Saying “Thank U, Next” to Ariana Grande’s Cultural Appropriation
Photo credit: Ariana Grande [[File:Ariana Grande - God Is A Woman VMA 2018 2.jpg|Ariana Grande - God Is A Woman VMA 2018 2]]
The concept of “call-out culture” is becoming increasingly popular on social media and, in many ways, is benefitting the music industry. Many popular artists are being exposed for problematic comments—some dating back years, before stars even became famous. These call-outs often end in a celebrity posting a public apology—usually a screenshot from their notes app (a trend that is now a popular trope). Of course, there are the outliers, such as R. Kelly, who repeatedly claim innocence.
Still other artists, however, have stayed silent. One of these is Ariana Grande. An artist who started as a teen star, Grande has had to reinvent and reclaim her brand in recent years. In doing so, however, Grande has started to develop problematic behaviors (such as appearing in brown face and appropriating Asian culture) and has not held herself accountable to the public. Changing up sound as an artist is one thing, but as a global influencer with a major fan base, Grande should be above reproach. Instead, she is raising questions about cultural appropriation.
Grande started down her slippery slope after the release of her 2018 album Sweetener. For many, including myself, this album was well-received. Not only was it well-executed, but it was released with perfect timing to be the soundtrack of summer 2018. In my opinion, her pop sound was fun and enjoyable. This album topped charts, putting Grande back on the map when it came to pop music (she had been semi-out of the spotlight for a few years, as her previous album was released in 2016). Yet for Grande, this wasn’t enough. Just months after the release of Sweetener, Grande started releasing a string of singles, music videos, and eventually, another album. Something about these new releases, however, wasn’t right.
Beginning November 2018, people started to notice something different about Grande’s appearance. She didn’t look the same, and it wasn’t just her post-breakup glow. In every picture released of Grande—a white woman—she started looking darker and darker. Her spray-tan went from a questionable orange hue to full-blown brown. It appeared as though Grande had purposefully altered her appearance, making her look “ethnically ambiguous.” These changes to Grande’s appearance are extensive enough that people have actually asked Grande if she was part of the Latinx community, since she is visibly brown.
Though she never claims to be Latinx (she clarifies that she is Italian), Grande still appears to adopt cultural ideals in a manner that borders on appropriation. For example, Grande’s last name is popularly pronounced as “grahn-day” mimicking the Spanish word “grande.” To much surprise, in a recent interview Grande revealed that her last name is traditionally pronounced “grand-ee,” but her brother changed the pronunciation because “it’s so fun to say.” The problem with the ambiguity surrounding Grande’s last name is that keeping this ambiguity with no explanation helps Grande play into the ethnically ambiguous category she is desperately trying to fit into. This one example of Grande creating a persona for herself is reflective of a larger theme in Grande’s life. She tries to portray herself as an ethnically ambiguous person of color in order to reach a larger audience.
As a white woman, Grande’s adoption of various cultural symbols into her own persona is cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is when a privileged group adopts practices or artifacts (clothes, hair styles, dialects—the list goes on) from a disenfranchised group. This appropriation is non-consensual and is always benefitting the group in privilege. While many have argued that these actions are not appropriation, but appreciation, cultural appreciation is distinct because the group in privilege is crediting the group they are adopting ideas from and is happening in a consensual manner. These practices can be large or small scale; cultural appropriation is as common as a white woman wearing cultural garb as a prom dress, or any white person having their hair in dreadlocks.
In addition to trying to look Latinx, Ariana Grande’s adoption of black culture, specifically in her “7 Rings” music video, is culturally appropriating. After Grande released the single and music video, many wondered if she was paying homage to other artists such as 2 Chainz and Soulja Boy. The pink mansion in Grande’s video reminded many viewers of 2 Chainz’s album Pretty Girlz Like Trap Music, and the song in general sounds nearly identical to Soulja Boy’s “Pretty Boy Swag.” On top of this, Grande’s video contains other culturally “diverse” moments: the video is made up primarily of women of color (specifically black women). It could be argued that Grande was trying to inclusive, bringing in different kinds of women to make up a diverse cast. Given the context of the other questionable elements, however, it seems more likely that Grande is blackfishing.
It’s not just black culture that Grande is appropriating; Grande has also been advertising all her new music with Japanese lettering in her album art. When I first saw this in her Instagram posts, I was confused. Was she partnering with an Asian artist? Was she releasing new music exclusively in Japan? There seemed to be no reasonable explanation for this choice. A few weeks later, Grande posted a photo on Instagram of a tattoo she got on her hand of something written in Japanese. After she posted the photo, however, people starting criticizing Grande for this tattoo that she thought meant “7 rings” but that, in fact, translated to a Japanese word for a small barbecue grill. Grande responded to comments, saying that she has been studying Japanese for a while and had a tutor to check out the translation; her tattoo was a shortened version of “7 rings.” After all this, however, I can’t help but wonder: why did Grande wait so long to talk about her Japanese studies? Where was this explanation when she first used Japanese lettering on her album art? Although Grande may have been attempting to express an appreciation of Japanese culture, her delayed explanation was not enough. Grande’s gestures seem like a half-hearted attempt to appear “diverse” and do not uplift black or Asian culture.
Reflecting on Grande’s appropriations, I see them as one part of an overarching theme that is becoming more and more important in the music industry. White artists steal from artists of color, and these artists must be held accountable. As public figures, it is absolutely necessary for artists to be held to a high standard and to be called out when this standard is not met. In this case, Ariana Grande is below this standard; an explanation is necessary. Beyond just musical artists, white actors and other public figures need to recognize their place and the effect of their presence. White individuals must stop stealing roles and cultural practices from people of color; white artists must give credit where credit is due.
About the author: Analyn Grasz is a student at Seattle Pacific University, planning on graduating in June 2020 with a degree in Integrated Studies. She hopes to one day have a classroom of her own. Until then, she spends her time baking, going to concerts, and working with children.