By Mekka Lloyd
Reality TV stars Kendall and Kylie Jenner, with a combined Instagram following of 173.9 million people, wrote the first check they couldn’t cash when they created a controversy involving images of the late gods of hip-hop, Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G.
The sisters used copyrighted photos of the artists on T-shirts, which the Jenners produced by overlaying their K.K. logo and their own images atop of pictures of the rappers —- without permission from the performers’ estates.
After the Jenner sisters displayed their shirts, there was an immediate outcry, mainly on social media, accusing the sisters of using black culture for monetary gain. Much of the fallout occurred because of what some people deemed a lack of respect for the culture.
For example, according to the gossip website the Shade Room, Suge J. Knight, son of Suge Knight, Tupac’s former manager and business partner and founder of Death Row Records, said on his Instagram page about the Jenner incident:
“It’s bad business and highly disrespectful. These are the same people who wear braids and call it a new style but then call a black girl with the same style ratchet.”
The Jenner sisters’ appropriation of the images of Tupac and Biggie is nothing new, according to some academicians. In fact they contend that historically, white people have looked to black culture in terms of music, fashion, language and arts to emulate, admire and, at times, appropriated different aspects.
Kelton Edmonds, professor of history at California University of Pennsylvania, said there is a precedence for this type of appropriation of “making money off of marginalized groups.”
“They want components of our culture [as] their own,” Edmonds said.
Christel Temple, Africana Studies professor at the University of Pittsburgh, said assuming ownership and erasing all traces of original authorship leads to cultural appropriation.
“Using another culture’s motif, creations and world views inappropriately mimics the sacredness [of that culture],” she said.
Both Temple and Edmonds contend white appropriation of black culture goes back as early as the 1800s with white performers dressing in blackface. It continued into the 20th century with these performers claiming aspects of blues and jazz, the Harlem Renaissance era, rock ‘n’ roll and later hip-hop. Just as with rock’n’ roll, where the contributions of black artists such as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley were diminished and overshadowed by white musicians (particularly by the proclaimed “King of Rock” Elvis Presley), some in the black community said they are concerned that cultural appropriation will continue to lead to a distortion of history and black contributions.
Chriestian DiBoko of Baldwin is a fashion designer who was born in Belgium and raised in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He specializes in Bantu fashion, and described a jarring example of historical distortion: A white woman came into his clothing shop one day wearing traditional African face painting and claiming four different African tribes in her ancestry. DiBoko compared her appearance to someone in blackface on Halloween, adding that white Americans are making a mockery of black culture.
Tereneh Mosley, another fashion designer, said she’s worried that black people won’t get their due for what they’ve created.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if in the future there’d be a debate on who started hip-hop,” Mosley said. “In history, there’s a continual cultural appropriation because things were done that we don’t as a culture or people recognize [as ours].”
Mosley said not providing people of any given culture credit for their creation is problematic.
“Not giving the creator credit for creation, erasing the originators direct connection to art, it takes away the originators’ contributions,” she said. “I take it personally because I see black creations being marginalized, but when whites do it, it is creative. I’m invested in making sure that it does not happen. I try to find ways for people to collaborate rather than appropriate.”
While Temple is fine with appreciation and imitation, she argues that there are just lines that shouldn’t be crossed.
“There’s something I call cultural non-negotiable – things involving culture that should not be negotiable,” she said. “In black society, we have a loss of what is sacred.”
Voletta Wallace, Biggie’s mother, saw the Jenners use of her son’s image on their T-shirts as a line crossed, something non-negotiable, and she made the point known on her Instagram page, writing on June 29:
“I am not sure who told @kyliejenner and @kendalljenner that they had the right to do this. “The disrespect of these girls to not even reach out to me or anyone connected to the estate baffles me. I have no idea why they feel they can exploit the deaths of 2pac and my Son Christopher to sell a t-shirt. This is disrespectful, disgusting, and exploitation at its worst!!!”
About the author: Mekka Lloyd will be a freshman at Pittsburgh Obama in 2017-18. She finds a certain fascination in journalism and writing. She hopes to one day become either a journalist or a screenwriter.