When the ‘It’ Factor is Less Melanin

Shenseea, a Jamaican performer on the verge of a breakthrough in the American mainstream, is the very embodiment of the specific kind of black woman the music industry and listening public embraces. She’s immensely talented, beautiful, charmingly irreverent, has a great stage presence and that particularly Jamaican knack for lyricism, and is light-skinned.

It’s the unspoken norm in American popular culture that the slang and sounds and trends that originate in the black community are more palatable to the consumer public when packaged behind a face with minimal melanin. Black men aren’t impacted by this as strongly as black women are, so while the Post Malones of the world rise to the top of the charts with what at best are facsimiles of rap music, so do the Migoses of America—who as Quavo so aptly put it are, “Black [men] with a lot of money, got the white man wanna off me.”

This conversation isn’t new, many before me have called out the music industry’s implicit and explicit biases against darker skinned women. One such a woman herself, rapper Azealia Banks, reignited it recently by pinning the consequences of colonialism, slavery, and racism on one individual—the light-skinned rap phenom Cardi B.

I have no intention of doing the same to Shensea or any individual artist who is a de facto beneficiary of systems and beliefs that have existed long before they were born. Banks’ disingenuous rants were fueled by her own bigotry and bitterness against anyone she encounters who is 1. A woman and/or 2. a person whose success she feels threatened by. But her attacks on Cardi B bore fruit because they were rooted in truth, a truth that Cardi herself has previously acknowledged. That, just as racism still permeates every inch of American culture, so does it’s offspring colorism. And because colorism is tied to white supremacist ideas of beauty, it most often makes itself known in the experiences of women.

Shenseea’s career is primed to take flight, and I have no qualms in admitting I eagerly await the global ascension of a fellow Jamaican. I take even more joy in knowing that Dancehall and Reggae will be rightfully claimed by one who is truly connected to those musical lineages, since the enchanting sounds Jamaica introduced to the world have too frequently been co-opted and repackaged by performers who just wear them as a costume.

But it has not escaped me that Shenseea’s mainstream success will add her to a long-list of black women at the top of popular music whose skin tone is what society has deemed attractive and most palatable. Her musical counterparts who are also of Caribbean heritage—Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, even Keida, another Jamaican singer who recently joined Shenseea on a track for Christina Aguilera’s new album—are not what you’d describe as melanin-rich. A similar pattern is also discernible in an overview of American-born popstars.

Though this pervasive discrimination has multiple consequences—including misplaced anger at its visible heirs in the music business—to me the real tragedy is the unknowable number of black women who have been robbed of their chance at success. Shallow (or bad faith) analyses will allege that the music industry is simply a meritocracy, and that society’s ingrained opposition to brown skin and blackness is a non-factor in the success of artists who are female. But the truth is, too many black women with musical ambitions have been sidelined, not because their talents were negligible but because their melanin was not. That this is still the status quo, in an industry consistently led by the artistry and contributions of the black race, is the saddest thing of all.


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