration—and how could you not?—influential artists like Nelson must be more aware of how wrong and insensitive it is to use such stereotypes for their own profit (while actual black artists are vilified for the same). Donning the culture of black people as nothing more than an aesthetic is inexcusable, yet it remains a common practice among white artists, especially in the pop genre.
Nelson’s new single ‘Boyz’ features female rapper and previous Little Mix collaborator, Nicki Minaj, and samples P.Diddy’s 2001 hit song ‘Bad Boy 4 Life’. Lyrically, the song centres on Nelson being hung up on rebellious, dangerous and “taboo” men.
In an interview with Noctis Magazine, Nelson said of her new single, “I just think it’s in your face. I wrote it when I was going through a break-up and it’s me all over. I just love a bad boy.” She further commented that for her first attempt at going solo, she wanted to “come back with a song where people are like ‘OKAY!’,” continuing that the song has a marmite quality, “You’re either going to love it or you’re going to hate it.”
And people certainly did have something to say about it, just not in the positive way Nelson may have hoped. While it is mainly the visuals in the video which have spurred a storm of comments accusing the singer of blackfishing, from her hair and makeup to her darker than acceptable tan, the song’s lyrics were also unimpressive. Describing these boys as “so hood, so good, so damn taboo” with “tattoos and them gold teeth,” Nelson plays into archaic and racist stereotypes of black men—it not only fetishises the aesthetics of black women but also continues the historical fetishising of dating black men.
View this post on Instagram
Re-entering the spotlight as a solo artist, Nelson was quick to respond to the critiques and even addressed her former bandmates during an Instagram live video with Nicki Minaj. The two sat down to talk about the response to the video, thanking their fans for their support, while deeming those who weren’t so pleased with it as simply “jealous haters.”
Nelson originally thanked her fans and Nicki Minaj for their support through her Instagram account, stating: “Thank you all SO much for the love and support so far ❤️ KEEP STREAMING #BOYZ ‼️” and tagging Minaj in her caption. Many of her fans have responded with uplifting positivity and excitement for the song, praising Nelson for stepping out on her own.
View this post on Instagram
Since then, Nelson has vehemently denied blackfishing, and started doing so in an interview with Vulture. She also claimed during the Instagram live with Minaj that she didn’t use any fake tan for the music video and was in fact darker due to being on holiday in Antigua. Addressing the issue, Nelson pleaded, “I personally want to say that my intention was never, ever to offend people of colour with this video and my song because, like I said, growing up as a young girl, this is the music that I listened to.” Not good enough if you want my opinion, try again Jesy.
Minaj also made comments against Nelson’s ex-bandmates, where black Little Mix member Leigh-Anne Pinnock was specifically targeted. Pinnock publicly addressed the racism she faced being in the band in her BBC documentary Race, Pop & Power—focusing on the treatment of black female artists in the music industry overall. It seemed like Minaj tried to comfort Nelson by speaking negatively of Pinnock, claiming that the comments were to “bring somebody down because you see them trying to pursue their passion.”
Many have pointed out this is just another in a long line of Minaj’s previous internet scandals after she was recently found to be part of a conspiracy that tried to cover up the mounting legal allegations posed against her and her husband, sex offender Kenneth Petty. The rapper’s anti-vaccination tweets surfaced and circulated around the same time as news broke out that she was due to testify in Petty’s court case. However, this is more troubling than misinforming and fear-mongering the threat of swollen balls and testicular cancer to her followers. Much like her avid defence of her husband’s character, Minaj, in support of Nelson, took to Instagram to say, “Y’all gotta stop.” This situation highlights the irony of Minaj’s previous responses to backlash against her anti-vax stance. She has endured the rough end of internet hate as a black woman and now places another black woman in that same position—all in the name of defending a white woman who has offended the very demographic she has appropriated culture from.
Many have stated on TikTok that the duo are ‘done’ for their response, brushing off the valid arguments and offence as simple hate. A number of videos about the future careers of the two artists have flooded the platform, with many saying they are cancelled.
Although ignorant music videos like this one may not seem like anything new, there is a problematic element to how the issue of blackfishing and Nelson are being talked about. The harmful aspect of this situation is actually more insidious than some detractors of the song understand. Both Nelson and Minaj, in their framing of black people who have taken issue with the video as ‘bored cyber bullies’ with nothing better to do, in turn minimise the significant harm they have caused.
The fact is, the decision to create the video for ‘Boyz’ went through a lot of people, who all signed off on it, including Nelson. Despite her obvious run-ins with cultural appropriation, the singer’s response was to deny blackfishing had ever been brought up to her. “The whole time I was in Little Mix, I never got any of that. And then I came out of [the band] and people all of a sudden were saying it,” Nelson told Vulture.
Nelson’s blackfishing, at first, may seem inconsequential—her continued defence of it and the hypocrisy of allowing others to bully her ex-bandmates for trying to simply educate her on the harm blackfishing causes, may just seem like passing internet beef. However, not only is the current trend of ‘racist thing committed by X’ to ‘feigned ignorance for racist thing by X’ very boring, it is insulting and indefensible. There is no excuse for Nelson’s ‘Boyz’, the problems with it may just be from the absorption of black culture and a want to appreciate it but, it clearly doesn’t come across that way. What definitely does come across is the lack of accountability and acknowledgement of critics and her own fans that were upset by the video.
But, bigger than ‘Boyz’, Nelson, Minaj and the drama, the issue of blackfishing needs to be taken seriously. There are tools to access and books to read. For example, Future Learn offers free online courses to anyone looking to learn more about black history. The information is out there, and people like Nelson have access to it in spades. We cannot keep enabling the cycle of letting public figures move through appropriation like any other scandal. Valid issues about race shouldn’t be reduced to internet feud drama and a hit tweet to craze over cancel culture.
In the case of Nelson, ‘Boyz’ and the drama surrounding it, there is clarity. It is tiring to continually remind the world that this shouldn’t still be happening. This isn’t about one person and one bad music video for a song about ‘bad boys’, this is about modern culture and how we navigate criticism around race. We must reframe how we see criticism and replace appropriation with accountability and action instead.