In a 2013 interview with Hot 97, radio personalities Ebro Darden and Peter Rosenberg were enamoured with then-newcomer Ariana Grande.
“I’m telling you, she’s knocking some of these bitches out the box,” Darden said. “She doesn’t know it yet, but it’s gotta happen.” Rosenberg added that Grande, a white girl from Boca Raton, Florida, was resurrecting a bygone era of "’90s feeling good R&B.” And by doing so, “This girl’s filling a lane that in hip-hop isn’t really being occupied right now.”
At the time, Grande was 20 years old, celebrating the release of her debut album, Yours Truly. The project was crafted as an homage to doo-wop music of the ’50s and ’60s accentuated with vocal stylings reminiscent of the big-voiced divas of the ’90s like Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. In fact, Grande’s lead single from the album, “The Way,” featuring Mac Miller, was often mistaken by unfamiliar listeners to be a Mariah Carey song. Its sampling of Brenda Russell’s “A Little Bit of Love” — which was later repurposed to create Big Pun’s “Still Not a Player” — was executive producer Harmony Samuels’ idea. But Grande’s secret weapon was that she worked with Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, arguably one of the most successful R&B producers of all time. With Edmonds’ magic touch, Grande was able to fashion an album that was a reflection of the music she enjoyed growing up: hip-hop and R&B with splashes of pop and musical theater–inspired tracks.
Fast-forward six years later, and Grande, now five studio albums deep, is one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. And with a larger platform inevitably comes more scrutiny. Critics have accused Grande of cultural appropriation since the release of her single and music video for “7 Rings.”
The song features an ode to “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music before switching to a mixture of pop and trap music. As Ivie Ani, music editor for Okayplayer, put it, “the internet is debating whether the pop singer plagiarized or paid homage to 2 Chainz, Princess Nokia, or Soulja Boy.” In a piece for Afropunk, writer Wanna Thompson argued the former, criticizing the singer for finding “her new era in a culture she knows nothing about.” Thompson mentions the pink mansion in Grande’s music video — which is reminiscent of the pink trap house 2 Chainz used to promote his album Pretty Girlz Like Trap Music in 2017 — and argues that by using “the residence and Black women as props to assert her ‘coolness,’” Grande has become “yet another white pop star clinging onto marketable imagery of the hood to push her ‘bad girl’ persona.”
Singer-songwriter Tayla Parx, a close friend of Grande’s and one of the “7 Rings” cowriters, defended the star against appropriation accusations in an interview with Vulture on Monday. “We’re at a time in music where all of these lines are being blurred. Now we’re able to break through what we thought hip-hop music was or pop music was and kind of ignore all of those.”
So when does “playing tribute” cross the line into something more insidious? As Parx says, those lines are increasingly blurred.
In this current era of pop music, "cultural appropriation" is no longer a particularly useful term. In recent years, Top 40 music has evolved — pop has become inextricably enmeshed with R&B, and it's harder to tease out the two. Though it’s undeniable that black artists, both historically and in the current day, aren’t often given the same opportunities to profit from their music as white artists like Grande, she’s been careful to give credit where credit is due, which is more than many other white artists can say.
Sweetener and Thank U, Next have introduced Grande to new audiences who may be unfamiliar with her past work, and therefore might be more likely to see her paying homage to R&B and hip-hop titans as plagiarism. But for those of us who have listened to Grande since her debut, “7 Rings” didn’t seem like a radical departure for the musician, but rather a natural progression; Grande’s proclivity for R&B-infused pop a has been the foundation her career was built upon.
Online debates about cultural appropriation — which could be broadly defined as plundering or disrespecting a minority culture for one’s own artistic benefit without appropriate credit — are cyclical.
Last year, months before he walked on stage at the Grammys to collect his trophy for Album of the Year, singer Bruno Mars was at the center of another cultural appropriation firestorm. Mars, a Hawaiian-born singer with a Filipino mother and a Puerto Rican father, was criticized for what some called his “derivative” music, and for capitalizing on his racial ambiguity, which some said allowed him to occupy a space black artists with equal talent would never reach.
In this current era of pop music, “cultural appropriation” is no longer a particularly useful term.
Mars’ album 24K Magic undeniably had influences of R&B, soul, and funk — all genres of music created by black people. But the argument that Mars was somehow stepping out of line gets murkier when you think about the fact that he worked with black producers on the album, has a proven track record of making music in this genre — it isn’t an experimental phase for him — and he has also consistently given credit to those who inspired the music he makes, like Teddy Riley, Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, and of course, Edmonds. Mars understands and respects the history of the the music he sings, which is more than could be said for Bangerz-era Miley Cyrus or Prism-era Katy Perry, who both dabbled in hip-hop before returning to their traditional pop roots.
Though Grande, for her part, is a (spicy!) white Italian woman — one who has become a lot tanner as of her latest album drop, which certainly raises a few eyebrows — the energy she brings to her music hasn’t changed. That might be news to some of her new listeners, however.
After the release of “Thank U, Next,” a self-love/breakup anthem, catapulted to the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100, her first single to do so, Grande’s celebrity skyrocketed. It’s almost like she accrued legions of new fans overnight. These new listeners may not have heard 2014’s “Best Mistake” featuring Big Sean or "Break Your Heart Right Back" from the same year featuring Childish Gambino — a song that samples Biggie Smalls’ “Mo Money Mo Problems” (which famously samples Diana Ross’s “I’m Coming Out”) — on her second studio album My Everything. Perhaps there are others who didn’t know she collaborated with Macy Gray or Future on 2016’s Dangerous Woman. And it’s definitely conceivable that some folks aren’t aware that she worked with Pharrell, the genius hip-hop and R&B producer, for half of the songs she made on last year’s Sweetener. Without knowing Grande’s history, who wouldn’t be surprised to hear Grande go from singing about former relationships on “Thank U, Next” to the trap-infused “7 Rings”?
But Grande isn’t a genre-hopping pop star; R&B and hip-hop have been the consistent through line of her music. Even in interviews since her debut, Grande has cited her influences — the majority of which are black women R&B singers.
“I'm obsessed with the sweetness of her voice and I love her songs,” said Grande of Brandy in a 2013 interview with Billboard. “Her riffs are also incredibly on point.” The singer gushed with similar sentiments about India Arie and Whitney Houston.
Parx, who defended Grande to Vulture, was one of the women who performed alongside Grande when she sang “Thank U, Next” on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Another was Victoria Monét, also a friend of Grande’s and one of the “7 Rings” cowriters. Even though Grande is more visible than both of these women, who happen to be black, she often highlights their work on her social media channels. Monét and Parx are not just people Grande trots out only when it’s convenient for her. She has always sought to share the spotlight with people who help enhance her work.
The impulse to check white folks before they get out of pocket is not unjustified when you consider the way history has tried to whitewash and erase black culture. It’s deplorable that Elvis Presley is a household name and Big Mama Thornton is not. It’s infuriating that country music — a genre of music born from the creativity of black folks in the South — is almost exclusively associated with whiteness. Irritation with Grande’s success could, in part, be due to the fact that there are several black women singers who absolutely have the range and yet they’re largely ignored. Tinashe and Normani come to mind: Without question, these artists make great music and turn incredible looks; it’s maddening that they haven’t been able to net similar numbers when it comes to music sales. And yes, there are genuine culture vultures who are determined to mine our talents for themselves. But there’s also a history of white folks, from Teena Marie to Lisa Stansfield to Jon B., who have demonstrated a genuine love and respect for the black music they created. And in my opinion, Ariana Grande is one of them.
As the Root’s Michael Harriot said last year in a piece on cultural appropriation, “Anyone making popular music in 2018 is — by definition — making black music, regardless of their color.”
R&B music effectively is pop music now. This is one of the most noticeable changes to mainstream in the last decade. People will continue to borrow from one another. The conversation around cultural appropriation needs to evolve with that in mind. If asked to name an artist who has used or exploited black culture to their benefit, you could probably rattle off a million names. Now name an artist who uses black influences in their music and gives appropriate credit while making a space for black musicians to thrive alongside them. That might be a bit harder.
Legendary performers seem keenly aware of the direction mainstream music is headed, and have supported Grande along the way. She counts Aretha Franklin as an admirer, as well as Patti LaBelle, who introduced Grande at a Billboard event last year when the singer was being honored as the magazine’s 2018 Woman of the Year. LaBelle told a story about when the two had performed together for former president Barack Obama at the White House’s 2014 “Women of Soul” series. “‘Patti, what should I do?’” the legend said Grande asked her at the time. “I said, ‘Sing like that little white black girl that you are.’” The story elicited laughs from the audience, but nonetheless rang true. ●