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The history of blackface and why even black people can’t wear it

May 30, 2018 at 01:01 pm | History

Bridget Boakye

Bridget Boakye | Contributor

May 30, 2018 at 01:01 pm | History

Drake in blackface by photographer David Leyes

Canadian rapper, Drake, is in hot fire. Last night, U.S. rapper, Pusha T released a diss track directed at the half-black rapper called Adidon. The content of the rap song has generated significant buzz but it’s the track’s cover art that has taken the beef from the rap gates of hip hop fanatics to the town hall of the “woke” ie. the social activists.

The artwork: a controversial photo of Drake. He is in blackface and wearing a shirt that reads, “Jim Crow”. Although the photo is not new, the recent wave of social activism and “wokeness” has brought new attention and focus to its content.

Today’s ‘gotcha’ woke crowd say the rapper was caught in a compromising position – a position that reveals his true identity to everyone. Pusha T agrees.

According to FactMag, the artwork was taken from a real photo shoot Drake did with photographer David Leyes for a 2008 promotion of the clothing line, Jim Crow Couture, a Canadian fashion label of the brand Too Black Guys.

Leyes appears to have confirmed its validity as well.

Although Too Black Guys was established in 1990 with a “Fight the Power” and on a mission to use sarcasm to draw attention to social issues, fans and foes say Drake has erred the Black community. Some are going to as far as to say that the rapper should be “cancelled” for putting on blackface. To be cancelled in the Black community means to lose one’s position, power, status, and inevitably financial support from the community, one Drake inevitably heavily relies on.

The History of Black Face

To understand the public outrage about Drake in blackface, it is important to know the history of the act.

According to a brief on the subject on BET, Blackface grew out of Minstrel shows starting in the 1830s. The act involved white actors darkening their face with shoe polish or greasepaint, painting exaggerated red lips with makeup, and acting out stereotypically dumb, foolish, or dangerous Black characters – that is the “happy darky on the plantation” or the “dandified coon”. The larger purpose of these shows were to entertain white slave owners, who were humored by acts mocking slaves and free Blacks during the 19th century.

Among minstrel show ‘pioneers’ was Thomas “Daddy” Rice, a white actor who blackened his face and danced a jig for his character Jim Crow in 1830.

From the small stage, blackface made its way to the big screen where some performers like Bert Williams, Al Jolson, and Freeman Gosden and Charles Correllwho created Amos N’ Andy” made it widely popular. These white men also performed in “dialect” or ‘African American English’.

Minstrelsy was at its height between 1830 and 1890. Even in the late 19th century when black artists were finally allowed to perform publicly, they had to wear blackface no matter their hue and had to reenact stereotypes of their time (some did find ways to subvert this).

Blackface only went out of vogue during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960. But by then, it had already caught wind around the world, especially in  many Asian and European countries where actors still put on the face to perform.

In the U.S., wearing blackface is almost sacrilege. It is met with great criticism because it hearkens to a painful past of slavery, segregation – Jim Crow, and discrimination for Black people. It reinforces stereotypes about Black people that are not true.

White college students in the U.S. are especially warned to not wear blackface on occasions like Halloween,  a past time for many.

Many say Drake is at fault, despite the motivations and intentions of the Too Black Guys brand.

In a day and age where things never disappear from the internet and people are growing ever more conscious and aware of historical and social issues, what can he say? Does he have an out or not?

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