It’s time again to ask the question: What would America be like if we loved black people as much as we love black culture?
Sisters Kendall and Kylie Jenner recently released a "vintage" t-shirt line titled "Rap vs. Rock," each product selling for $125. The shirts feature grayscale images of notable musical artistes, including Notorious B.I.G, Tupac Shakur, and Ozzy Osbourne. Neon images of Kendall, Kylie, or the letters "KK" are superimposed over each image.
The line sparked immediate backlash, most significantly from Voletta Wallace, mother of Notorious B.I.G. She took to Instagram to threaten legal action against the continuous sale of the shirts, claiming that the Jenners had not received permission to use her son’s image. She further wrote, "I am not sure who told @kyliejenner and @kendalljenner that they had the right to do this. 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!!!"
The lawyer for the Notorious B.I.G estate, Julian K. Petty, later sent a cease-and-desist letter to the Jenners, asking that the shirts be withdrawn by 5 p.m., on Friday, June 30th. He commented, "This is misappropriation at its finest. I’m curious to hear the justification. I’m even more curious to hear the proposed resolution."
The sisters then posted an apology after pulling the line on June 29th, stating "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." The post closed with "We will use this as an opportunity to learn from these mistakes and again, we are very sorry."
Cultural appropriation, defined as "the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture,” is something that the Jenners have faced backlash for numerous times, and this incident adds to the list.
The "trends" taken from black culture that are often monetized and profited off of by white business owners are often praised as edgy or innovative, but when black culture is practiced by black communities, it is stereotyped and often criticized. While Marc Jacobs is hailed for taking "something that's so street and raw," and making a "total look" when dressing Kendall Jenner in dreads for his Fall 2016 runway show, South African pupils at Pretoria High were forced to chemically straighten their afros because they were deemed "untidy." When Kendall Jenner wears cornrows, Marie Claire praises her for taking "bold braids to a new epic level," but when students at Butler Traditional High School in Louisville, Kentucky did the same, their hairstyles were banned by the dress code.
These t-shirts were no different. Cultural appropriation is far deeper than hair; it is the erasure of the black identity behind black culture. The images of Notorious B.I.G and Tupac Shakur are, as Wallace rightfully claims, exploited for their popularity, and the superimposition of images of Kendall and Kylie demonstrate irreverence for the communities for whom these artists are significant. They cannot stake claim to the legacy that these artistes have cultivated.
Accusations against the Jenners aren’t new, but are part of a much larger and overwhelmingly relevant issue. It is vital that the sources of and communities behind the culture be recognized and lauded. Their work is not done to be reduced to passing trends. If influencers wish to partake in a culture, then their engagement with the social responsibility that accompanies it should be equally profound.
Being "very sorry" is never enough.