On January 17th, pop star Ariana Grande dropped a video for her new single, “7 Rings,” a hip-hop-inspired joint about all of the joys of disposable income. Some of my Twitter timeline consisted of people candidly and comically talking about capitalism and how Grande’s wealth made them feel. Others continued stanning the singer as usual. But an overwhelming amount of Black women were not amused by Grande’s latest work. Rather, they were offended and taken aback by her use of Black culture to boost her sound.
The video, which is currently the #1 trending video on YouTube and has accumulated over 15 million views as of this article, starts off with a pink-tinted scene starring Grande and her pastel-obsessed, all-female ensemble. The crew dons their hardest, sexiest faces as Grande gives a rundown of her life to the tune of “My Favorite Things” from The Sound Of Music: The tragic events that crushed her, the luxurious adventures she has with “girls with tattoos who like getting in trouble.” But right before the minute mark, “7 Rings” takes a sharp, cringeworthy turn. The trap hi-hats come in, and Grande’s “Pretty Boy Swag” homage kicks off.
Soulja Boy is the mastermind behind “Pretty Boy Swag,” an equally opulent song that was legally sampled by Beyoncé on 2016’s “Hold Up”. Soulja, who is arguably the world’s first social media star, has been the subject of memes and articles galore this week for his interview with The Breakfast Club, in which he accused Drake of stealing his lyrics and flow. Many have sided with Soulja Boy, saying that he has never received the appropriate accolades for his work, or even the basic respect he deserves for launching the career of one of pop’s biggest names.
For Grande to use his cadence with no credit is not only a slap in the face, but an especially bad business move as well. Soulja Boy is clearly very open when it comes to popping off about unauthorized uses of his material.
It looks like Grande took cues from 2 Chainz, too. His famous Pink Trap House in Atlanta was a safe space for Black people that he used as a free HIV-testing center and a family-friendly haunted house. Grande tried to recreate the energy he ushered in with this innovative space by incorporating a house of her own into “7 Rings,” but it came off as gimmicky. If you know what really happens in trap houses, then you know that they’re much more than party locations for champagne-inspired fantasies. Trap houses are often unfurnished spaces where drugs are produced and sold. Frankly, it is not within Ariana Grande’s range to change that narrative since she has no experience with that lifestyle.
New York rapper Princess Nokia also seems to be a victim of Grande’s apparently sticky fingers. In an Instagram video posted January 18th, the 26-year-old artist played “7 Rings” and “Mine,” a song from her 1992 Deluxe album released in 2017, side by side. Nokia then says, “Do that sound familiar to you? Because that sound familiar to me…Ain’t that the little song I made about brown women and their hair?”
Stans are choosing to cape for Grande, saying, “locals don’t even know [who Nokia is]” and “Sorry, who are you??” But if you listen closely to both songs, you can definitely hear similarities in the instrumental composition, the vocal tones of both performers, and even the lyrics. While Nokia talks about her hair by repeating the lyrics, “It’s mine, I bought it,” Grande repeats, “I want it, I got it” and “You like my hair? Gee, thanks, just bought it” in a very similar rhythm.
Ariana Grande has made it known that she works with Victoria Monét and Tayla Parx, two talented Black songwriters who only have a sliver of Grande’s visibility. Their heavy involvement in her career, plus cosigns from other Black celebrities like Pharrell, surely makes it seem that Grande’s ties to Blackness are legitimate. But the fact remains that she is a white woman who has studied AAVE, and she is now using trap house imagery and lifting from the works of lesser known Black rappers without giving them credit. (It’s important to note that, in addition to this appropriation of Black culture, people have criticized Grande’s recent and frequent use of Japanese characters and aesthetics in her promotional imagery.)
I talked with fellow writers Erin McLaughlin and Wanna Thompson about Grande’s lip locks with Blackness. When I asked if this disregard for Black innovation was shocking on Grande’s part, McLaughlin said, “Black American culture is the most popular phenomenon in the world to be honest, so everyone thinks it’s always up for grabs. It’s always been the norm to expect ANYTHING from Black people—whether it’s our time, labor, or creativity. [Grande] being white makes it even worse…How do you look as a white girl with a team full of Black people doing a video like this?”
Thompson was not shocked either. “Everyone knows that Blackness is what’s cool,” she said. “Various artists have experimented with this in the past, and it’s still a formula that white women continue to utilize. From Gwen Stefani to Fergie to Miley Cyrus, Iggy Azalea…the list goes on and on. This tactic will never die, as long as you have an industry supporting the BS.”
“We all know white women are afforded privilege…Ariana is able to hide behind her ‘cute, quirky’ image without much backlash because she’s still viewed as that innocent kid from Nickelodeon,” Thompson continued. “I have called [her] out various times via Twitter in the last few months, and I was met with backlash…”
McLaughlin has similar sentiments: “She’s white. She’s a cute, petite white girl with a clean track record as far as being problematic goes. But also, stan culture has prevented people from being able to separate the art from the artist.”
Ariana, if you’re reading, hear me out. It doesn’t have to be this way.
You don’t have to go down in history as another white girl who turned to rap and Black culture to add sauce to her career. You’re already talented—no one can take that away from you. People love you for how open you are about your life. These moments of appropriation are unnecessary, and Blackness isn’t an act. Detracting from the hard work of Black people won’t get you as far as you hope. And if it does, you better believe that it won’t keep you there. Please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to.