What is blackfishing - and what's it got to do with Jesy Nelson from Little Mix?

·5-min read
Former Jesy Nelson faced accusations of 'blackfishing' because of her appearance in the music video for her single 'Boyz' featuring Nicki Minaj. (Getty Images)
Former Little Mix member Jesy Nelson was accused of 'blackfishing' in the music video for her debut single 'Boyz' featuring Nicki Minaj. (Getty Images)

‘What is blackfishing’ was one of the most commonly asked questions this year based on millions of searches on Yahoo. Here’s why it was such a common question in 2021 - and why the interest peaked on 1 November.

What does it mean?

The term was first popularised by journalist Wanna Thompson in 2018. In a viral tweet, Thompson claimed that some white influencers and celebrities were “cosplaying as black women” on Instagram, through their use of lip fillers, dark tans and hairstyles which are popular among Black women.

One of those accused of blackfishing was Swedish influencer Emma Halberg, who has more than 639,000 followers on Instagram.

Halberg gained popularity on the app for her makeup tutorials and outfits, but many users were surprised to find out she was of Swedish origin as her relatively dark complexion and curly hair made her appear to be of Black descent.

Consequently, she was accused by some of appropriating Black features to gain more followers.

Halberg, 22, defended herself by arguing that she had “never claimed or tried to be Black”, and that her skin colour was a natural tan from sunbathing.

Still, she continues to face criticism on social media for using makeup which is darker than her natural skin tone.

What is the problem with ‘blackfishing’?

Some argue that using excessive tanning and lip fillers is a form of blackface, the offensive practice of using makeup to imitate a black person’s appearance for entertainment which was popular in the United States in the early 20th century.

Others, like Thompson, argue that although it is not as blatantly racist as blackface, white influencers and celebrities are able to “capitalise” off Black features and hairstyles for their own “monetary and social gain.”

Consequently, they are sometimes credited with having made certain aspects of Black culture popular.

For example, when Kim Kardashian West was praised for wearing braids on the red carpet and in her posts, some accused her of cultural appropriation.

Kim Kardashian West, seen here at the 2018 MTV Movie And TV Awards, has been accused by some of altering her appearance to resemble a Black woman. (Getty Images)
Kim Kardashian West, seen here at the 2018 MTV Movie And TV Awards, has been accused by some of altering her appearance to resemble a Black woman. (Getty Images)

Read more:

Kim Kardashian defends herself against past blackfishing accusations

Kylie Jenner has been accused of blackfishing after new Instagram post

In an interview with Bustle, West addressed the backlash, stating: “I know the origin of where they [braids] came from and I'm totally respectful of that.

“I'm not tone deaf to where I don't get it. I do get it... But in no way am I ever trying to disrespect anyone's culture by wearing braids.”

Other celebrities who have been accused of blackfishing include West’s sisters Kylie and Kendall Jenner, Rita Ora, Ariana Grande and Gigi Hadid.

Why has blackfishing been in the news in 2021?

In October, ex-Little Mix star Jesy Nelson was accused of blackfishing in the music video of her debut single Boyz which features US rapper Nicki Minaj.

In the video, Nelson has a noticeably darker tan than her previous appearances.

The 33-year-old is also seen wearing grills on her teeth and plumped-up lips, as well as sporting new hairstyles such as curly hair and braids.

Shortly after the video premiered she received criticism from fans who claimed that she had drastically changed her appearance to imitate a black woman.

Watch: Nicki Minaj defends Jesy Nelson over 'Blackfishing' row

There were also claims of ‘leaked Instagram messages’ from Little Mix’s Leigh-Anne Pinnock in which she allegedly warned Nelson about blackfishing while in the band.

Nelson appeared in an Instagram live with Nicki Minaj on 11 October to address the backlash.

She said: “I personally want to say that my intention was never, ever to offend people of colour with this video and my song because, like I said, growing up as a young girl, this is the music that I listened to.

“For me personally, 90s/2000 hip-hop, R&B music was the best era of music. I just wanted to celebrate that.

“It’s just hard for me because I was in a group with two women of colour for nine years and it was never brought up to me up until the last music video I did with them.”

Nelson left Little Mix in December 2020 after nearly ten years together, saying that she found the pressure of being in the group too overwhelming.

Minaj defended Nelson’s appearance in the music video, arguing that if the other members of Little Mix found Nelson’s appearance offensive then they should have brought it up to her while she was still in the band.

However, the group responded by claiming that they had spoken to Nelson about it in the past.

Read more: UK government hits back in row with Nicki Minaj over vaccine disinformation

Little Mix members Perrie Edwards, Leigh-Anne Pinnock and Jade Thirlwall of Little Mix attend the premiere of
Little Mix members Perrie Edwards, Leigh-Anne Pinnock and Jade Thirlwall of Little Mix attend the premiere of 'Boxing Day' in London (Getty Images)

In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph in November, Jade Thirwall said: “We don’t want to talk about the video, or be critical, but one thing we will clarify regarding the blackfishing situation is that Jesy was approached by the group in a very friendly, educational manner.”

Pinnock added: "Capitalising on aspects of blackness without having to endure the daily realities of the Black experience is problematic and harmful to people of colour.

"We think it's absolutely not okay to use harmful stereotypes. There's so much to say on that subject that it's hard to sum up in a soundbite."

Watch: Jesy Nelson says she and Little Mix 'not talking anymore'

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