Celebrity

People Are Accusing Lilly Singh of Cultural Appropriation—Again

"I think she just doesn't care"

If you saw the name Lilly Singh trending on your timelines over the past two days, brace yourself—because it’s not for a great reason. The comedian and late night TV host is in piping hot water over a recent social media post. On April 28, the Canadian entertainer took to Instagram and Twitter to share a video with her followers. “A classic dancehall tune! Badman Forward remake and this time its for the ladies,” Singh captioned the video on Twitter. “No matter your size, shape, colour, orientation, preference or style, this one is for you sister.” The video shows Singh singing and dancing to her remake of the 2005 song “Badman Forward, Badman Pull Up” by dancehall and reggae artist Ding Dong, whining her waist and putting on a Caribbean accent.

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This one is for my sisters around the world. No matter your colour, shape, size, orientation, preferences, abilities or style… BADGYALL PULL UP!!! I had a blast remaking one of my favorite old school Dancehall songs called “Badman Forward, Badman Pull up.” Much of my upbringing involved mashing it up on the dance floor when this tune came on but it was always directed to the boys, so I thought I’d switch it up a bit. I think the beauty of music and art is how it speaks to different people and how we can build upon it as time goes by, while still paying tribute to the original. The original song is by Ding Dong, so be sure to check it out. And if you’re not familiar with Dancehall, it’s a wonderful genre from out of Jamaica so be sure to peep that too! Now… the real question is, which badgyals know how to pull up? Tag me in your videos and I’ll repost. This has been a #ForTheRecordRemix, dedicated to all the badgyals. If you know one, TAG EM! (Mix by the wonderful @durranibros) #GirlLove ❤️

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And while Singh may have captioned the video #GirlLove, the entertainer got little to no love online after posting it. Pretty much as soon as it went up on Twitter, Singh faced backlash.

The issue? The comedian isn’t from the Caribbean and is neither Black nor Indo-Caribbean. Like, at all. Which makes her remix of Ding Dong’s song, particularly the fake accent, whining and use of “badgyal,” pretty problematic. Because it’s cultural appropriation.

Equally problematic? The fact that this is far from the first time the entertainer has been called out for appropriating Caribbean and Black culture—and for some reason, she just can’t seem to listen.

So folks, we seriously need to talk about Lilly Singh…again. Here’s why.

Let’s be clear: Lilly Singh is culturally appropriating—and has been for a long time

The main criticism levelled against Singh’s video is that she’s culturally appropriating aspects of Caribbean culture. ICYWW, Cultural appropriation is the act of adopting elements of an outside—often minority—culture including knowledge, practices and symbols, without understanding or respecting the original culture and context. Think: non-Indigenous people wearing traditional headdresses at Coachella, non-Black women wearing cornrows or box braids, or pretty much anything the Kardashian-Jenners do.

And the infuriating part is that this isn’t the first time the Torontonian has been called out for appropriating or co-opting Black and Caribbean culture. She’s pretty much been doing it her entire career. Since starting out on YouTube in 2010, Singh—who is a Punjabi Indo-Canadian—has become well-known for her comedic skits and videos. They run the gamut from collaborations with famous friends to videos about Canadian life, but most often, they either feature Singh in caricature as her parents (which, as many people have pointed out online, with her dedication to over-the-top accents, costumes and adverse reactions to modern things, feels like a perpetuation of immigrant stereotypes), or picking from Black culture, rapping while decked out in baggy clothes with her hair in cornrows or under a backwards cap.

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Since she launched her late night show in September 2019 (which was, for the record, a pretty big deal as Singh was the first South Asian woman to head a late night talk show), Singh has mostly stuck to her script, appearing in sketches with cornrows and braided hair and often rapping or performing songs—and speaking in the vernacular—of Caribbean culture.

Which is not great.

And no, just because Singh is from Scarborough does *not* mean it’s OK

Contrary to popular belief, just because Singh is from the Scarborough area of Toronto doesn’t mean she can tap into these cultures at her leisure—as much as she, and artists like Drake, would like us to believe.

As the popularity of artists like Drake and Singh has risen in recent years, so has chatter around “Toronto slang.” Drake is often credited with popularizing “slang” from the 6ix, and bringing words like “ting,” “man dem,” “waste yute,” and “wallahi” to the masses. And in a September 2019 Vanity Fair video, Singh was similarly credited with the same, asked to explain “Canadian slang” the way that other celebs like Nicole Kidman and Emily Blunt relay slang from their home countries of Australia and England. But as writer and pop culture critic Sharine Taylor noted in an October 2019 article for Vice, “The problem is the words being discussed aren’t new—they’re not even necessarily slang. And they don’t belong to Toronto, but to Black communities within Toronto, who are notably absent from the aforementioned coverage.”

While Singh did briefly mention the origin of words like “man dem” and “ting” in the Vanity Fair interview, as Taylor notes in her Vice article, the real issue is that Singh is essentially appointed ambassador of these terms which aren’t actually rooted in her history or culture—or even that of Toronto. And, Taylor tells FLARE, it’s just another example of people using their geography to legitimize or excuse their use of cultural products that aren’t their own. This is something that non-Black or Caribbean artists often do, attributing their ability to appropriate and take from these cultures–either in style or vernacular—because they grew up around the language, culture and people. We *all* have a white acquaintance named Ben who wears baggy clothes and “speaks” Patois because he grew up in an area with Jamaican people. (Cc: Chet Hanks!).

FYI, Chet Hanks (and Ben): Just because you grew up *around* the culture, doesn’t mean you can draw from it (especially for profit). And the same applies to Singh, too. Many of her fans use the fact that she’s from Toronto as “context” for the way she talks, dresses and acts—but it’s kind of BS. “Is it really really important to say that she’s from Scarborough?,” Taylor asks. “Because, what does it mean? If that’s going to be the excuse for non-Black people or for folks outside of a particular geographic or shared cultural community to have access and be the ambassadors—whether it’s been touted by other people or self-assigned—then I don’t know if that’s all right and if we should be OK with that.”

Because she profits from it in a way that people from the community often can’t

By becoming the unofficial ambassadors for these cultures, people like Singh are benefitting in a way that many people from within the actual community don’t—and often can’t. As many critics online have pointed out, the very things that Singh subscribes to for her image, sound and sketches—the things that have literally made her famous—are some of the aspects of their culture that Black and Caribbean people have been stigmatized or disparaged for. For example: In both Canada and the United States, there’s a real issue with young Black men and women being stigmatized for wearing their hair in dreadlocks or cornrows. Teens are being kicked off sports teams (or subjected to humiliating haircuts) and sent home from school for having “messy hair,” while famous actors like Zendaya are being labelled as looking like they “smell like patchouli oil or weed” for wearing dreadlocks on the red carpet. Meanwhile, non-Black people like Singh can braid their hair for late night TV and then go back to a sleek style for the cover of Elle magazine. Whining your waist like Singh does in the video? Super fun for her, but also super stigmatized for women in the Black and Caribbean communities, who are slut-shamed and their bodies hyper-sexualized for doing the same.

The fact that Singh—and many non-Black individuals—can move in and out of Black and Caribbean cultures stigma-free is an issue. It’s a privilege that people from within those communities aren’t afforded. Because these are their lives, their identities and their cultures—not a costume to be donned when beneficial (and profitable) and shed once deemed inconvenient. And that’s not to say that this is unique to Singh and Drake. White artists like Miley Cyrus, Billy Eilish, Justin Bieber and Justin Timberlake and non-Black comedians like Awkwafina have become synonymous with co-opting Black and Caribbean culture for profit—and then dropping it often under the guise of a “reinvention,” or dragging it after the fact.

“There’s a particular mobility attached to [cultural appropriation] in terms of actual financial capital that Caribbean creators or creators of Caribbean heritage are not [given],” Taylor says of this dynamic. Which, Taylor says, brings up an overarching question and one of her greatest concerns: “Who is allowed to perform Caribbean in these public spaces,?” she ask. “And why is it okay that so many people [from outside the community] are allowed to when we’re not allowed to do it and be received in the same way?”

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And not only does Singh’s co-opting of cultures not sit well for profitability reasons, but for some within the Indo-Caribbean community, Singh’s use of Caribbean language and dance can bring up complicated feelings about the relationship between South Asian and Indo-Caribbean people. For Trinidadian-Canadian model, writer and activist Shivani Persad, hearing people online call Singh an “honorary Trini” is upsetting. “Oh my God, it makes me sick. It actually makes me sick to my stomach because that’s so damaging,” she says. She recalls being made fun of by Indian peers for the pronunciation of certain words and the spelling of her last name. “They literally laughed in my face,” she says of modelling in India, when people found out she didn’t speak Hindi. And while she didn’t say anything growing up, laughing it off instead, she now acknowledges, “that’s actually erasure.”

But the biggest issue? Singh refuses to learn

It’s precisely the fact that this isn’t Singh’s first cultural appropriation rodeo that makes her recent video so infuriating, Because it’s becoming abundantly clear that she doesn’t seem to really care what certain people think—or what the effects her comedic persona might be having on people from within Black and Caribbean communities.

“I think it’s less about the act and more about the principle,” Taylor says of the uproar around Singh’s recent post. “It’s [that she’s] just blatantly ignoring what everyone has said and done.”

While Persad acknowledges that Singh may not be aware of the full extent of the harm her actions perpetuate, she agrees with Taylor. “I’ve been seeing people say these same things for literally five years,” she says. “Black people from Scarborough, Trinidadian people from Mississauga, everywhere saying: This is really damaging, you’re being really offensive.”

“There’s no way [you can] ignore the amount of people [saying this is harmful],” Persad says. “And so the idea that she hasn’t seen [the criticism], I think is not true. I think she just doesn’t care.”

Singh’s refusal to learn from her actions when it comes to appropriation is especially glaring considering the fact that she *has* apologized for problematic comments in the past—when they apply to her own community.

In September 2019, shortly after the premiere of her show, A Little Late with Lilly Singh, the talk show host made what many called a hurtful comment pertaining to the Punjabi community and individuals who wear turbans in which she compared turbans to bath towels. Shortly after the show aired—and in response to comments on social media—Singh issued an “important and heartfelt apology.” In sharing her apology, Singh thanked her fans and followers for “helping [her] grow.”

Which is a great response—except for the fact that she continually *refuses* to grow when it comes to valid criticism from the communities she continues to subscribe to and draw from for profit.

It isn’t fair. And not only that, as Taylor points out…it isn’t very funny. “[Do] you know how un-funny you have to be to do that?,” she says of Singh’s skits rapping and imitating Black and Caribbean culture. “I feel like a real demonstration of your skill as a comedian is to be responsive to what’s happening in a way that reflects the current social situation,” she continues. Taylor points to comedians Desus and Mero as a great example of this adaptability. In a February 21 interview on Complex magazine’s Hot Ones YouTube show, the duo talked about the intersection of political correctness and comedy, and changing their own comedy as the times—and what’s deemed acceptable—have changed. “If you’ve watched the progression of our comedy, there’s certain jokes that we used to do that we don’t do anymore,” Desus told the interviewer. “Because, as we’ve experienced the world and we’ve come across different people, we’ve realized that the humour hits differently, that a certain joke that might have been funny four years ago—you actually meet a person from this specific group and you’re like: ‘Oh, shit. I didn’t even know that was offensive.'”

“Their response was so simple,” Taylor says of the comedians. “They’re saying that if somebody says something is offensive, we’ll do the work of reflecting and seeing that there’s probably legitimacy in that claim. And then we can find other material to talk about; because if you’re actually a funny person, you don’t have to pull on the things that people are saying there’s a problem with.”

Which is something many people feel they don’t get with Singh, or her comedy.

“Obviously there’s a way to use humour to shed light on social issues or in a really creative and clever way to speak to things that are considered taboo,” Taylor says. “But you’re not doing that with your ‘Badman Forward, Badman Pull Up’ song.”

And it probably won’t stop

It’s exactly this continued unwillingness to learn on Singh’s part that is the most difficult to grapple with—and is what makes both Persad and Taylor wary that the entertainer will ever really learn, or ever actually stop appropriating these cultures. That is, unless there’s potentially a financial threat. “People generally, not all the time but generally, do not care unless material gain is taken away from them,” Taylor says. “The minute your bag is snatched, the minute you lose an opportunity and you can’t get money for it anymore, [that’s] when people start being introspective.”

But, with continued support from certain demographics within her fan base—not to mention the fact that Singh’s entire career is built on this schtick—Taylor is wary of change happening. “After today, after your article, after the many articles that are going to come out about this, what happens?,” she asks. “She still has her talk show. Unless there is a threat of something being taken away or compromised, there’s probably not going to be any change. And I think that’s a really jarring thing to have to contend with.”

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For Persad, Singh’s continued cultural appropriation is indicative of both “a complete lack of education” and, most importantly, a complete lack of empathy or compassion for the communities she claims to appreciate. “Instead of lifting people up and acknowledging the differences and checking your privilege, you decide that every culture belongs to you and you can do whatever you want with it and you can use it to become famous and never, ever, ever acknowledge or thank the people or the culture at all,” Persad says. “I don’t care if she goes to carnival. I don’t care if you like soca music. What I have a problem with is when you start to brand yourself with it. What I have a problem with is  when you start to change your voice and when you start to have a fake accent. That’s a real problem.”