A white person I know and love once sent me a Bitmoji that said “Bye, Felicia,” and I stared at it for a minute, wondering what I had done wrong. The blonde cartoon posed with hands sassily on hips, the catchphrase spread playfully beneath. I felt my stomach freeze up. Slowly, it dawned on me that my friend thought she was just saying “goodbye.” I asked her about it. She had no idea at all where the phrase originated.
Not knowing where something comes from is not a crime. But before responding, I spent some time thinking about how moments like this come to be. A person who never saw Friday, whose relationship to black culture is tangential at best, uses an app that furnishes lots of cute sayings. Maybe she’s seen #byefelicia in a comment on Facebook or Instagram, typed by a black woman she knows from college under a particularly ridiculous Trump quote. It seems fun and harmless, so she starts using it herself and never thinks about it again. "Bye, Felicia" is no longer a pointed moment from a meditation on hood life. It is no longer from anywhere. By the time it reaches her, it’s just something from the internet.
This is what happens when bits of a culture are snatched up, repackaged, and separated from their context. It’s as though people are buying stolen goods from a reputable store. The initial crime of theft is scrubbed away, hidden behind whimsical fonts and bright colors. It is, in essence, the fencing of pilfered intellectual property. And it’s a key part of how our cultural order is maintained. If everyone in America started being really honest about how and where the language we use came from and how it got here, where would it end? What else would we have to admit was stolen?
This thought came back to me the other day when I heard Meghan Trainor’s megahit single “NO” in my car. It starts with a sung intro setting up the song's narrative theme, namely that the dude fixing his face to holler at Trainor in the club is about to get all types of rejected. In fact, the scrub can’t even get a word out before she sings, “But let me stop you there.” Trainor delivers this line in a noticeably weird tone. She actively chooses to leave off the “t” sound in “but” and replaces the “th” in “there” with a “d,” making the line sound closer to bu lemme stop you dere. It sounds forced coming from her, as though she were practicing a language she just recently learned.
These may come across as random and idiosyncratic vocal choices, but they are not. They are the recognized phonic conventions of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), a variety of English spoken largely, though not exclusively, by working-class and middle-class African-Americans. AAVE has been studied by linguists who cite it as a correct and complete language system with consistent internal logic and grammatical complexity. Society at large, however, still persists in treating AAVE as a sign of low intelligence, which means that people who speak it naturally are regarded as less worthy of jobs and respect. Later in the song, Trainor goes all in, straight-out singing, "I be like, nah” — that's the habitual/continuative aspect, a common feature of AAVE, for all you linguists out there. Trainor, who hails from Nantucket, noticeably loses these linguistic tics in her interviews. “Stop you dere” is such an awkward-sounding sentence coming from her that it can’t possibly be an accident. She doesn't sound like a black person when she sings; she sounds like a white person trying to talk black.
Part of Trainor’s appeal is her relatability. She’s a charismatic vocalist with a knack for catchy songs full of personal empowerment and a wholesome kind of self-love. She makes the kind of music that you can imagine a drunken bachelorette party having a transcendent sing-along to in the back of a rented stretch Hummer. We return to artists like Trainor because they act and sing in ways that we wish we could; they give us the voice we wish we had. But what does it mean that Meghan Trainor’s voice is, technically, an approximated black one that comes from a white body? “NO” has more than 250 million views on YouTube. Is a black voice coming from a white face what 250 million people want? Skimming the comments raises further questions. In them, one comes across the typical bullshit — men body-shaming Trainor as though that were somehow funny or original, earnest comments thanking her for her voice and inspiration — but virtually no mention of her stilted use of black English. It makes me wonder if no one notices this kind of thing anymore in pop music, or if people notice but have concluded that it doesn’t matter. Or maybe people literally don’t know the roots of this song's style, cadence, or tone. Maybe they just think it came from the internet.
Trainor isn’t the first person to suddenly develop a blaccent when the recording light comes on. (Who can forget R&B Pink?) The practice has roots so deeply woven into rock history that we usually don’t notice it. Mick Jagger, Elvis Presley, Joe Cocker, Roger Daltrey, Sting, and countless others have all been doing black imitation voices so long that in the collective imagination those sounds belong to them rather than to the blues, R&B, and reggae musicians they took them from.
Perhaps no one in recent memory has gone more dramatically from white in life to black on wax than the late Amy Winehouse. The five-time Grammy winner was among the most notable of a long line of British singers (Lisa Stansfield, George Michael, Sam Smith, Adele) who not only make black music, but often enjoy crossover success with black audiences. Winehouse was recognized for her smoky soul vocal style, but more than that, she was taken seriously as a soul and R&B acolyte. Her delivery was honest and understated; her backing band was the soul-steeped Dap-Kings; her pre-show mixes were made up almost entirely of Motown and other black R&B artists. All this combined to give Winehouse perceived bona fides that largely insulated her from accusations of appropriation, or at the very least prevented such accusations from gaining traction. Her life story helped, too: Winehouse was a working-class Jewish artist from a family of musicians. Her vivid heartbreak and death by addiction resonated with our popular imagination of Billie Holiday: aching, mysterious, and indelibly blue. She seemed like someone who was honoring black culture and living its pain and beauty as part of her own truth, rather than someone cynically plundering it for financial gain.
Music is a business, and the underlying issue in discussions of appropriation is frequently one of credit and ownership. Beneath one of fledgling white rapper Chris Miles's videos on YouTube, I found a commenter who understands this: “Damn,” the viewer joked, “white kids evolving." It’s darkly funny because it draws a parallel between white artists learning how to competently mimic blackness and artificial intelligence cyborgs threatening to gain sentience. There is an existential anxiety many black artists have about how long they can hold on to their work. We know, instinctively, and through centuries of experience, that America prefers black culture most when it is presented with a white face. Elvis was crowned the king of a kind of music that he took from black people. The Rolling Stones have forged a seemingly 3 billion–year career out of playing black music. And the first rap video that MTV ever allowed to air was a Blondie song. We worry that, like a dystopian clone army, once it is determined that we are not needed, once all the patterns have been learned, we will be exterminated. Another commenter on the Chris Miles video put it more directly: “Damn. Now black people have to invent a whole new genre.” For this commenter, the young MC's imitation of blackness is so spot-on that the game is now effectively over.
Concerns of cultural appropriation frequently run into resistance from the “who’s the real racist” camp. For many, bringing race into a discussion of musicians just doing what they love — or taking issue with Meghan Trainor, who sings positive songs that empower people — is nothing more than haterism, or, worse, so-called "reverse racism." Implied in this is the unexamined assumption that good people don’t do racist things, which is a flawed conflation of impact and intent. Taken a step further, one might be tempted to ask, who really owns anything? I recently wrote an article about my enduring love for Sonic Youth, a band that pretty much everyone would consider to be white music. I’ve played guitar in noise bands, and probably about 80 percent of my speech, even among other black people, is not in AAVE. Am I culturally appropriating whiteness? How is my interest in things that are typically found outside of black culture any different from Meghan Trainor replacing her th’s with d’s?
These kinds of defensive smokescreen arguments make it difficult to talk about race in a substantial way. There is a generous middle ground between making choices that are racially problematic and being a cross-burning Klan member. But the abject fear most people have of being called racist at all renders that middle ground inaccessible. And so racist behavior continues to take place, even at the hands of people who are basically decent. Imitating black language for the sole purposes of making money is an act of erasure. This might not be true in every single case, but it’s certainly true in the context in which artists like Trainor operate: an industry where countless black artists throughout the 20th century have had their intellectual property stolen and used to make others rich. The problem isn’t the enjoyment or even use of ideas outside of your natural milieu; the fact that people learn and grow from one another and enjoy each other’s cultures is, to state it plainly, beautiful. But black people have reason to fear that this will turn out to be an uneven trade. Some people will benefit from that exchange more than others. “NO” continues an industry tradition, going at least as far back as Janis Joplin, of white women borrowing the attitudes and style of black women as a tool for their own empowerment. And it works. The song’s message is simple: The thing you want from me is something I’ll give you if and when I feel like it. But make no mistake. You are not entitled to it. A lot of black people are left wondering what it would be like to be able to say that and have it be true.