Miley Cyrus Needs to Take an African American Studies Class

By Wilbert L. Cooper

Oh shit, I've done it now. I've fallen into the mental quicksand that is trying to analyze Miley Cyrus and what the fuck is happening in her latest video, "We Can't Stop". I would like to ignore it and shrug it off as old news and not worth talking about, since it came out a week ago and that's like an eternity in internet time. But there seems to be no escaping Miley Cyrus 2.0, the former Disney Hannah Montana starlet who's transmogrified into a sexed-up, ganja-puffing, white-washed Rihanna. 

The video for "We Can't Stop" just broke VEVO's all-time record for views in 24 hours – even besting Justin Beiber, another child star getting ready to rebel against his child-friendly image. It's on the lips of every obnoxious Jersey Shore casting reject at every club that used to be playing "Call Me Maybe" on repeat a year ago. It's being discussed at length by bros who high five each other when they explain how much they want to fuck Miley now that they saw her half naked on all fours. ("She's 100 percent legal, dude!") It's being praised by the ironic music nerds who see it as a triumph of pop culture and Tin Pan Alley-like tinkering. And it's also being lambasted for its treatment of blacks, who appear in the video like accessories meant to signify authenticity, just as her tight white pants are meant to represent sexiness. Not to mention the fact that the whole thing feels like a blatant example of gross cultural appropriation, akin to the Pat Boones and Elvises of yesteryear.

What do I see in "We Can't Stop"? Pretty much all of those things. It's a catchy track, she's awkwardly sexy in the video and the whole production is a marvellous example of the titillating power of the pop-music machine. But as a black man and a person who is concerned with the representations of hip-hop and black culture in the wider world, the cultural-appropriation stuff is what's been nagging at me. Given her statements about wanting to achieve a "black sound" during the production of the record – and considering the drug-referencing, butt-bouncing, gold-teeth-laden final project – it's hard not to come to the conclusion that Miley has a problematic view of what "black" is. Although whites appropriating parts of blackness to create something that borders on mockery is nothing new in American pop culture, Miley's situation seems to be a bit different.

In the past, white musicians playing jazz or early rock 'n' roll could completely overshadow and outsell the black musicians who they were copying, thanks to institutional and societal barriers that kept those black artists from reaching a wider audience. But today, black artists don't face the same level of oppression when creating their art. There are probably more whites than blacks at any given Rihanna or Juicy J show. Does that mean I shouldn't be so concerned about this whole thing? I mean, fucking Obama, right? OBAMA.

To figure out how cultural appropriation works in a day when the playing field is different – I'm not going to say "equal" – I reached out to a guy who is much smarter than me. Professor Akil Houston of Ohio University's African American Studies Department has been dropping knowledge on the intersection between race and popular culture for a long time. As a DJ and hip-hop scholar, he is especially astute at parsing the goings-on of the rap world and how they relate to larger issues of politics and race. I sent him a few questions via Facebook about Miley and the video, and here's what he had to say. 

VICE: In your eyes, does the appropriation of "black culture", perpetuated through Miley's video by her taking on modern hip-hop tropes, come off as cynical or authentic? Does that distinction even matter?
Professor Akil Houston: It doesn’t appear to be either. It continues a long tradition of what bell hooks might refer to as "eating the other". Hooks noted that within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes like spice seasoning. It is used to liven up the dull dish that is mainstream/white culture. The distinction is important, as I think authentic images and references affirm, acknowledge and embrace a particular culture. For example, consider the Beastie Boys and hip-hop. They were a lot more authentic and representative of true hip-hop culture than what passes for it these days.

Is there a connection in your mind between this video and the tradition of minstrelsy or Amos 'n' Andy and Pat Boone? How does this video fit within a historical context with particular attention to the appropriation and mocking of black culture by whites? 
Certainly there is a connection, that is why I state that it continues in a long tradition. There are some today that would argue as there were those in the days of Amos n’ Andy or Pat Boone, that these tropes, images and appropriations are ways of widening the audience of such cultural productions. Yet the spectre of race still haunts these images then and now. It says something about a society that cannot face the real thing but enjoys the pleasure of spectacle involved in mockery, even if it's assumed to be in jest.

When you see the black characters in this video, do they come off as accessories or fully realised people? Is it important to make the distinction? And what does it say about Miley's intentions?
Miley and the black actors in the video are all props on the stage of visual pleasure. I think it's important to consider that these images function within the sphere of multinational corporate control so both the lead (Miley) and the accessories do not maintain a high level of autonomy in terms of imaging.

If a white person wanted to adopt and reinterpret a slice of black culture presented within hip-hop, how ought they go about it? How can a white artist be more like an Eminem, instead of a Pat Boone? What's the difference, or is there a difference?
I’m not so sure Eminem is the ideal model. He gets a pass because he is talented and has surrounded himself with people like Proof and Dr Dre. These people lent him a level of legitimacy early in his career. Also his working-class background fits within the mould of certain notions of hip-hop authenticity. I would look at Invincible as more of a model. I think she represents the best of how to approach it. She acknowledges her white privilege, maintains a connection to the ideal of hip-hop and, on top of that, she is a good lyricist. 

Although it may be difficult to tell, as rap music and hip-hop culture have been gutted of most relevant social and political content by the current corporate structure, there is a difference. There is a great doc called Blacking Up: Hip-Hop’s Remix of Race and Identity by Robert Clift that shows and details the difference between appreciation and mockery.

In the past, white artists have stolen black art and blinded the public from the contributions made by black artists. Today, this seems kind of impossible considering the prominence of black celebrities like Rihanna (who this song was originally written for, and is a clear influence on Miley). Is there any way that what happened in the early days of rock 'n' roll and jazz could happen today, where great black artists could get overshadowed by lesser-talented white imitators?
It never stopped. Though you do have more visibility for artists of colour, the same kinds of dynamics still occur. The general public is unaware of artists of colour who are punk, country, alternative, or any other label record companies use to identify them. To some, these artists appear as outsiders.

What does Miley's Cyrus's interpretation of what she has gone on record to call "black" say about her perception of black people and their culture?
She could stand to take a few African American-studies courses.

Is there a blame that should be placed on artists who work in hip-hop, such as Gucci Mane and Three Six Mafia, for helping mould the stereotypes that Miley presents in the video, even if their work is balanced by other elements that are conspicuously left out of her interpretation?
Absolutely. However our critiques of them need to be contextualised. Who makes these artists possible, why are their songs in heavy rotation, what labels and corporations are supporting these images and messages? Artists like Wise Intelligent, Public Enemy, One Be Lo, Bahamadia and others have been putting out relevant images and messages that are not homophobic, sexist and generally problematic for years. Yet they do not have the airplay or access as some of the groups you mentioned. It's not enough to be critical of the artists, though we should be – it must extend to the corporation that makes it possible.

Does the fact that Miley worked with some successful and respected black producers to create this song help give her legitimacy? How does the involvement of other blacks within the creation of this content assist in her authenticity?
Of course, if you have Blacks participating it gives a certainly level of credibility. "The song can’t be problematic because black people helped make it," is a flawed argument. But it does offer authenticity to those engaging in the pleasure of the song who do not want to feel uncomfortable about it.

Because rap has become one of the most viable commercial art forms, can we expect much more of what we see with Miley? How much of this turn for her in art is about money and cashing in, versus race? Or are those two things impossible to separate?
Race, class, gender, it is not possible to separate these things. The notion of an R&B category was constructed around race. All artists have to negotiate the demands of the commercial marketplace. Even Madonna. Consider her career trajectory and the different stages of representation she has in her public performance. If Miley plans to have the longevity of a Madonna, we will see many shifts.

Is there a benefit that can be gained from Miley's video in terms of race relations? Could it perhaps introduce some new people to black forms of expression, which might spur them to discover more compelling and nuanced and authentic versions of what Miley is trying to do? 
Time will tell.

Word up. Thanks, Professor. 

@WilbertLCooper

More stuff from Wilbert: 

Hey Black Dudes, Why the Hell Are You at CPAC?

Black Man in a Dress 

Big Booties Don't Get into Rap Videos Without These Guys

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