No, Justin Timberlake is not cookout-worthy

OPINION: It takes a lot to be white and cookout-worthy. And Justin Timberlake is definitely not getting an invite to the cookout.

Justin Timberlake
(Photo by Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

I tweeted this last week: “Black people: name a well-known white person who is cookout-worthy.” 8.6 million views later, I realized this little tweet had caused chaos. People made TikToks about the tweet. Tons of white names came flying at me. One of the names that came up several times was Justin Timberlake. He’s had a really interesting solo career with some monster hits like “SexyBack” and “Can’t Stop the Feeling” and some legendary “SNL” moments. He’s about to drop a new album, but being iconic or a pop star doesn’t mean you’re cookout-worthy. Being cookout-worthy is a whole other level.

To be cookout-worthy means you’re practically part of the family. Pretty much either you’re part of Black culture or you’ve done some significant ally work. You’ve gotten into Black hearts, Black hips or Black minds. Teena Marie was a soulful singer who felt so much a part of the Black culture family that she was like a play cousin. The legendary 1800s anti-abolitionist John Brown set enslaved folks free and murdered white people who were pro-slavery. They can get in, but as you can see, the bar is high. The cookout may be symbolic, but it’s still important because it represents the idea of a Black space where we’re alone and free to commune with each other as an extended family. The overwhelming Blackness of the space is critical to the whole exercise. If any white people are included, we’ve got to feel like they really belong. It’s not easy. 

Timberlake’s application for the cookout will encounter at least one significant roadblock: the lingering anger over whatever it was that happened with Janet Jackson at the 2004 Super Bowl. Timberlake was on the stage with her. He was not really punished for what happened and she was essentially blacklisted by Viacom, the company that controlled MTV, which makes it all a triggering reminder of how often Black people will be penalized for moments that white people skate away from. As Vox put it:  “For an act that involved two people and Timberlake literally ripping off a piece of Jackson’s clothing, it’s easy to see how unfairly Jackson was treated. Her subsequent work was kneecapped, while Timberlake’s was not.” 

And when things got hot, did Timberlake stand up for Jackson? No. Again from Vox: “Timberlake’s answers created the narrative that it was somehow a shock and surprise to him that he was performing choreography that would end with him ripping off Jackson’s bodice while singing the lyric ‘Have you naked by the end of this song.’ It seems clear that the outrage changed Timberlake’s response, in an attempt to wriggle himself free of any responsibility.”

Years later he said, “I wish I had supported Janet more. I am not sorry I apologized, but I wish I had been there more for Janet.” That’s a stain that will not go away. After that, he’s too triggering to be at the cookout. 

Some people said they wanted to hear Timberlake’s music at the cookout but … really? We don’t have enough timeless artists of our own? Plus, he makes me feel like he’s using Black musical tropes to make himself seem cool. This is a common tactic in the music business — think of white singers who surround themselves with Black backup singers or white singers who are constantly singing over soul music tracks. This is putting a Black bow on white music or a white face on Black sounds. It’s a tale as old as Elvis.

There’s a subtle difference between white-made music that fits well in the culture and white music that uses the culture to reflect the sheen of Black cool onto the white performer. Perhaps that difference is in the ear of the beholder. Some people said they think George Michael’s pop-soul music makes him cookout-worthy. They would be wrong. Others said Amy Winehouse’s retro-soul makes her cookout-worthy. They would be right. But can I fully articulate the difference that gets Amy over the line and holds George back? Some of it is a sense of authenticity you get from the music, some of it is a sense of who it seems the singer is trying to sing to and some of it is a sense of who the singer seems to idolize, but overall there’s something ineffable that lets me feel a sense of trust in one of them that I don’t quite feel in the other. Again, it’s not that I dislike Michael or Timberlake for that matter, they’re both great artists, but being a cookout-worthy white person is a whole other level. 

We can’t have just anyone up in Black-dominated spaces. We have to be picky because we need Black-dominated spaces in order to come together as only family can. We need those spaces so we can heal. I respect the argument that no white person is cookout-worthy but at the same time we know that there are always a few white people who are part of the family just like there’s sometimes that one male who’s allowed to hang out in the ladies’ room because he’s part of their community. Who are the white people who are cookout-worthy? That will be my next essay.


Touré is a host and Creative Director at theGrio. He is the host of the podcast “Toure Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is also the author of seven books including the Prince biography Nothing Compares 2 U and the ebook The Ivy League Counterfeiter. Look out for his upcoming podcast Being Black In the 80s.

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