Drake’s Blackface Controversy: Why It’s Not as Bad as You Think
Context is key.
When Pusha-T dropped a real photo of Drake smiling cheesily in blackface, I wondered, for a moment, if Drake’s career was over.
See, I’m not a Drake fan but I’m far from a hater—right now in heavy rotation on my iPhone are both “Nice for What” and “Look Alive.” But no matter how good your music is, I find it hard to dance to you if I have no respect for how you’re living. I’m not asking you to be beyond reproach but, for example, Kanye ignorantly praising Trump might distract me when I put on his new music. A league away from Kanye is R. Kelly, an alleged pedophile. I hear his music and think about the young women he’s hurt. I can’t decouple the two. I can’t just dance it away.
Back to Drake. Wearing blackface isn’t officially criminal but if he can’t explain what he was doing there, it would be deeply offensive to a lot of people—myself included. Blackface jerks me back to a time of powerlessness and segregation and shucking and jiving. It’s a black person spreading a caricature of black people and thus participating in our own denigration. At first, seeing a smiling Drake cooning for the camera was painful. I couldn’t tell if it was ironic or not. If I thought Drake wantonly did a photo shoot in blackface I may not be able to just dance to him whenever. A lot of people have already jumped off his bandwagon over this. His career seems at a crossroads. I don’t believe he’s racist but how do I know he’s not a buffoon?
I had so many questions. Did Drake understand the power and meaning of blackface? Or was he playing with highly explosive material in a carefree way? What, if anything, was the point of the gesture? To me, just seeing the photo wasn’t enough—I wanted to hear Drake’s explanation.
But many condemned and convicted Drake before hearing his side. That’s to be expected nowadays. We’re at a moment of anger and revenge, with people getting called out and ripped apart like it’s a national purge. Right now it seems like the right is on the rampage, lashing out in the wake of Roseanne’s cancellation, demanding a scalp in return. We’re told that a broad array of lefty entertainers deserve to be fired if Roseanne deserves it—Samantha Bee, Michelle Wolf, Jimmy Kimmel, Bill Maher—fire them all or it’s proof of the left’s hypocrisy and the right’s victim status. (They used to attack the left for being “snowflakes” but now they’re taking snowflake culture to a whole new level.) This is whataboutism on steroids.
The right hasn’t called out Drake yet but it seems like it’s only a matter of time before Drake in blackface becomes a right-wing meme, used to somehow prove that it’s OK for them to wear blackface because Drake did it. I could hear Milo saying that, if he was still a thing. This is all to say that Drake picked the worst week to pop up in blackface. People are hypersensitive and they’re weaponizing outrage and they’re killing careers over less complicated stuff than this. It seemed the likelihood of Drizzy getting pulled down into the vortex of snowflake culture was real.
But then came Drake’s statement. At first folks chuckled—in the middle of a battle Drake comes out with a statement? It seemed like some knife-to-a-gunfight stuff when, really, it showed how serious he was about getting clarity around his intentions in wearing blackface. He didn’t put it in a rhyme where it could be misinterpreted; rather, he put it in plain, direct English. “This picture is from 2007, a time in my life where I was an actor and I was working on a project that was about young black actors struggling to get roles, being stereotyped and typecast. The photos represented how African Americans were once wrongfully portrayed in entertainment… This was to highlight and raise our frustrations with not always getting a fair chance in the industry and to make a point that the struggle for black actors had not changed much.”
Drake, an actor whose father is black, and who’s ready to use his instrument in any way he can to get a point across, is saying he was using blackface as an artistic way to link himself to the problems black actors had decades ago—that black actors still have to do the same sort of shuck ‘n jive that they did in the days of Jim Crow, he feels powerless to change that, and this was his way of shocking people and calling attention to it.
I’ll accept that.
I think that’s honest and legitimate.
It wasn’t hateful. It wasn’t denigrating anyone. It was an artistic choice that he made to comment on himself and his people. We can debate whether or not the gesture was successful but whether it was or not does not determine whether or not he should’ve done it at all. Artists have the right to explore—and the right to repurpose—the tools of their people’s oppression. It’s not racist for a black artist to use racist tropes and symbols in ways that reprogram or interrogate or challenge that racism. No one gets to tell us what we can and can’t do with the symbols of our own oppression. This is the equation by which we use the N-word. We’re reprogramming it. We’re recontextualizing it. That’s what Drake says he was doing. He wasn’t wielding it ignorantly and he was not using it to hurt. He’s using it to raise an issue about his own race.
There’s a difference between being racist and mentioning racism exists. And there’s a big difference between being a coon and playing one to make a point—especially if you play one in a way that denigrates cooning. Now that I’ve heard his perspective, I don’t have a problem with Drake’s photo shoot. I’m cool.
That said, in the context of rap beef, publishing that photo was an extraordinary move by King Push.