Kendall and Kylie Jenner’s Cultural Insensitivity Hits a New Low
The Jenner sisters’ decision to paste their names and faces over images of rap legends Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac in order to sell $125 T-shirts is—to say the least—tone-deaf.
Exclusive scene from a future episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians/Life of Kylie/the soon-to-be announced 24/7 Scott Disick livestream:
Kendall Jenner, sleep paralysis spokeswoman/Kris Jenner’s favorite supermodel, is sitting at a white marble table somewhere in Calabasas. There is no food on the table, even though we’ve been specifically told that Kendall and Kylie are meeting up for lunch. There is, however, a dusty can of Pepsi in the edge of the frame. Kendall is leafing through a stack of potential marketing campaigns/acting gigs, looking for her next big project. We watch her move various proposals to a “keep” pile: a second Nina Simone biopic (she would be playing Nina Simone), an ad spot for Melania Trump’s anti-bullying initiative, the national face of Chick-fil-A. While Kendall Jenner is thinking about how much she loves music, peace, and the smell of fried chicken, and how she doesn’t need Kris Jenner to keep her on brand, Kylie Jenner walks into the room.
Kylie is wearing a Black History Month T-Shirt as a dress, belted. Kylie is very excited to show Kendall their new Kendall + Kylie capsule collection. She pulls out a binder full of what looks to be classic band T-shirts, poorly pasted over with images from Kendall and Kylie’s Instagram accounts. Kylie explains that she is taking an intro to graphic design course, and she’s very good at it. She also explains that Kendall and Kylie love music, particularly rock and also rap, which makes this vintage tee collection very on-brand. Kylie and Kendall are pleased with their decision to take unlicensed images of beloved musical icons and desecrate them with their favorite mirror selfies. They both stare at the door and wait for Kanye West to burst in and stop them, but he never does.
This week’s “vintage tee” controversy, in which Kendall and Kylie Jenner attempted to peddle the aforementioned pseudo-band tees on their Kendall + Kylie website for $125 a pop, proves once and for all that the Jenner sisters are aesthetically pleasing robots who have been sent to our planet to teach us all what cultural appropriation is. If Katy Perry in a kimono is exhibit A, then Kendall and Kylie are B through Z. Kylie has made a name for herself as a culture vulture with a gotta-catch-’em all approach to black trends. She’s racked up followers with her exaggerated features/curves, perma-tan, and eyebrow-raising looks (most notably, cornrows). When Jenner posted one particularly egregious Instagram back in 2015, actress and articulate teen Amandla Stenberg commented, “When u appropriate black features and culture but fail to use ur position of power to help black Americans by directing attentions towards ur wigs instead of police brutality or racism #whitegirlsdoitbetter.”
While Kylie has erred in the past by pairing her apoliticism with a love of black looks and trends, the youngest Jenner escalated her offensive this year by allegedly stealing from, and profiting from, individual black folks. That still-fresh controversy involved a black designer who, with some pretty convincing evidence, accused Jenner of fashioning her entire new camo separates line from lifted looks. According to designer Tizita Balemlay of PluggedNYC, Jenner hardly bothered to alter the sets that Balemlay designed, and even styled her models to look more or less exactly like the original PluggedNYC campaign. While Kylie’s sartorial plagiarism made all sorts of ugly waves, the controversy paled in comparison to Kendall Jenner’s most recent fuck-up.
In a divisive, dismal year, Pepsi’s hilarious “Live for Now Moments Anthem” starring Kendall Jenner and featuring the song “Lions” by Skip Marley was a beacon of light and unity. Although not, perhaps, in the way that Pepsi hoped, when they set out to produce an ad campaign that would inspire politically active millennials to buy their sub-par cola, while also answering the age old question, “Can beautiful, rich white people and police officers ever just get along?” In the painfully transparent ad, diverse young people marched in a made-up protest led by Kendall Jenner, a pretty model who has never stood for anything. The spot ended with Jenner deescalating non-existent tension by handing a police officer a can of Pepsi-Cola. As Black Lives Matter thought leader DeRay McKesson later tweeted, “If I had carried Pepsi I guess I never would’ve gotten arrested. Who knew?”
You don’t need to be Nancy Drew to put together that maybe—just maybe—Kendall and Kylie Jenner don’t care about politics or black culture. Still, a pattern of disrespectful appropriation can take a while to explain, especially to your #AllLivesMatter great-aunt on Facebook. What if there was a single image that could wordlessly convey the gravity of the Jenners’ cultural crimes? Reader, this is that image. On every single level, Kylie and Kendall’s decision to paste their names and faces over images of rap legends Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac in order to sell $125 T-shirts is rude, offensive, and—to say the least—tone-deaf. This is essentially an SNL parody product: two white girls who are famous for coopting black culture literally obfuscating the faces of great black men with pictures from their Instagrams. Needless to say, Tupac did not die and/or fake his own death for this.
While Twitter immediately picked up on the ridiculousness of the Jenners’ latest venture during the promotional phase, the sisters’ shirts made it as far as their website, where some of the tees almost sold out. That all came to a screeching stop when Kylie and Kendall were hit with a couple of cease-and-desist letters, alleging that the Kardashians didn’t seek permission from the estates of the musicians whose images they distressed and defiled. The notion that no one on team Kardashian thought about the potential legal ramifications of recreating and selling these images is truly insane—the inexplicable cherry on top of a baffling sundae.
Luckily, there is justice in this world, and her name is Voletta Wallace. Wallace, the mother of Christopher Wallace aka Biggie Smalls, really got the internet going on Thursday when she posted an Instagram condemning Kendall and Kylie’s shoddy products. “I am not sure who told @kyliejenner and @kendalljenner that they had the right to do this,” Wallace posted. “The disrespect of these girls to not even reach out to me or anyone connected to the estate baffles me. I have no idea why they feel they can exploit the deaths of 2pac and my Son Christopher to sell a T-shirt. This is disrespectful, disgusting, and exploitation at its worst!!!”
Also on Thursday, TMZ reported that the Smalls’ estate had served the Jenners with a cease-and-desist, warning of a potential future lawsuit. And they weren’t the only ones threatening legal action. Rolling Stone reported that the Doors’ estate also sent a cease-and-desist letter. “The Doors have recently learned that Kendall + Kylie are selling shirts using the Protected Property without the Doors’ authorization or consent,” the letter reads. “Your use of the registered trademarks in commerce is likely to cause confusion, mistake or to deceive consumers into believing that the Kendall + Kylie apparel was authorized by the Doors when no such authorization was sought or provided by the Doors.”
Jeff Jampol, manager of the Doors’ estate, further told Rolling Stone that, “This is a case of people who fashion themselves as celebrities who are famous for being well-known but don't actually do anything trying to utilize and steal and capitalize on the legacies of those who actually did do something and created amazing art and messages… It’s ironic, at least, and criminal, at worst, both morally, ethically and artistically.” He insisted that the band’s surviving members had had “zero contact” with Kamp Kardashian. “They’re obviously attention-seeking missiles who crave celebrity and being well-known but don’t actually do anything,” he said. “It’s the polar opposite of the artists that they’re trampling all over. It’s just spitting in the face and on top of art and message and soul and legacy.”
Adding to the well-deserved pile-on was Sharon Osbourne, who sassily objected to a “vintage tee” with Ozzy Osbourne’s face on it, and Paris Jackson, who tweeted, “pink floyd is not chanel. led zeppelin is not michael kors. metallica is not givenchy. don’t get it twisted. #bandsnotbrands.”
Clearly feeling pressure from the court of public opinion/the threat of actual court, Kendall and Kylie pulled the “vintage tees” from their website and issued an apology, writing, “These designs were not well thought out and we deeply apologize to anyone that has been upset and/or offended, especially to the families of the artists. We are huge fans of their music and it was not our intention to disrespect these cultural icons in anyway. The tee shirts have been pulled from retail and all images have been removed. We will use this as an opportunity to learn from these mistakes and again, we are very sorry.” Notorious B.I.G.’s estate released a subsequent statement to Billboard, saying, “While we appreciate that the Jenners have made an apology and pulled the unlawful and unauthorized items, this matter has yet to be resolved.” There’s no “right” deceased musical icon to mess with, but the Jenners have clearly picked the wrong one.
It takes a true troll or a truly ignorant person to piss off classic rock fans, rap legends, social justice warriors, and even your own fans ($125 for a T-shirt? Really?!) in one fell swoop. But if the case of Kylie and Kendall Jenner versus all of music proves anything, it’s the sheer audacity of the Jenners’ cultural insensitivity and twin amnesia. The idea that the sisters will “learn from these mistakes”—as opposed to the last Kardashian kontroversy, or the one before that—is as ludicrous as the notion that a Kylie Jenner fan would know who Ozzy Osbourne is.