Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Blackface and the VMAs

Earlier this week MTV held its VMA (Video Music Awards) ceremony and there was a slight bit of controversy when Will.I.Am of Black Eyed Peas fame arrived to the show with his face painted black (I don't own the copyright of a photo so to avoid legal issues, click here to see one).

Immediately this was condemned as a "blackface" performance by the media and there was a small bit of outrage over it, accusing Will.I.Am of being a racist, or setting back the clock or race relations in the US, however, those making the accusations, I believe, are completely off base.

So yes, his face was painted black, and although his fashion sense may be suspect, this was clearly not an example of blackface. Blackface Minstrelsy, once one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the US and now regarded as ignorant and racist (rightfully so), requires much more than just a blackening of the face.

Blackface performers were whites who would blacken their faces using make-up and then perform highly stylized versions of black speech and culture for white audiences. Yes, their faces were blackened, yes,'s face was blackened, no, they're not the same thing.

The blackening of his face does not make Will.I.Am's performance blackface because he was not intentionally performing highly stylized stereotypes of white perception of black culture for his audience. He was attempting some sort of futuristic look in which he was painted all black, the fashionistas can argue whether or not this was a wise choice, that's not my field.

If you want to be mad at Will.I.Am for something from these VMAs, your anger would be more appropriately focused at his tweet responding to accusations in which he says "I where" when in actuality he means "I wear," this, I believe, is the far grosser offense which was committed that night.

And now for a bit of unabashed self-promotion; Come see Amsterdam Abortion Survivor this Thursday, Friday or Sunday at the Soho Playhouse, I am the tech guy for this uproarious one man comedy show, and tickets are only $18!

1 comment:

Martin said...

Thanks for blogging this!

While I think I agree with your argument that Will.I.Am's "blackface" performance was not blackface at all, but rather a label that was put on his performance by others and that did not reflect his costume's intentionality, there are some other questions we might think about: Who exactly (first) expressed the critcism that Will.I.Am was in blackface? What would motivate a person or group to make such a criticism? How or why would such a criticism gain the attention, if only a small amount, in the popular media?