Is my black beautiful? This is the question that plagues Black people across the globe, young and old. Although J. Cole recently asserted that his success is attributed to his complexion, I disagree with this statement when studying the way the African American male is perceived and valued as successful within not only rap culture, but also in mainstream media as a whole. There have been a plethora of artist, in particularly in the hip-hop community, that have failed the, “paper bag test”, and have still been able to obtain success .Diddy, the Notorious BIG, Jay-Z, Tupac, Outkast, and so on and so forth. Often times for African American males their dark skin helps to personify their image as thuggish and dangerous and acts as an affirmation that they are stronger and more powerful than the average man (an assumption that is not reserved solely for Black men) while their fairer counterparts often perceived as being “soft” or emotional.
Even in today’s current rap world, artists such as Kanye West, 2 Chainz, Lil Wayne, Kendrick Lamar, ASAP Rocky, and Rick Ross, have all obtained an extreme amount of success in part because they are talented, or at least appeal to the masses because their physical aesthetic personifies long-standing beliefs about Black men and their lusts for women, violence, and luxury. Even while he complains about “Middle America” coming to ogle his Black skin, the video for Kanye Wests’ newest single, ” Black Skinnhead is nothing but a collection of violent still images while Kanye’s digitally blackened body aggressively prances around in a white room. I believe J. Cole has been able to achieve such great success because he is a part of ROC Nation management. Who wouldn’t be successful if they had Jay-Z on their team? But in no way can his skin complexion be taken into count for his success, in many ways I believe that it has forced him to have to work harder.
However, I do agree with his statement when looked at through the spectrum of the African American female entertainer. For decades, the lighter skinned African American woman has been viewed as an example of femininity not only within the African American culture but also in the eyes of the European. She not only is viewed as exotic for her fuller lips, wider nose, and thicker hips, but she is able to transition in and out of both worlds due to the familiarity she offers to Europeans because her skin is closer to theirs in complexion. The light skin woman is able to navigate in both worlds being the trophy symbol of sexuality, while also offering them safety because she is not “too exotic”. This can be seen in various African American female entertainers such as Beyonce, Nikki Minaj, and Rihanna. These women are able to “cross-over” into both worlds more easily than their darker skin counterparts. Often times women with darker skin or more African features or even their natural hair are never able to transition into mainstream media. Artists such as Erykah Badu, Heather Headley, Jill Scott, and India Arie haven’t been able to reach high levels of success due to their appearance and the overtly racial content of their art. Although they were greatly appreciated within the African American world, and probably in other spheres of color, these women were never able to penetrate mainstream media and be as successful as their lighter skin counterparts. But, the real question here is: What is success? Is success denying your own culture and adopting another cultures physical aesthetics (i.e. longer hair, lighter skin, and colorful eyes)? Or, is it embracing your own physical looks and culture while still practicing your craft? Is the trade-off worth it?
by Blaire L. Smith