Trey Kyeremeh examines why negating racism with shallow, yet harmful, statements points to a larger flaw in White artists and dangerous, misguided allyship.
Lana Del Rey has been in the media a lot lately, mainly due to criticism of her lyrical work and social commentary on women in the music industry. Arguably, Del Rey's personal pandemic was sparked by a comment she made in regard to having people of colour on her album cover. Del Rey took to Instagram to dismiss concerns about her visual art, claiming that she has "always been extremely inclusive without ever trying to" and that her friends and "boyfriends have been rappers".
The archaic trope of people saying that they are not racist by singling out their ethnic friends has long been dismantled as a guise for their own misunderstood biases. Firstly, what has dating rappers got to do with inclusion? When did rappers become an ethnic group, or a human identifier, and not an occupation? Lana’s statement, which seems to imply "I’ve dated ethnic people", as rap stems from west African tradition and African-American culture, is far from a precursor of inclusivity. It also highlights the potential shallowness of allyship, when you categorise your lovers in such a way. Twitter was quick to point out that the inclusive rapper she dated was White artist G-Eazy.
The focal lens that social media seems to have on Del Rey’s work and commentary started in May, an early point in the pandemic, when she was criticised for glamorising domestic violence in her music. In response to criticism about her artistry, Del Rey pointed a finger to a list of predominantly Black female artists, who, she alleges, produce divergent feminist views like her own. This was in an effort to defend her music as feminist and assert her sense of self. It is important to understand that women in the music industry face a level of criticism beyond that of men. However, there is a distinguishable difference in what White female artists endure versus the assault that Black female artists endure. Del Rey felt privileged enough to say on her Instagram: "There has to be a place in feminism for women who look and act like me". The most glaring misconception and harmful rhetoric is that White women can be excluded from feminism. Politically and socially, first and second-wave feminism has undeniably been exclusive to White women. Del Rey speaks as if she has been excluded from feminist conversation and groups, when that is fundamentally impossible, as White femininity has consistently been at the centre of womanhood. The rhetoric that "stronger women" can take away her voice and position appears to be aimed at the women she listed, but social research shows that ethnic women do not hold the political power to exclude White women from a movement they created. The exclusion of ethnic women is what birthed ideas of womanism and third-wave feminism.
Del Rey’s statements have wider implications for racial chasms in the music industry and society. Black women constantly have to fight for their lyrics, content, and artistry to be validated as music – let alone have it deemed "passable" through a feminist lens. The idea that Nicki Minaj, Beyonce, Doja Cat, or Cardi B singing about their sexuality, their bodies, their own intersectional identities is not feminist shows whom the gatekeepers of feminism are. The Black female/femme experience is not shared with all women, therefore, Del Rey laying the blame for her criticism on Black artists is harmful because it leaves the real power structures unaccounted for.
The validity of critiquing individuals and public figures remains debatable – can listeners separate the art from the artist? Possibly, but not if the art is being used to offend in some way. What the world has learnt in recent years is that people need to be held accountable. During her Harvard Class of 2018 address, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said: "We now live in a culture of calling out, a culture of outrage, and you should call people out. You should be outraged. But always remember context and never disregard intent." Lana and other White artists may not intentionally exist to be anti-feminist or partake in misogynoir, but if they are those things, it should be addressed across the board. They must understand that women, including Black women, do not exist for other people. They exist for themselves first, in addition to being role models for the young: a standard that men are rarely held to. It was in failing to hold herself accountable that Del Rey did a disservice to other artists, but it was a failure by society that she did not accept having her ignorance checked. The responsibility for this failure lies with the patriarchy and White privilege and supremacy.
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