It began with a seemingly innocuous tweet. After being awarded the 2016 BET Humanitarian Award, Grey’s Anatomy star and activist Jesse Williams delivered a moving, monumental speech about how much Black Lives Matter, and how black lives have been exploited for years by popular culture.
Williams’s wide-ranging speech paid respect to the black women “who have spent their lives nurturing everyone before themselves—we can and will do better for you”; name-checked those whose lives were lost in the struggle for racial equality, from Tamir Rice and Eric Garner to Rekia Boyd and Sandra Bland; and it took on how “this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us, burying black people out of sight and out of mind while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil—black gold, ghettoizing and demeaning our creations then stealing them, gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit.”
Enter Justin Timberlake, he of “SexyBack” fame, who tweeted the following:
This ignited Black Twitter, which began dragging Timberlake for his perceived hypocrisy as a prominent artist who’s appropriated considerably from black culture yet been relatively quiet concerning the Black Lives Matter movement, threw Janet Jackson under the bus after exposing her breast during their Super Bowl performance, and used to dress like this.
Timberlake then responded to a replier going by Ernest Owens, who tweeted: “So does this mean you’re going to stop appropriating our music and culture? And apologize to Janet too,” in fairly dismissive fashion—and one that sounded an awful lot like the sorry rationale of an “All Lives Matter”-type:
Now, I don’t think Timberlake is a bad guy—on the contrary, he seems like one of the good ones—but he does have a bit of a racial blind spot when it comes to the appropriation of black culture. Lest we forget, on a BET Awards’ night that boasted not one, but four Prince tributes, that The Purple One himself took issue with Timberlake’s “borrowing” ways on his 2006 pop album FutureSex/LoveSounds. Some in Prince’s inner circle claimed that the album seemed to ape his style, and Prince addressed it at a post-Emmys party performance in 2007, announcing to the crowd, “For whoever is claiming that they are bringing sexy back, sexy never left!” Timberlake responded by mocking Prince’s height while accepting a Golden Globe on his behalf, before dissing Prince on the Timbaland track “Give It to Me,” with Timberlake singing: “Could you speak up and stop mu-mumbling, I don’t think you came in clear / When you’re sittin’ on the top, it’s hard to hear you from way up hear / Now I saw you tryin’ to act cute on TV, ‘Just let me clear the air…’ / We missed you on the charts last week, damn, that’s right you wasn’t there / Now if se-sexy never left, then why’s everybody on my shi-i-it / Don’t hate on me just because you didn’t come up with it / So if you see us in the club, go on and walk the other way / Cause our run will never be over, not at least until we say.”
For those keeping score at home, the verse was clearly aimed first at Janet Jackson, with the “Just let me clear the air…” referencing her interview with Oprah blaming Timberlake for the Super Bowl snafu and the “missed you on the charts” bit mocking Janet’s recent album 20 Y.O., which only sold about 655,000 copies in the U.S. And the “now if se-sexy never left” jab and the remaining lines target Prince.
Following Prince’s death on April 21, Timberlake wrote a tribute on Instagram to the late music legend—which some gave the proverbial side-eye given their past history. As for the Twitter hiccup, after seeing the backlash he was receiving, Timberlake issued a series of apology tweets, writing, “I feel misunderstood. I responded to a specific tweet that wasn’t meant to be a general response. I shouldn’t have responded anyway…” before adding, “I forget this forum sometimes... I was truly inspired by @iJesseWilliams speech because I really do feel that we are all one... A human race,” and ending with:
There are precious few teachable moments on Twitter. Hopefully this was one of them.