AlliesArtistsBlack Resistance Reading ListParentsScholarsStudentsUncategorized

Lighter Skin a Fast-Track to Hip-Hop Success?

Photo courtesy of

Is my black beautiful? This is the question that plagues Black people across the globe, young and old. Although J. Cole recently asserted that his success is attributed to his complexion, I disagree with this statement when studying the way the African American male is perceived and valued as successful within not only rap culture, but also in mainstream media as a whole.  There have been a plethora of artist, in particularly in the hip-hop community, that have failed the, “paper bag test”, and have still been able to obtain success .Diddy, the Notorious BIG, Jay-Z, Tupac, Outkast, and so on and so forth. Often times for African American males their dark skin helps to personify their image as thuggish and dangerous and acts as an affirmation that they are stronger and more powerful than the average man (an assumption that is not reserved solely for Black men) while their fairer counterparts often perceived as being “soft” or emotional.

Even in today’s current rap world, artists such as Kanye West, 2 Chainz, Lil Wayne, Kendrick Lamar, ASAP Rocky, and Rick Ross, have all obtained an extreme amount of success in part because they are talented, or at least appeal to the masses because their physical aesthetic personifies long-standing beliefs about Black men and their lusts for women, violence, and luxury. Even while he complains about “Middle America” coming to ogle his Black skin, the video for Kanye Wests’ newest single, ” Black Skinnhead is nothing but a collection of violent still images while Kanye’s digitally blackened body aggressively prances around in a white room. I believe J. Cole has been able to achieve such great success because he is a part of ROC Nation management. Who wouldn’t be successful if they had Jay-Z on their team? But in no way can his skin complexion be taken into count for his success, in many ways I believe that it has forced him to have to work harder.

However, I do agree with his statement when looked at through the spectrum of the African American female entertainer. For decades, the lighter skinned African American woman has been viewed as an example of femininity not only within the African American culture but also in the eyes of the European. She not only is viewed as exotic for her fuller lips, wider nose, and thicker hips, but she is able to transition in and out of both worlds due to the familiarity she offers to Europeans because her skin is closer to theirs in complexion. The light skin woman is able to navigate in both worlds being the trophy symbol of sexuality, while also offering them safety because she is not “too exotic”. This can be seen in various African American female entertainers such as Beyonce, Nikki Minaj, and Rihanna. These women are able to “cross-over” into both worlds more easily than their darker skin counterparts. Often times women with darker skin or more African features or even their natural hair are never able to transition into mainstream media. Artists such as Erykah Badu, Heather Headley, Jill Scott, and India Arie haven’t been able to reach high levels of success due to their appearance and the overtly racial content of their art. Although they were greatly appreciated within the African American world, and probably in other spheres of color, these women were never able to penetrate mainstream media and be as successful as their lighter skin counterparts. But, the real question here is: What is success? Is success denying your own culture and adopting another cultures physical aesthetics (i.e. longer hair, lighter skin, and colorful eyes)? Or, is it embracing your own physical looks and culture while still practicing your craft? Is the trade-off worth it?

 by Blaire L. Smith

16 thoughts on “Lighter Skin a Fast-Track to Hip-Hop Success?

  1. Like you stated in the post, the darker skinned male artists “use” their color to show a certain attitude, one of strength and power. They use this message in their lyrics as well. When we look at the lyrics that the women artists you speak about, which are lighter skinned such as Rihanna – they too have similar messages such as parties, men and money. But others, such as India Arie and Erykah Badu speak of other issues such as feelings, love, relationships. Maybe the difference is not only the color of their skin color but also of their message and overall image that they are trying to exemplify. Maybe they are not willing to let their art be determined by what the fans want to hear, but rather by what they would like to talk about.
    I do agree with the last question you posed, which is what is success? I would add to that if record sales are one of them. Erykah Badu, for example, is a very successful singer with high sales. Is she less successful because she’s selling less than Rihanna? The fact is that though the lighter skin toned artists you speak about may not be as successful as Beyonce, they are all still known to the majority of the public.

  2. I”m also hearing that darker skin is being associated with thuggish and dangerous, while if a male artist wants to be seen as non-threatening and distinguish himself, he needs to lighten his skin. Perpetuating the stereotype that dark is dangerous.

  3. If success is defined in solely monetary terms, then both artists that deny their culture and embrace it can reach success. The difference stems from what the greater society views as an standard for success. Some might only consider high sales as success while others require a more abstract and culturally consistent evaluation. Although it might appear that lighter skinned female artists are receiving more mainstream recognition, I do not think it is fair to say that much of their successes is due to the fact that they have lighter complexions. Their success is a combination of dozens of factors including the content and style of music, physical appearance and sex appeal and so forth. The light skinned artists mentioned, Beyonce, Nikki Minaj, and Rihanna have a few characteristics in common that differ largely from their dark skinned counterparts (Erykah Badu, Heather Headley, Jill Scott, and India Arie): they are much younger, louder in media personality, and heavily utilize their sexuality.

  4. Well presented, especially re: the females. Sad but true, at least from my experience as a darker skinned professional. When I walk into certain groups not necessarily non-minorities, even other cultures, sometimes I have to work twice as hard as my peers who differ in appearance. People count me out before I open my mouth simply because I do not have a standard industry appearance. However, the good news is I always rise above the prejudice. Some folks do not even know that they are bias. Once I open my mouth, God always allows me to shine bright like a diamond. #CareerCoach #AlwaysDelivers

  5. I love music, but I am terrible at looking up artists and what they look like. I’m the girl that plays pandora and likes a song, purchases it and moves on. This was a very interesting point that I was oblivious to, made me stop thing and do some research. Thank you
    Melissa Cherizola

  6. I think you bring up some really interesting points, especially in what is considered success. I’d like to think success is more dependent on the lasting effect these artists have on music and the respect they’ve earned from their peers, rather than how many records they sell or how much money they make.

  7. I think this is a great topic for debate. I am of Spanish origin, but recall much question and long winded discussions in High School of students with lighter skin facing less discrimination than those with darker. Respectfully, it was always very interesting to me that those questioning it the most where within their own race. For example, a darker skinned black girl would make fun of a lighter skinned black girl, stating “you are not really black.” It always baffled me because in essence they are of the same ethnic background, and as history has shown us, should be sticking up and protecting one another. I think sadly there is some truth that a lighter skin color in today’s society makes a difference in the entertainment and fashion worlds. It is what we deem socially beautiful. Hopefully this will change in the future as we evolve.

  8. J. Cole is a big airhead idiot like most people are in the entertainment industry! Being a darker-skinned black man is more mainstream and “fashionable”. All in the media, modeling, music, business sector … you will see mostly the faces of attractive or “powerful” dark-skinned men!

    Dark-skinned women not so much unfortunately …..

    And I think mainly because of they usually lack self-esteem and/or they have too many insecurities. Those who don’t have those problems seem to flourish, i.e. Michelle Obama, Oprah, Kelly Rowland (reformed insecure dark woman), Naomi Campbell ….. all beautiful and successful dark women who are very comfortable in their skin in front of the camera and everyone. So that color complex is definitely more pervasive in women than men in every culture of color … always have been and I hate to say but will be.

  9. I love article! Thank you! You bring up some really good points to think about. Being a dark skin male in the entertainment business “is in” masculine, tall, dark, and handsome, women on the other hand are having to conform to mainstream media idea of beauty booty shots, long extensions, and tons of make up.

  10. I love the complex topic of skin color/tone in the Black/African American culture. Although I disagree with J. Cole’s statement that a darker entertainer would not have been as successful, I do wholeheartedly agree with another statement from that same interview where he says “Those mental chains are still in us. That brainwashing that tells us that light skin is better, it’s subconsciously in us, whether we know it or not.” No, I do not think that a dark skin male cannot reach the heights fame because we have examples like Jay Z, Kendrick Lamar etc. But, like it was stated in the blog, I do think that these same entertainers are though of as more thuggish and dangerous simply because they are darker which is a stereotype that I consider just as distasteful. The barriers of success do become more apparent when we talk about female entertainers, but this concept of a lighter woman being more feminine and sexy unfortunately applies to woman across the Black community

    I also agree with a comment above that says that dark skin is “in”. Just like the natural hair phenomenon darker skin color seems to be a fashionable statement at the moment. I can only hope that the embracement of our natural traits is not just a fad and becomes part of our culture.

  11. Although I do agree that skin color plays a powerful role in the world of hip-hop music, as evidenced by the leading black artists of the industry such as Kanye West and other rappers mentioned in the article, I do not think “lighter skin is a fast track to success.” There are the classic examples of Beyonce, Rihanna, and Nicki Minaj who experience mass amounts of fame within mainstream hip hop music. However, there are many other darker-skinned celebrities, such as Dej Loaf, Azealia Banks, Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliot, Janelle Monae, and others, whom have obtained stardom on an international scale. I think the mainstream female hip-hop industry is dominated by a specific musical personality that is more rigid in its acceptance of varying influences and genres. This is quite separate from the male industry, which encompasses a very different character whereby darker skin colors may be more accepted and sometimes encouraged. In fact, in many cases, hip-hop artists are targeted or delegitimized for not being quite dark enough. Drake’s recent song “You & The 6” reflects this phenomenon in his lyrics: “I used to get teased for being black. And now I’m here and I’m not black enough.” Because darker skin color is included in the criteria for male hip-hop music, darker artists are more present and influential in that particular industry. In contrast, the female hip-hop sector measures other qualities before skin color as criteria for success, thereby contributing to a different selection process and the reproduction of a specific image within that field.

  12. Qi Xu made a good observation about the female artists’ different, ‘louder […] media personalities’ and the will to ‘heavily utilize their sexuality’. Since this post was made (in 2013), I believe this trend has only strengthened.

    More ‘accessible’ content of main-stream artists singing about sex and partying versus a political and real-life perspective of Erykah Badu et al is as much – if not more – a part of the different successes as is their skin tone. Moreover, these female singer-songwriters refuse to be sexually exploited and are clear about their worth. Something that might not sit well with the (still and all) mostly male execs )both black and white) at main-stream labels. Large labels (aka corporations such as the now de-funct BMG Entertainment which was bought by Sony Music) often restrict artists’ creative expression, and smaller labels do not have the distributional pull (even though some of this model has been interrupted by streaming services, etc.). My point is: I believe there are a lot more factors of discrimination and oppression in place than simply skin tone.

    Having said that, I also noticed how a search for ‘black models’ does not feature Alek Wek but only African American models of mostly lighter skin tones. Alek is from South Sudan, Afrika. She is one of the darkest-skin models around. And, even though most people in fashion are able to appreciate her beauty, when she was photographed for the cover of Forbes (for their ‘Africa’ issue), her skin-tone was clearly photo-shopped and her hair slicked back and hence without any discernible structure. Moreover, her make-up made her to look ‘European’ beautiful in a way that would appeal to a white male (as in ‘exotic’ but not ‘too exotic’).

    I wish Queen Bee, RiRi and Ms. Minage all the success in the world but wished that they pushed back (more) against their continued sexual exploitation – as it not only diminishes them as people and women but all the young, impressionable women who copy them.

  13. I find it really refreshing when someone at least considers the possibility that they have benefited from unearned privilege, in this case skin tone. Our country has a long history of assigning different value on people of color based on their skin tone, how they keep their hair, how they speak. In general, proximity to the dominant culture is assigned the highest value. Of course this also rears its head in the music industry – why would that be any different?

    Something to consider, your opinion is not the only one that matters. Any music you hear on the radio has been carefully cultivated by powerful folks who serve as gatekeepers for what plays on the radio. Their opinions really matter because most of us will never hear a song that hasn’t been approved by this small group of folks with resources, money, connections, etc. Since it is my assumption that this group of insiders is not the most diverse, it stands to reason there there’s going to be some racial bias (among many others) in how artists and their songs end up on the radio, and therefore end up selling records. Hah, I said ‘records.’

  14. So now we know just why Lil Kim , has evolved into a modern day Zsa Zsa Gabor , Jewish /White wannabe freak- even if most of her initial successes, came before she began bleaching, or had the fake lips, nose , and what other contraptions ,the self hater choose to latch on to,huh?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *