The complicated history of Ariana Grande and cultural appropriation

Pop superstar Ariana Grande has been facing a lot of controversy lately.

Say the name ‘Ariana Grande’ in any given room, and you will undoubtedly be greeted , at the very least, with a small gathering of her fans, or ‘Arianators’, as they call themselves. Such is the power of the pint-sized high-ponytailed singer, who has grown into easily one of the biggest, most elite female pop stars on the planet, a far cry from her baby-faced Nickelodeon TV-show days. Her current elite rank includes such artists as Beyonce, Lady Gaga, and Taylor Swift, particularly with Grande’s very recent Grammy win for Best Pop Vocal Album, which is also her first.

But as with all things mega-popular in the shiny, glittery celebrity world, Ariana Grande has also been the subject of much recent and highly-publicized controversy. Most recently was her boycotting of the very Grammy awards show for which her album won, due to apparent misunderstandings with a certain Grammys producer, Ken Ehrlick, who claimed Grande backed out of performing due to insufficient time to pull together a performance — which she later denied on Twitter, stating that she pulled out due to her “creativity and self-expression being stifled.”

Grande also recently released her second album in six months entitled ‘Thank u, next’, which is currently in the throes of being hailed the quintessential break-up album, sonically — and yet is also facing a significant extent of backlash, particularly on one of its lead singles, ‘7 Rings’, which dropped a few weeks ago and has since risen to the top of many music charts.

The video, which, in case you haven’t seen yet, is a celebration of what can only be described as all-out opulence — that is, a celebration flaunting and bragging about Grande’s overflowing wealth, post-Pete-Davidson-breakup. It’s essentially Ariana Grande (and her friends) basking in her very capability and richness as a form of self-care, and all this is visualized the video’s glittery, almost nauseatingly neon pink and purple aesthetic — but that’s exactly the point of the song and video: to highlight Ariana Grande’s exuberant lifestyle, and for us to gawk at her, helpless in our own poorness. How we would all want to be Ariana Grande, perfectly capable of buying her girlfriends and herself seven Tiffany rings on a post-breakup shopping spree.

But amidst all this overflowing abundance, it seems Grande herself has fallen victim to a few blind spots and missteps in the video in terms of cultural appropriation, which several critics have since called her out on.

It’s important to note that the very song is straight-up R&B and rap — genres created most entirely by black people. And while its influence has grown to impact artists of other backgrounds as well, its very existence is a difficult area to navigate, due to inescapable historical racial inequalities. It is inevitable to deny that white people have historically marginalized and profited off the labors of people of color, and hip-hop, R&B, and rap music is certainly no exception. But we also certainly live in a world of increasingly blurry borders, where artists such as Eminem can dominate the charts of rap music, and Beyonce can sell platinum records around the world.

This therefore makes the area of cultural appropriation a very tricky and delicate line to balance particularly for genre-crossing artists, like Ariana Grande. Although to her credit, Grande has been influenced by R&B for years, since the beginning of her solo music career, and her music has by and large been reflective of that. But never has her use of black culture been so blatant as it was in ‘7 Rings’ — both in song, and in the accompanying music video.

The very song itself was called out on social media by rappers Soulja Boy and Princess Nokia for apparent similarities between ‘7 Rings’ and their own music.

But song similarities aside, what has caught the public’s wider attention was the the music video’s grandiose imagery and aesthetic, which contains obvious aesthetic elements taken from not one, but two cultures: there is the existence of a trap house (which also was remarked on by rapper 2 Chainz), as well as the unexplained presence of certain Japanese kawaii design elements, such as those that appear on the video’s title card. 

And on that note, there is probably no mistaking by now of Ariana Grande’s very fascination with Japanese aesthetics, as exhibited by her recent Japanese misspelled tattoo mishap, which, although proved a great source of entertainment for many, was also viewed as reflective of the larger problem of Westerners using entire cultures as mere aesthetics and visual decorations, without actually learning about the culture itself. Grande has since addressed the issue, stating (in now-deleted tweets) that the tattoo was done out of “love and appreciation” for the culture.

And this isn’t, strangely, the end of the cultural appropriation accusations. Recently, Grande has also been observed as using “brownface” — that is, tanning her skin several shades darker than her original (white) color in order to look more racially ambiguous. 

And while although this may seem like not such a big deal — tanning has long been popular among white Western people, after all — people of color simply do not possess the same type of privilege to modify their skin color as they wish — adding to the obvious fact that black, brown, and Asian people have long been historically oppressed by white people.

Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj performing at the 2016 MTV Awards.

But whether or not Grande is aware of all this is yet to be publicly known, as such accusations have yet to be addressed by the singer. What makes all this more instinctively difficult to process is that Ariana Grande, from what she lets on, seems to be a genuinely kind, talented, and resilient person by nature, albeit a little clueless about certain issues. As mentioned, the issue of cultural appropriation remains an incredibly gray area, particularly in artistic fields such as mainstream music. Whatever accusations come at Grande, her star has undeniably soared too high to be brought down immediately, particularly with a brand-new Grammy win at her belt. The best that we can only hope for is for her to realize her mistakes and move forward to create art that is both musically enjoyable, and socially aware, too.

Ariana Grande has always been immensely talented. In 2019, perhaps it’s time she became socially conscious, too.

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