After Jesse Williams’ motivational Humanitarian Award acceptance speech at the 2016 BET awards, Justin Timberlake, like many of us, felt moved by his words. He took to Twitter to express that he was inspired. Justin Timberlake was not only watching the BET Awards, but responding supportively to a speech about equality and black liberation. The part of me that has always secretly wanted Justin to get it right was all: yay! But another user wondered if Timberlake was as into Williams’ speech as his tweet claimed he was. Ernest Owens posed the following question:
To which Timberlake dismissively replied in a now deleted tweet, “Oh, you sweet soul. The more you realize that we are the same, the more we can have a conversation.”
Shit. He’d ruined it. In a tweet that can only described as “when fake deep goes wrong,” Timberlake revealed that any investment he had in supporting the struggles of black folks was surface level, at best. Just one more blog post about racism would have provided him some much needed red flags, or at least a yellow hazard sign, before suggesting that — politically or otherwise — he was the same as Owens or any other black person. His moment of cluelessness confirmed his participation in the cultural appropriation he had been accused of, and for me, nailed shut the coffin where my hopes of a Justin Timberlake that was a chill white ally lay.
Vic Mensa summed up the problem with Timberlake and white artists like him during a guest appearance on The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore. He said:
“Our problem here is that Justin Timberlake himself–you know–is definitely benefiting from using black culture for his sound, his dance moves, his dancers, and blowing up off of it. But if you roll down Justin Timberlake’s Twitter for the past two years, which I just did, you see nothing that supports black people when it’s more difficult, when there’s a struggle.”
He’s absolutely right. After splitting with N*Sync, Timberlake became a blue-eyed soul favorite among hip-hop artists and listeners alike during the early 2000’s. He’s collaborated with the likes of Snoop Dogg, Pharrell, Nelly, Usher, Beyoncé and Jay-Z throughout his career as a solo musician, amassing hit after R&B hit. His reputation as a white guy making black music precedes him. But his silence on issues that matter is what follows him.
Until a few years ago, I have always, inexplicably rooted for Justin Timberlake. It only took me a few days to learn all of the words to Justified when I bought the album as high school freshman in 2002. I played my favorite tracks on repeat, an annoying habit I still have today, and loved that everyone in my family, even my Granny, seemed to be on the same accord about hit music and artistry being top notch. I don’t know if this is a universal black experience, but what I’ve found to be true over the years is that cultural appropriation is never ignored by our community, but we only get really riled up about it when it’s done poorly. For example, my family still shits on Elvis for his tacky appropriation of blackness. Iggy Azalea gets dragged constantly because she can’t rap worth shit, as opposed to Eminem — who is definitely overhyped because he’s white, but can certainly string some pretty good bars together. The production value of Timberlake’s music got him a stamp of approval that he did not deserve.
I should have known something wasn’t right after the events following the Super Bowl in 2004, not even a full two years after Justified put Timberlake in more black homes than ever. After tearing off part of Janet Jackson’s bustier during their halftime performance, exposing her titty in what was perhaps the most infamous publicity stunt ever, Timberlake evaded all of the accusatory and downright nasty backlash that Jackson faced. While Jackson’s music was banned, invitations rescinded, and appearances cancelled, Timberlake walked away unscathed and honestly unbothered by it all with a shield of white masculinity. But even still, my uninformed teenaged self had high hopes that this was some misunderstanding, that even if misogynoir was working against Janet in this situation, it wasn’t Justin’s fault. I wished that he would eventually marry a black woman, speak up for the issues facing black folks, and keep making hits.
But Timberlake’s white masculinity did more than shield him from the repercussions of his own actions. That same armor provides him the solace of neutrality that leaves his silences unquestioned, even more so if you imagine yourself skating to “Take It From Here.” But today I know better. Today I can honestly reflect on how it would feel to have someone who was an accomplice in my wrongdoing let me take full blame for it. For me, his music makes his silence louder now. Justin Timberlake has privilege that can be used in service of those who do not. His music, born out of the traditional sounds of blackness, make him more, not less responsible to speak the fuck up.