Commodification of Black Female Images

Walking into the musty and loud thumping beats of a club, I recall familiar sounds and rhythms my mother, (a Liberian woman) and her friends used to play while I was a youth.  Only after I pass through and scan the crowd of sweaty and seemingly possessed people, I realize I am 1 out of the 2 black woman there.  Why then did the flyer have a black woman plastered on it?  It surely wasn’t a representation of the people who were attending.  Was it then a way to allure a crowd—to promise and portray a behavior or experience; one in which people who are allowed and perhaps encouraged to wile out, get crazy and bump n grind like the black folks do?

This isn’t the first time I’v seen a flyer, handbill, poster, t-shirt, and label portray an image of a black woman whose sexuality promised something in-between the lines.  I come across images like these all the time.  Nonetheless, I came to my wit’s end this past weekend when a dear friend innocently posted an image on their facebook wall.  It was the label of a beer he was drinking called, “Sexual Chocolate Imperial Stout”.

I’ve seen this somewhat clever phrase overused a countless amount of times.  For some reason, this time I was appalled by the imagery used for a bottle of beer.  Really?  Why was it necessary for a brewery in North Carolina to call their stout Sexual Chocolate? I did some research and found that neither the brewers, owners, or any people who showed up for the premier tasting of this beer were either a black woman or man. Sexual Chocolate Imperial Stout is, “A cocoa infused Imperial Stout – Opaque black in color with a dark brown head. Big chocolate aroma with notes of espresso, blackstrap molasses, dark sweet toffee and dark fruit. Smooth dark chocolate backbone with complex notes of coffee, dark toffee and dark fruit.”

With espresso and coffee notes and an image of a woman who just as easily could have been a black panther—couldn’t they have named this, “Powerful Chocolate Stout”? Couldn’t they have used an image that gave power to the woman instead of the latter?

Cultural Appropriation is the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group. It can include the introduction of forms of dress or personal adornment, music and art, religion, language, or social behavior. These elements, once removed from their indigenous cultural contexts, can take on meanings that are significantly divergent from, or merely less nuanced than, those they originally held.

I heard the term “Cultural Appropriation” used for the first time about 6-years ago.  Though I grew up knowing what this was, I had no way of actually defining the condition.  I’ve always been aware of  its application  in american mainstream culture.  From bamboo earrings, nameplates, reggae, apple-bottom jeans, and other cultural-linked material goods.  American advertisers and American people at large use cultural appropriation as a way to feel good about themselves and their involvement with the “urban” community.

I am aware that there is a deep and sincere love for black culture.  Using these images are at times a way to “big up” and embrace a community that one may not necessarily be part of, yet desire to express understanding or bewilderment through art, music and other cultural references.  I am not innocent of cultural appropriation, but I am loosing patience with why we as a people fall captive to these antics of advertisement and self-expression.  Let’s try to be creative and use images that actually relate to our consumers, audience and ourselves.  Let’s use self-expression in its purest forms to help us know who we are, so we are better able to truly see others as they are.

4 thoughts on “Commodification of Black Female Images

  1. I am aware of this usage of black females but have not seen the AA ad nor the beer ad. Wow. That AA is light years away from their target audience. Both of these ads are disturbing. This is certainly a phenomena I’d like to read more about.

  2. I think the type of cultural appropriation / exploitation we’re seeing above is a function of commerce. In other words, it is provocative marketing, and therefore effective marketing, from a business standpoint. Indeed, our economic system is the mechanism for all sorts of exploitation and oppression going on our planet. Environmental, cultural, you name it.

    One point I wanted to raise was, where do you draw the line between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation? I imagine it comes down to a matter of intent — whether a culture is being celebrated or exploited. But you have to admit that this is a somewhat ambiguous topic that seems to come up every generation for musicians who get influenced by music from other cultures. For instance, British bands like the Stones and the Beatles playing blues music, Paul Simon with South African and Brazilian music, David Byrne with Latin music, or more recently Vampire Weekend (actually they’re accused more of exploiting Paul Simon ;). The list doesn’t just extend to white musicians. Charlie Parker had an encyclopedic awareness of all sorts of 19th century European composers. Both John and Alice Coltrane (Flying Lotus’ aunt and uncle) were heavily into Indian ragas and cosmology. Hip hop has become a global cultural force, with all sorts of regional offshoots, from Korean to Gaelic to Nigerian. If a Nigerian imitates black American culture in fashion and music, is that cultural appropriation?

    My personal opinion is that drawing identity along cultural lines, whether they be racial, gender, sexual, regional, national, is awesome. AND it only gets you so far. I can’t even count all the times that I was the only white dude in a room of Japanese or Jamaicans or Mexicans and felt like an outsider, and yet, part of something bigger then myself. At the end of the day, all cultures are different contextual flavors of the same species. We’re all earthlings. As a human, and a global citizen, I reserve the right to be fascinated with, influenced by and celebrate of my brothers’ and sisters’ cultural heritages.

    • The title of this post was “Commodification of Black Female Images”. Though I touch lightly on music and culture, I am particularly referring to images. Being who I am and dwelling where I do, this is extremely relevant and very much so alive in my world.

      Ambiguous? Sure. But more importantly, writing this post was a way to express and bring light to my understanding and connection with this particular subject matter. Perhaps you should read it over and you’ll see that it’s all out of love; but certainly worth writing no matter how far it may take me…

      Big love to you Nathan,

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