It was only a year ago that Miley Cyrus twerked on Robin Thicke at the 2013 VMAs and kicked off a long public conversation about the appropriation of black musical culture by white pop artists. The history of white artists adopting a black sound and gaining mainstream popularity with it is much older than Elvis or Benny Goodman. It is the dominant narrative in American music from its inception, and any fantasies that America is a “post-racial” country were dashed against the rocks of realityagain this week anytime you turned on the news. You can’t talk about music in America without talking about race, implicitly or explicitly.
Earlier this summer, repeat offender Katy Perry came under fire for a tour performance of “Dark Horse” that involved mummies who looked uncomfortably like Sarah Baartman, the “Hottentot Venus.” Baartman was a South African woman who was sold and toured through Europe as a freak-show attraction, where white Europeans came to stare at her body. Baartman’s large buttocks and long labia, normal for members of her tribe, the Khoikhoi, were considered exotic. The white fascination with Baartman’s black female body was clinical and dehumanizing; she was described as “savage,” likened to an animal, and studied by doctors. She was treated as a literal object, meant to sit on display like the Willendorf Venus so that white people could pay money to gaze at her, money Baartman would never see. As she has with all criticism in this vein, Perry once again denied any culpability by claiming ignorance.