It’s neither news nor revelation that Justin Bieber, a teen pop talent discovered by So So Def and and R&B legend Usher, is largely influenced by certain black music and certain black culture.
Last week, the Hollywood Reporter, writing up an extensive interview with Bieber, underscored several budding symptoms of the pop star’s creative shift. A new-found adoration of Boyz II Men, self-empowering f-bombs, a cherry-red parachute onesie...
“The bold getup has a hint of hip-hop when accessorized with attitude, of which the teen possesses plenty. ‘I’m very influenced by black culture, but I don't think of it as black or white’, he says. ‘It's not me trying to act or pose in a certain way. It's a lifestyle—like a suaveness or a swag, per se. But I don't really like to say the word ['swag'] anymore. It's kind of played out.’”
Swag is dead. Thanks, Beebs. Coroner’s report, closed.
So we’re meant to understand that in this sophomore phase of his pop relevance—i.e., now that his balls have dropped—Bieber’s new look and new voice are infused with attitude and edge:
“...And Bieber is using that voice, telling THR in his first interview in nine months that sometimes you just have to say, ‘I don't give a f---.’ Elaborates Bieber: ‘Not "I don't give a f---" to just be reckless and do whatever, but "I don't give a f--- what they say." …I know who I am and what I'm doing in my life and what I've accomplished and continue to accomplish as a performer, as a writer, as an artist, as a person, as a human being. I'm happy with the man I'm becoming.'”
The problem, as many critics will diagnose it, is that Justin Bieber for real thinks he’s becoming black.
Never mind—or put aside for the moment, at least—that “black culture” as a “lifestyle” is typically rather removed from onesie swag, prostitute mayhem in Brazil, and interview prep. What does it mean, exactly, for a white artist to credit “blackness” as the creative inspiration for his style? Is it homage, or stereotype?
Or is he just fronting?
For a 19-year-old male, well-adjusted or not, identity is still very much a process. New Js, new denim, a new snapback; then it’s a new week, a new look, a new brand, etc. It just so happens that, as of late, hip-hop is the ripest crux of appropriation—both its signature streetwear as well as its rap affiliations. Truth is, however, that hip-hop culture and couture streetwear have mainstreamed throughout the past decade. Exhibit A$AP: peep this GQ slideshow of Rocky’s "10 Best Looks" and consider how few of them are derivative of any decisively “black” fashion.
So what does black culture look like, exactly?
Where Bieber fails—or seems to fail—is in disregarding blackness as anything more than streetwear aesthetic and tabloid branding.
Yes, the kid’s a living product of pop culture, and so this narrow-sightedness is somewhat to be expected. But as of late, the backlash to “white ratchet” (here’s looking at you, Miley) has articulated a heavy concern: that white artists’ most recently-pronounced “respect” for black art reads more so as contempt, or else cartooning.
Bieber doesn’t need to profess his creative debts to black culture in order for us to grasp that he’s jocking. We see you, Beebs. Rocking ya hats backwards, trynna match Rick Ross’ tat-count. It’s all good. But what Bieber seems too desperate for, as of late, is popular validation of his art, look, and identity as something other than love-struck, bubblegum pop. If Bieber’s creative puberty is authentically inspired, it’ll speak for itself, no need for translation or sucking of teeth when hip-hop’s core audience rebukes you. A point made similarly by writer Ayesha A. Siddiqi, about Miley Cyrus:
“It would be unfair to demand Miley remain faithful to her teenage aesthetic when no self-aware person does. And it would take a dull palette to assume she couldn’t sincerely recognize the appeal of rap music and gold accessories. Her sincerity, however, is irrelevant.”
Growing up is awkward and hard to do, especially in a limelight that’s yet never faded. Seriously, the kid’s emerged from an unprecedented childhood.
Now, he might look to the senior Justin (Timberlake) and to Robin Thicke, who’ve won their accolades from rap’s senior tastemakers and hip-hop’s core audience. These are grown men who, while inspired by urban tastes and aesthetic, are clearly comfortably in their own (white) skin, kinda.
Whereas for Beebs, the gravest threat to his credibility isn’t a failure to bring sexy-forward. It’s that he’ll neglect his craft for sake of the acceptance of his image, meanwhile crafting an image that, well, only a mother could love: a white boy who’s doing too much, and trying unbelievably hard.
Justin Charity is a freelance and fiction writer living in Brooklyn, NY. He is hungry.