Why do celebrities like Justin Timberlake exploit Blackness to get ahead?

Stars like Timberlake, Awkwafina, Gwen Stefani and Miley Cryus have all been accused of exploiting Black culture

By Nardos Haile

Staff Writer

Published October 29, 2023 10:59AM (EDT)

Singer Justin Timberlake, lead singer for N'Sync, attends the Wango Tango Concert on May 13, 2000, in Los Angeles, California. (Brenda Chase/Getty Images)
Singer Justin Timberlake, lead singer for N'Sync, attends the Wango Tango Concert on May 13, 2000, in Los Angeles, California. (Brenda Chase/Getty Images)

Justin Timberlake — I'm begging you please put the blaccent down.

In Britney Spears' bombshell memoir, "The Woman In Me," the 'NSYNC singer takes an unfathomable amount of hits to his mostly rehabbed persona as a post-modern reformed woman hater. But this time, Spears chars her publicly despised ex-boyfriend with accusations of cultural appropriation. Spears said that Timberlake and his bandmembers in 'NSYNC were "white boys" who loved "hip-hop" and "hung out with Black artists. Sometimes, I thought they tried too hard to fit in.” 

Timberlake's career has mostly benefited from his Black-adjacent persona.

A viral clip of the memoir narrated by Oscar winner Michelle Williams recently took the internet by storm in which Spears recalled an interaction between Timberlake and R&B singer Ginuwine. She said that Timberlake said in a blaccent, an accent that approximates African American Vernacular English (AAVE) that racists and cultural appropriators use when they mimic Black people, which is perfectly and hilariously performed by Williams, “Oh yeah, fo shiz, fo shiz! Ginuwine! What’s up, homie?”

The internet had a field day with the clip, finding more ammo to call out the star for his past digressions. Timberlake didn't get off scot-free either. People dug up photos of the singer wearing cornrows multiple times. The internet also found archival footage of him performing in the early '00s, and the singer is adorned with a bandana and saggy pants while he beatboxes his name in a blaccent. "See they call me Lake — T-T-T-Timberlake." Even other 'NSYNC band members like Chris Kirkpatrick were caught in the crossfire for wearing box braids and faux locs which are two very specific Black hairstyles.

Timberlake's career has mostly benefited from his Black-adjacent persona. Post-'NYSNC, his solo career has revolved around his successful collaborations with many Black artists like Timbaland, Jay-Z, Missy Elliott and many more. He currently writes, produces and sings with some of the most hyper-visible, chart-dominating, and pop culture-shaping Black artists in the industry like Beyoncé and SZA. Timerberlake's forced proximity to Blackness and Black culture has only benefited his career.

Nevertheless, Timberlake's pathetic antics are not the first time a white or non-Black celebrity has cosplayed as a Black person to get ahead in their careers — and it certainly won't be the last either. The list is extensive and crosses genders and races. Some of pop culture's biggest stars like long-time racebending Gwen Stefani, traumatic twerker Miley Cyrus, blaccent queen Awkwafina (Nora Lum), repeated offenders Kardashians-Jenners and cornrow-wearing Justin Bieber will never beat the culture vulture allegations. All are grave and guilty offenders in their own right, whether that is using African American Vernacular English (AAVE), wearing Black hairstyles or just loving Black people and culture just a little too much (the fetishization is real).

Beginning with Gwen Stefani, the No Doubt lead singer may be the worst of them all. She has run through almost every race's cultural hairstyles, clothes or traditional garments. She's worn deadlocks, Bantu knots, bindis, a feathered headdress and traditional Indigenous jewelry and dressed as a Chola. This is not hella good. Of course, she has apologized for her offenses but her most recent wrongdoing was in 2022 so how sorry is she if the outrage still keeps her relevant? 

Once Cyrus milked all she could out of the aesthetic, the culture and the music she returned to her white country-folk roots.

Similar to Stefani, child star Miley Cyrus also cherry-picked from Black culture in her "Bangerz"-era. To break free from the Hannah Montana mold Disney had superglued Cyrus in — she decided going Black or more "urban" was the way to break free and cause a stir. She was right. Her pop-trap music-like songs such as “23” enraptured a nation so fascinated with her problematic and new hyper-sexual image, so different from squeaky clean Hannah Montana. In her music video for “We Can’t Stop,” Cyrus was dripping in gold grills and acrylic nails, getting “turnt up” with her “home girls." I mean who can forget all the twerking on creepy Robin Thicke at the 2013 VMA performance of "Blurred Lines" where she wore a nude two-piece and a foam finger that she motioned she was fingering herself with? It was a fever dream that a 14-year-old version of me fervently loved to deny I ever watched live.

Funny enough, once Cyrus milked all she could out of the aesthetic, the culture and the music she returned to her white country-folk roots. She told Billboard Magazine: “I can’t listen to [hip-hop] anymore. That’s what pushed me out of the hip-hop scene a little. It was too much ‘Lamborghini, got my Rolex, got a girl on my c**k.” She has since apologized for her comments on the hip-hop genre that has propelled her career to such great heights. Ultimately, the damage is done.

That's the thing, once all the damage is inflicted, all that's left is the person they were trying to run from that they failed to mask with Blackness. Blackness is cool until it's not. Someone like Awkwafina knows that all too well. The Queens-born comedian spent most of her early career in comedy sporting a thick blaccent. Not only was it present in her comedy, the infamous Awkwafina blaccent made its way into the blockbuster "Crazy Rich Asians" too.

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After years of criticism from the Black community, she finally responded in an incredibly lukewarm nonapologetic statement: “As a non-Black POC, I stand by the fact that I will always listen and work tirelessly to understand the history and context of AAVE, what is deemed appropriate or backwards towards the progress of ANY and EVERY marginalized group,” she said. “But I must emphasize: to mock, belittle or to be unkind in any way possible at the expense of others is: Simply. Not. My. Nature. It never has, and it never was.”

One thing I've noticed with these celebrities is their ability to shapeshift into anything regardless of the cost. I'm not even sure that Blackness even means anything to them, which is why they're so easily able to move in and out of it. But that's the thing, a real Black person knows it's something we can't turn off. A specific memory comes to mind for me. When I was in elementary school cornrows were the bane of my existence. As an insecure Black girl in a predominately white school, I feared the tight rows my mom spent hours braiding clung onto my head too tight and made my already large forehead more real estate space for prying eyes. So how does someone like Timberlake or Stefani steal parts of my culture that made me feel insecure and make it into something chic and edgy while I feared being criticized for it?  

Unfortunately, I believe that even in a post-racist America, this will continue. Celebrities will continue their same song and dance, and Kim Kardashian will continue to be the ring leader (Kim, I see you with that deflated BBL). But I find humor in knowing the internet will always flame the culture vultures ready to swoop in and steal more of the Blackness that has been the backbone of pop culture and its biggest moments.

By Nardos Haile

Nardos Haile is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She’s previously covered all things entertainment, music, fashion and celebrity culture at The Associated Press. She resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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