It appears that a fiery two-year-old Twitter exchange in which Philadelphia Magazine’s LGBTQ editor Ernest Owens accused pop star Justin Timberlake of cultural appropriation inspired a track on Timberlake’s new album, Man of the Woods.
“My response is that I’m not impressed,” said Owens, who learned that the six-minute song “Say Something” was about him after Google alerted him to an interview Timberlake did with music journalist Zane Lowe for Apple’s 24-hour music station, Beats 1.
“I think the song is trash,” Owens said.
Why all the hateration?
During the 2016 BET Awards, actor and Temple graduate Jesse Williams gave a passionate speech about the Black Lives Matter movement. Justin Timberlake tweeted “#Inspired.”
— Justin Timberlake (@jtimberlake) June 27, 2016
Owens went in.
“So does this mean you’re going to stop appropriating our music and culture? And apologize to Janet too. #BETAwards,” he tweeted.
— Ernest Owens (@MrErnestOwens) June 27, 2016
“Oh you sweet soul,” Timberlake tweeted back that night in a since-deleted tweet. “The more you realize we are the same, the more we can have a conversation. Bye.”
Owens, of course, kept a screen shot.
The vibe went all the way downhill after that.
Fast-forward to a year ago. Timberlake is working on his Man of the Woods album, which he told Lowe is more about introspection then aspiration. That’s what happens when you become a parent, a now-mature, plaid-shirt-buttoned-up-to-his-neck-wearing Timberlake said. After about 25 minutes, the conversation moves to “Say Something,” a duet he wrote with country singer Chris Stapleton.
The lyrics, Timberlake explains, are about wanting to speak up but not getting caught up in the rhythm. Here, it seems, “rhythm” is a metaphor for “drama.”
“If the rhythm goes off, then the train goes off the tracks,” Timberlake said.
Lowe then delicately brings up the “Jesse Williams thing.”
“I felt terrible, you feel terrible,” Timberlake said about the Owens exchange, “like, ‘Oh man, that is not what I meant. Why did I do that?’ ”
Owens, who said he has no intention of watching any part of Super Bowl Sunday night — Timberlake is headlining the halftime show — says he’s not buying Timberlake’s contrition at all.
The bottom line, Owens said, is that Timberlake has become a huge star by copying the R&B sound of artists like Prince, Michael Jackson, and James Brown. And then, when it becomes inconvenient for Timberlake, Owens said, he dismisses black people and acts as though he wasn’t inspired by black culture at all. (Critics have said that Man of the Woods is Timberlake’s return to his white Southern roots.)
“He doesn’t understand his privilege,” Owens said. “He’s an artist with impact and he will not for the life of him admit the role he played in the gentrification of a genre created by black artists.”