In my bid for understatement of the year, may I begin by saying: this has been one of the more exhausting Black History seasons in recent memory. Between Liam Neeson, Jussie Smollett, and the entire state of Virginia, my spirit is so heavy. I find myself periodically vasovagaling from racial fatigue. How such a short month can be so capacious as to fit such a wide array of race-specific nonsense is beyond the word limit of this article, so for the sake of brevity I will focus on my very favorite offering from the Black History Month deities who are def on some premium grade Elysium Kush: Mo-town according to JLo.
What in the Supremes con sazón did mine eyes witness last week? If you managed to stay awake long enough through Alicia Keys’ efforts to lull the world into a primordial slumber in order to covertly usher in her makeup-free utopia, you almost certainly caught a glimpse of JLo’s world premier of “Motown Meets Vegas.” I couldn’t believe what I was seeing: so much leg, so few Black people.
When I heard JLo had been slated to become Motown's representative here on Earth for its 70th anniversary Grammy celebration, I was cautiously unbothered. “There’s no way she’s the headliner,” I thought to myself. She must be a part of some kind of an ensemble, à la “We Are The World”, where she sings a perfunctory “chang chang changity chang shoo bop” before having her pre-recorded vocals subsumed by the panoply of Black singers I was certain were going to dominate the marquee. Oh, how young and naive I was. Jennifer “All-lives-matter” Lopez wasn’t just a part of this Grammy day Motown celebration, she in effect WAS the celebration. Sure, she trotted out Ne-Yo and Smokey Robinson of the House Targaryen for all of 3.5 seconds, and if I remember correctly Alicia made an appearance on her way to the bathroom; but that was it. Overall, it was the JLo show, and Motown's legacy played a distant second fiddle. What should have been the Blackity-est-Black, Black-don’t-crack stage anywhere in the western hemisphere, was disappointingly...beige.
Perhaps, unlike me you didn’t have a problem with JLo paying homage to one of the most socially, culturally, politically, and Black-ily consequential record labels in modern history. Maybe you even enjoyed it. Or maybe like Bernard from Westworld, it didn’t look like anything at all to you. But to me it looked like Jennifer “Ja-Rule-gave-me-permission-to-say-the-n-word” Lopez, was salsa dancing her way across the boundaries of cultural appreciation straight into “you don’t even go here” territory.
Now, I should probably mention that I’ve been a Latina for as long as I’ve been a Black Woman: [redacted] years. My mother is Honduran and my father is a Black American who hails from many places, the most pertinent of which is the very same Motor City Jenny from somebody’s block decided to pull up on Sunday last. So I’m very familiar with the particular brand of non-Black Latinx-sourced entitlement to Black American culture, which I like to call “We’re from the block too” that empowered JLo to perform “War, What is it Good For?” in a bedazzled onesie in front of Motown Royalty and an audience overflowing with Black talent. And look, I get it. The Latinx and Black Communities are very closely linked. We live alongside one another and we have a great deal in common: values, dope cuisine, frightening matriarchs and a tendency to be very very loud. It’s only natural that cultural boundaries should start to blur. However, we need to bring them back into focus, if for no other reason than to honor that which lies within them: Heritage.
Culture is for everyone; food, music, dance, fashion, there are numerous variations on these ubiquitous themes around the world. Cultural exchange is a profoundly and undeniably, beautiful, and necessary thing that can heal all manner of wounds and augment the human experience.
But heritage? That sh*t is entailed, by which I mean: IT’S FAMILY ONLY. While everyone is welcome to enjoy aspects of Black Culture (except for Bantu-knots, Box Braids, Senegalese Twists, Afros, and Dreadlocks—apologies, white friends), Black heritage is for skinfolk and skinfolk alone. Heritage is history. Heritage is memory. Heritage is hard-wrought narratives and artifacts formed and refined across generations. And when JLo took to that stage and started writhing on that piano like a beached mer-creature, she did so not as someone who simply enjoys Black cultural products (Motown, not mer-creatures) she was doing so as a representative of Black HERITAGE, which, simply put, is not hers to represent.
This Motown Turns 70 celebration was about paying homage to a time and place so crucial to Black America’s Musical Heritage, that you cannot talk about one without talking about the other. Motown’s music may have been for everybody, but the cultural elements from which Motown was formed—the Black American struggle, Black American exclusion, Black American resilience, and Black American soul—make Motown an inextricable component of Black America’s Heritage, which is to say, that ish is OURS. Had JLo’s role been limited to background swayer #2 then maybe I could have accepted her presence on that stage. But lip syncher in chief? That I cannot abide. She didn’t belong there, in the same way being able to sing along to Selena Quintanilla’s entire discography, wouldn’t justify me performing as the headliner in an anniversary celebration of Tejano music. Not my heritage, not my place.
I’m not saying that JLo can’t love Motown. I’m suspicious of anyone who doesn’t. I’m not even saying that JLo can’t fake sing Motown medleys to the smooth stylings of her straight outta Whoville voice during her own concerts; she’s more than welcome to. But attempting to trade on some perceived honorary negritude ‘cause she grew up in the hood, dated Diddy and wore cornrows in the 90’s as a means of staking a claim in the cultural inheritance of Black Americans? Now THAT is a horse of a very different Gina Rodriguez “I have a dark skinned deddy” color.