The Jesy Nelson Blackfishing Controversy, Explained, is an ongoing controversy
Jesy Nelson made her solo debut with her first single Boyz featuring rapper Nicki Minaj (as well as a P Diddy appearance) last week. Nelsons pop-r&b single (in which she sings about loving hood boys over a sampled hip-hop beat) quickly rose to number one on the UK charts, but the former Little Mix-er s big-budget music release was quickly overshadowed by an ongoing blackfishing controversy, with Nelson repeatedly urged to address her racially ambiguous image.
While the singer stated in an interview with Vulture on October 8 that she would never intentionally try to appear Black or mixed-race, the backlash has reached a fever pitch online, with commenters divided over whether the star is actually perpetuating harm through her image or being subjected to another unfair social media pile-up.
Minaj has come to the defense of Nelson in a heated Instagram Live in which the rapper called Nelsons former bandmate Leigh-Anne Pinnock jealous because of messages she allegedly sent to influencer nohun_.
With the scandal showing no signs of abating, heres a quick overview of the Nelson blackfishing accusations, including when they began and what is happening now.
What Has Happened?
The Jesy Nelson blackfishing accusations are by no means new, with the singer at the center of the black fishing debate as far back as May, when tweets began gaining traction from people who were only just learning that she was a white woman and not Black or mixed-race like her former Little Mix bandmates Leigh-Anne Pinnock and Jade Thirwall.
A Buzzfeed community article titled Dear Little Mix Fans, We Need To Hold Jesy Nelson Accountable at the time sparked the debate by analysing Nelsons changing appearance and explaining why blackfishing is a harmful trend. (When asked about the removal of this post, a Buzzfeed spokesman told Bustle, This piece was removed because it did not meet our community standards.)
In the lead-up to the release of Nelsons new album, the controversy resurfaced when Simon Hattenstone, a Guardian journalist, met with the singer to discuss her sudden decision to leave Little Mix in December 2020, as well as the relentless social media troll Nelson endured during her time in the girl band.
Hattenstone asked the 30-year-old performer if she still read negative online comments, including those accusing her of blackfishing, but only initially. While Nelson admitted that she wasn't aware of the allegations (she has since said her management were blocking and deleting them), the interview resurfaced accusations that the singer was intentionally making herself appear Black or racially ambiguous through excessive tanning and using Black hair, makeup, and clothing styles.
Despite the debate continuing, it was the release of the Boyz music video on October 8 that really kicked things off. Twitter was flooded with questions regarding the singers appearance, the video s aesthetic choices, as well as the song lyrics. For some, the video only served to further their blackfishing claims.
Has Jesy Nelson responded to this?
Nelson initially admitted she was unaware of the blackfishing allegations online, saying during her Guardian interview: "I would never want to offend anyone, and that was really upsetting." I wasnt sure thats how people felt, he added.
Nelson then addressed the blackfishing allegations again in an interview with Vulture, stating that she had a deep affinity for Black music and Black culture. Thats all I know; it s what I grew up on, she said. Im a white British woman, and I havent said that. I'm very aware of that.
Nelson stated in a follow-up email to Vulture that she would never intentionally do anything to make [herself] appear racist.
What Happened On Nicki Minaj Instagram Live?
Nelson took part in an Instagram Live with Minaj on October 11, where he addressed the blackfishing accusations and discussed a string of alleged messages sent by Leigh-Anne Pinnock to an influencer called nohun_.
Nelson was defending his statement to their 100K viewers, saying Theres a lot of women in the United States who tan, have bigger lips, and get all kinds of s*** done to themselves. When I want to, I wear straight blonde hair down to my feet, contacts... whatever. I do what I want with the f***. As long as youre not stifling anyones race or culture or implying such things, you should be able to enjoy your body, your make-up, and your hair exactly how you want to.
Minaj continued to indirectly address Pinnock, calling her a jealous bozo among other insults.
Nelson told Minaj: I was in a group with two women of color for nine years and it wasnt brought up to me until the last music video that I did with them.
You can find all of their conversation here.
Why Is It Important?
Nelson has often spoken about the breaking point that prompted her to leave Little Mix. It came after years of study of what she looked like and affected her mental health in a significant way. Naturally, commentators are keen to approach any subjects involving her appearance with caution. However, while this complexity makes the issue more complex, there is no reason to ignore it all at once.
Nelson is by no means the only celebrity or influencer to be blackmailed in recent times, with everyone from the Kardashians, Iggy Azalea, Rita Ora to Ariana Grande, and Justin Bieber facing backlash for appearing more ethnically ambiguous. Despite the fact that its a common topic in the public eye, not everyone understands why blackfishing is an issue.
Blackfishing is a relatively new term coined by journalist Wanna Thompson, referring to incidents in which white people alter their appearance with filters, makeup, and even cosmetic surgery to resemble those of Black or mixed-race individuals. The phenomenon has also been further clarified as mixed-fishing, which, as Metro journalist Natalie Morris explains, is a person specifically trying to replicate 'a mixes aesthetic' because it is often "pedestalised" for being "more beautiful." To further characterize this problem, other terms such as ethnic smudging have also been used.
It arises from a wider issue of cultural appropriation, which occurs when certain distinctive characteristics of varying backgrounds are taken and used elsewhere (often incorrectly and without due regard to their originators). Modern examples range from Native American headdresses worn at music festivals to Black artists on TikTok demanding credit for their viral dances.
Blackfishing is a phenomenon whose impact goes beyond the mere appearance of tan. Black features are treated as a fashion trend, hat, or commodity in blackfishing, alienating those who are actually born with Black traits.
It can be strange and debilitating to watch black women and mixed-raced women in particular, whose appearance is often scrutinised and politicised at work, school, in the media, and elsewhere, to see stars profit from the very things they have been penalised for without having to deal with Blackness's realities.
Note from the editors: This article has been updated to reflect the ongoing discussion around Jesy Nelson and blackfishing.
This post was first published on March 16, 2009.