Why Rihanna's "Blackface" Video Isn't Really Controversial


Some are alarmed that Rihanna’s skin is painted black in her new video, “Rockstar 101,” but frankly, it doesn’t seem like anything to get worked up about.

Fashion shoots in which white models are painted with darker skin — see here, here, here here, here or here for instance — can come off as offensive for several reasons: It’s reminiscent of blackface. And if the magazine editors or photographer wanted dark skin, why didn’t they hire a black model? It’s well known that black models are underrepresented in mainstream fashion magazines. In addition, a white model painted black in order to in order to make a shoot concept edgier or more interesting is also troubling. Doing so implies that dark-skinned people are somehow more wild, more unpredictable, more mysterious — the very definition of exoticization. Romanticizing a skin tone means ignoring the reality; assigning a stereotype — the savage, the monstrous creature who cannot be tamed — to a person because of their color.

To top it all off, Judeo-Christian dogma asserts that dark is the same as evil. Demons are dark, the underworld is dark; God is about light and white — from angel feathers to flowing robes.

As a YouTube commenter writes of the “Rockstar” video:

wow rihanna gets stranger every video..now im actually starting to believe what everyone is saying is true..that some kind of demonic thing has takin her over & is trying to use her to brainwash us with dark evil things. i mean she really did use to be a good girl…smh*

In the language and universe of fashion photography, “edgy” is desirable: Tension, awkwardness, danger — these make for a good photograph, and changing a model’s skin color is just a cheap shortcut to create drama.

However. The question remains — and it was previously pondered in connection with Italian Vogue‘s “All Black” issue: Is blackface on a black face still blackface? Some think so.

But honestly? Compared to her video for “Hard” — which was rich with phallic symbols, war imagery, guns and fairly overt references to declaring herself victorious in a battle she may or may not have been waging with an abusive ex-boyfriend — the “Rockstar” video is, well, dull. Dressing up like Slash only holds jaded attention spans for so long. And since the clip is black and white, and was shot in one location — a white studio — it seems like Rihanna was painted black just to make things a little more contrasty, visually. Or, possibly: To give people something to get faux-concerned about. Nice try.

Rockstar 101 Featuring Slash [YouTube]
Rihanna’s ‘Rockstar 101’ Music Video Shows Singer In Black Face And Naked Wrapped Up In Chains [NYDN]
Rihanna Wears Blackface, Impersonates Slash in New Music Video [Gawker]
Rihanna’s ‘Rockstar 101’ Video: Near Nude, In Blackface (PHOTOS) [HuffPo]

Earlier: “Hard” Times: Analyzing Rihanna’s New Video
Italian Vogue’s “All Black” Issue: A Guided Tour

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