Cultural appropriation in trap must go

Appropriation of black style is and has been a prominent issue in discussion surrounding pop culture. In my view black culture is pop culture, therefore any assimilation of pop culture is an assimilation of black culture. This dynamic of incorporating aspects of African American style is especially prevalent in the music industry; specifically in the hip hop and R&B spheres where many white artists have been accused of imitating the portrayals of the black stars and innovators of the genre. Iggy Azalea, Justin Timberlake, Madonna, Robin Thicke, and Taylor Swift are a few of the names that come to mind immediately. Another name that has been added to the conversation recently: Niykee Heaton.
Heaton, who is white, was born in South Africa, but moved to Chicago where she was raised by an alcoholic father and lived with her terminally ill sister. She established herself by doing musical covers that gained popularity from being displayed on Youtube, and the controversial media site Worldstar; notorious for compiling and redistributing black entertainment clips for white enjoyment and profit. Worldstar began as a “content aggregator” for mixtapes. It also featured a lot of softcore porn.
Originally, she started doing covers of popular songs because she had no real content of her own. Trap music comprised a lot of the material she sampled from, likely due to the fact that she was raised in Chicago; the epicenter of trap and drill music.
Heaton, age 19, received the most attention for her video covering Chief Keef’s  “Love Sosa,” a song that is iconic to the rise of trap/drill music. Upon release, Heaton’s performance went viral and almost immediately she received offers from multiple rappers to be featured in songs, music videos, cameos, private hangouts, and parties. The instant rise to fame has to be credited in part to the nature of the songs she sang.  
So basically, if you consider performance of a culture other than your own to be a theft, as I do, then Heaton is the trap music cat burglar. Her entire career was energized by the influence and simulation of trap music.  But in any robbery of this caliber there must be an accomplice…
Cue in hip hop group Migos. The recent release of their new album “Culture” has generated a lot of publicity for the North Atlanta artists receiving several large endorsements before it’s drop. This included fellow Atlanta-based artist — and star of the television show “Atlanta” — Donald Glover. The debut of the album drew much attention to the music Migos had released and been featured on leading up to the project. One such song was Heaton’s “Bad Intentions” remix.
The song has a visual accompaniment that was released in July. If you haven’t already seen the video go and check it out right now; it’s very well made. The camera work is on point and the plot isn’t half bad either.
The release date of the Heaton-Migos collaboration video is important in the context of the timely success of  “Culture,” which includes the national hit “Bad and Boujee” as well as several other popular songs. In simplest terms, the feature could be viewed as ploy for publicity on Heaton’s end.
The scene opens with Heaton and the Migos walking away from a successful bank robbery. The Migos are all dressed in black with their faces covered by scarves and masks. Heaton is the only one with her face exposed: she is the leader of the group, while they are all henchman. At the same time, this subtle difference highlights the effect of the male gaze on the video-making process; selectively displaying only the woman’s physical exterior as relevant.
Heaton displays a repeated affinity for the rappers throughout the video. She’s hypnotised and particularly enamored with Quavo, arguably the star of the group, but continues to show physical affection and sexual attraction to all three artists. Each time she seduces a member of the group she collects a portion of their money from the robbery.
The whole song is about money, actually. First she criminalizes the Migos by leading them in the attack on the bank. She seduces each one of the Migos one by one and eventually causes them to turn on one another. The video ends with the Migos committing an implied triple homicide/suicide.
Heaton’s presence in the video is a representation of greed. Each time a Migo falls for her trap, he is stripped of his wealth and instead ingrained with the seed of envy; prompting him to confront his partners presumably about the lost money. It is this consistency that forces me to consider whether or not Heaton is ever really “present” in the video. If watched closely, the viewer will notice that the Migos only ever look directly at Heaton when one of them is alone with her. To me, this suggests that she is simply a symbol for jealousy and the power that money has, corrupting even the closest of allies.
In several scenes of the video Heaton is shown wearing heavy lipgloss and box braids. These particular style of hair and makeup are iconic looks for black women in America. Heaton also coopts popular trap music elements, particularly in the use of weapons and money as props. The prominence of these elements in trap visuals is due largely to their relevance in gang culture and life in the ghetto. If it weren’t for the presence of the Migos in Heaton’s videos, these aesthetics would seem completely out of place in contrast with Heaton’s own whiteness.
It is only the Migos status as trap rap artists that enable Heaton to use these aspects in her performance without receiving harsh criticism: she uses them for their stature to establish her own credibility within the genre, and a larger  culture that is not hers to claim.
This leads me to my main point about Heaton’s place — not just in the video — but in regards to the constant phenomenon of appropriation. Heaton makes herself a shining beacon for white artists reping a culture that’s not theirs. It’s not only her selection of genre that makes this apparent, however. It is in the emulation of certain traits and appearances that are iconic to women of color.  She has augmented her body to match the new standards of beauty that have always distinguished black women. The altered lips and surgically-enhanced curves reflect characteristics of black women that have been constantly degraded and slandered. Attributes that are considered unattractive in women of color are seen as far more appealing on white women.
“I would much rather my music be true and have someone on it because I have a connection with that person, not because I paid them a lot of money to do a feature on it.” Heaton says when discussing her own music and incorporating features from other artists. So I guess Heaton feels some level of connection to the trio of gangster rappers from Northside Atlanta. I guess.
This is my beef with Heaton. There isn’t exactly a fine line between appropriation and appreciation of a culture, but any artist must still be able to gauge where they stand in the conversation. In an Interview with the Huffington Post, Heaton credits “the hip-hop, urban community” — referring to the Worldstar community — for jumpstarting her career. She’s been writing her own content since she was 5 years old, but the content that viewers took notice of was her performances of songs made predominantly by black male artists.
“I was going to open mics… and it wasn’t getting me anywhere,” she said of her initial struggles with finding an audience for her authentic performances.
Well if you can’t beat them you might as well become them, right?
I’ve always viewed music as an expression, and an important part of expressing yourself is being genuine. Heaton seems to have lost sight of that.  Though her original content may not have been as popular as the work she covered, at least she kept it real.  She sung about her difficult childhood and the pain she experienced in her youth. She opened herself to the world and that is where true art is formed.  Once she began to rely on voicing the experiences of others, she lost sight of what it truly means to be an artist.  This isn’t as relevant an issue now that she’s able to make music of her own, but she has continued the practice of incorporating styles and images that she had no hand in creating.
Where do we draw the line? Is it enough to verbally credit the community that generated the content, or is there something else one must do in order to be allowed to use the portions of culture they’ve keyed in on? Sure, Heaton has a few claims to the culture she simulates.  Her troubled upbringing, the city she lived in, and her own perception of beauty; all factor into her understanding about her role in the music industry and her decision to utilize the culture she’s been exposed to. I think it’s important, however, to factor in the degree to which she has come in contact with said culture. But the question remains, does she have the right to use the forms she observes from oppressed people in her own work?
Some solidarity with the community might help, and a vague shout out to hip-hop simply will not suffice. What Heaton and artists like her must realize is that hip-hop grew directly from the trials of Black people in America. It seems that time and time again, artists are willing to flat out copy the practices of marginalized peoples for the sake of making money.  I want to give her the benefit of the doubt, but part of me sees the video as Heaton celebrating her victory in profiting from black culture.  

1 Comment

  1. Finally someone is realizing this. She is as fake as that ass. It’s pretty obvious looking back at her old photos she’s totally enhanced then gets infuriated when anyone calls her out. (aggressively defensive #1 giveaway.) I can’t with these plastic surgery instathots. It doesn’t coincide promoting self-love and acceptance and body positivity when you’re out there secretly getting ass shots, nose jobs, and basically Frankensteining your entire body. Do you, boo, but don’t get mad when the truth is served and it’s not to your liking. Keep on appropriating…. “South African” SMH.

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