In Latin America I don’t have a sense of frontiers or borders. I’m conscious of the differences that exist from one country to another, but in my mind and heart it is all the same. Where I really feel at home is the Caribbean, whether it is the French, Dutch, or English Caribbean. I was always impressed that when I got on a plane in Barranquilla, a black lady with a blue dress would stamp my passport, and when I got off the plane in Jamaica, a black lady with a blue dress would stamp my passport, but in English. I don’t believe that the language makes all that much difference.
This week Sky Ferreira released the video for “I Blame Myself” off her debut album Night Time, My Time. You might want to head over to the SSENSE page to check it out if you haven’t already. The clip features Sky mugging around what looks to be Compton and meeting up with a bunch of black men who turn out to be the backup dancers in a Michael Jackson-esque Ridiculous Situation Magically Morphs Into Synchronized Dance Sequence scenario. Sky may or may not be a drug dealer, and she definitely gets arrested and, in what has to be a nod to her drug arrest last year, pulls a black widow maneuver on an officer interrogating her at the police station. It’s a mess, but the song’s killer, and she looks stunning culling all those latent Madonna and Joan Jett vibes. I could immediately sense it was going to piss people off, though. Sure enough ‘n’ yes it did.
Who the fuck let @skyferreira make this video. The distributed vastness of its racism should prevent all of them from working in the arts.— ｷFгเ๒๒lє fคςｲoгｷ (@shallowrewards)April 16, 2014
cool that black people are props to sell you sky ferreira’s music and $900 sunglasses at the same time http://t.co/rnb7tKTp1f— John #!*%ing Cameron (@warmandpunchy)April 17, 2014— Seán Johnston (@funnyhandle)April 16, 2014— Alex Berg (@AlexfromPhilly)April 16, 2014
Some accused the clip of “accidental racism.” Others defended it. Sky herself took to Facebook, incredulous that the video has trudged up the reaction that it did. She notes in a lengthy post that the dancers were chosen for their skills, that it was never her intention to use them as props, and that, oh yeah, she’s not even white. But Sky’s I’ve Got Black Friends defense and a behind the scenes video featuring a director clunkily describing the setting as your “quintessential American ghetto” and the dancers as “thuggish” didn’t help matters. These are serious allegations and certainly worth exploring in a public dialogue. It’s too bad that in the rush to chastise Sky’s team’s supposed insensitivity, no one bothered to ask any actual black people about it.
I realize an internet accustomed to its primary voice being white and bro often lacks the patience/moxie to seek out minority voices to the point where it’s my basic mission to be Actual Black Guy out here, but please, please stop and listen for a change every now and then. Sky’s point about it being bullshit for white (or in her case, white-looking?) artists to avoid black dancers for fear of the racial implications is spot on. Harping about props and appropriation every single time someone calls in a team of black backup dancers is only going to scare off jobs for dancers of color, and I can only imagine what fuckery would’ve commenced if something as clumsily rattling as Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” video dropped into this crowd of perpetually incensed freedom riders. “I Blame Myself” doesn’t even scratch the surface.
I actually dug what the clip was trying to do. It’s a puckish play on expectations: you see a black-clad figure stalking a brokedown inner city street, and your mind tells you it’s a man. It’s not. You see a group of somber looking black men and your mind tells you they’re up to no good. They’re just here to dance. As someone who deals with strangers’ preconceived, race-derived notions of what I’m like every day offline and fields disbelief that I could be black based off my writing online, I appreciated “I Blame Myself” for turning precognitive American race and gender junk in on itself. It’s a curt “Fuck your feelings” I’m too cordial to deliver to everyone who deserves it in my day-to-day. I wish any of those outraged by proxy had consulted me or anyone else with a minority perspective before sabers got to rattling. So it goes. Talk to us, not for us, internet.
Advanced urban sociological studies addendum: The automatic assumption that a white person doesn’t belong in a predominately black neighborhood is some bullshit too. If in 2014 you see a white person In The Ghetto and immediately assume they’re out searching for the cool on urban safari and not just, I don’t know, luxuriating in all the affordable housing, you’re telling me you haven’t been to the hood in a while, and you’re quietly invalidating everything you say to me on the subject of the inner city.
This is a pretty good troll. The “freedom riders” hyperbole really puts it over the top. Not to mention that the idea that Ferreira “doesn’t belong” in a “mostly black” Compton is directly communicated by the video itself, so your claim that this is extratextual presumption rings false. But let’s give your argument the benefit of the doubt.
If this video is in fact as sly and knowing as you suggest, Ferreira’s response is all wrong. The play to make would be to remain tight-lipped, and then if forced to respond, to explain the joke in painfully explicit detail, to shame anyone who didn’t pick up on the “puckish play on expectations. Ferreira’s response, on the other hand, is a classic of the genre of “long defensive paragraphs denying racism that, in practice, confirm racism. In other words, regardless of the race politics of this video in particular, Ferreira has now proved herself suspect in general in regards to race politics, as anyone does by denying that they have work to do in dismantling anti-blackness.
I do share your exhaustion-bordering-on-disgust with white bros getting paid to discuss whether something is racist. (The Billboard post you cite above is hardly more than a repost of Ferreira’s Facebook update; I’m not sure whether that makes it not as bad, or worse.) But I’m not sure why you are so incensed about discussions on Twitter, which, if they are as devoid of blackness as you insist, are merely a public version of white people urging other white people to think more critically about race. This doesn’t necessarily make the tweets you cite above genuine—Twitter is, after all, a performance to some extent—but that still doesn’t explain why you’re troubled by the tweets. If they’re baseless they will be ignored. Plenty of white people are looking for any reason to disregard racism; they will have no trouble here.
This is particularly true in light of the other element you intentionally ignore here: all of this discussion has the auxiliary function of serving as promotion for Ferreira. More people know the video exists and more have seen it thanks to the controversy.
As for your final paragraph, I’m leaving it alone because the topic of gentrification, while germane to this discussion, would almost certainly subsume everything else.