Is this Jack Harlow album cover racist?
Written by Cee Valentina
On Dec 2nd, Jack Harlow released the album cover for his debut album That's What They All Say which provoked a discussion on social media. since then, he's dropped the album which went on to chart at number 5 on the us billboard 200.
The US rapper came on the hip-hop scene in 2015 with his ep, The Handsome Harlow and by 2017, he released his BET Hip-Hop Award nominated mixtape entitled Loose. This included hits such as PickYourPhoneUp featuring K-Camp, which he followed up with his billboard charting hit single What's Poppin' drafting DaBaby, Tory Lanez, and Lil Wayne on the remix
his debut album cover shows Harlow sitting at the back of a chauffeur-driven car signing autographs. Outside of the car are numerous young actors appearing to be fans of Harlow.
The children seem to be from various racial backgrounds with the main actor being the young Black boy reaching his hands through the window to have his CD autographed by Harlow. Harlow is also accompanied by a luxuriously dressed woman who can only be identified by her darker-skinned legs.
On the first glance, this album cover is just another hip-hop album cover.
How many album covers have we seen where the artist is simply just flexing? Probably quite a lot.
For the cover of That’s What They All Say, Jack Harlow is showcasing the amount of
attention on him, symbolised by the fans in the window of his ride and the sexualised
woman on his side. If we look deeper at the placement of the woman’s legs, their colour,
or the clothing adorning them, we can begin to see a more detailed picture.
The fact that we can only see the woman’s leg, rather than her entire body, portrays her
as a prop within the picture-perfect moment. This, in addition to the red silky dress and
strappy heels, paints a picture which resembles a piece of arm candy.
All in all, the positioning of the woman in the picture in relation to Jack Harlow portrays her as an object in his story. The objectification of women is a common theme in hip-hop which is something that needs to be addressed but is not unique to Jack Harlow.
So is the issue with the fact that the woman is Black?
In order to answer this, first, there has to be an understanding of the objectification of Black women in particular.
The objectification theory is used to describe the way in which women are treated in society. Objectification can occur in various ways including the reduction of a person to their body or body parts, also known as fetishization.
The objectification and fetishization of Black women has a long history that dates back to slavery. Black women were viewed as inferior to White people by virtue of their race and gender. They were turned into hypersexualised objects with their sexual body parts fetishized.
Fetishization and objectification continue to be an issue in modern times and has infiltrated hip-hop culture where Black women are often perceived as 1) sexual objects and 2) subordinate to men.
It’s become such a barrier that unless a woman is hypersexualised, it’s difficult for her to attain opportunities within hip-hop such as becoming a successful female rapper. Hence why it is so common to see hypersexuality being a large part of a female rapper’s image and marketing strategy. Even when a woman does manage to succeed in hip-hop, she is still viewed as subordinate to men more often than not.
So yes, objectifying Black women is seen frequently in hip-hop and is perpetuated by Black men as well.
But when you consider the complex history of racism and slavery and then go to look at the woman in Jack Harlow’s album cover, how she is obviously portrayed as inferior to Harlow, reduced from a person to just body parts in a picture, it raises questions.
Some might argue that he is uplifting Black women by choosing a Black woman to be represented in the picture instead of a lighter-skinned or White woman.
However, this might have been portrayed better if the image included the full body of a Black woman with her face, rather than just her lower half; thus representing her as a person rather than just a prop.
It might seem trivial to some but unpacking the implications of this type of portrayal is crucial. The objectification of Black women leads to them not having control over their own body and sexuality and even leads to the validation of sexual and physical violence against Black women.
Let’s revisit the album cover.
Through the window, we can see a number of kids from different racial backgrounds trying to get Jack Harlow’s autograph. The main child in the photo who is seen the most clearly is the Black boy.
So essentially, there are numerous Black people in the artwork, all of whom are portrayed as subordinate to Harlow. He is framed as the powerful individual in the picture where the fans, including the Black children, are idolizing him as he is seated next to a Black trophy-wife-like woman.
As mentioned earlier, this type of portrayal in hip-hop is not new as it is common for hip-hop artists to present themselves as the most desired, the most powerful, the best, and often superior to others.
Artists that participate in hip-hop culture often push this narrative through their lyrics all the way down to their dress sense or even through their body language and their energy.
Similar themes can be seen in grime or drill culture. for example, when Digga D reminds us he is the hardest rapper in his 2020 Daily Duppy freestyle.
Or Stormzy, who wears a crown on the cover of his debut album Heavy is the Head, as the “King of Grime” or the King of the UK scene.
My point is not to critique these artists but to highlight this side of hip-hop culture which is common among rappers in general. Talking on very surface level points about being the hardest rapper is hardly the problem when it comes to White rappers occupying Black spaces.
In fact, Jack Harlow’s album cover could be perceived as him simply flexing in his own way, just like how Stormzy wears the crown in his album artwork.
However, drawing these comparisons without stopping to analyse Harlow’s cover on a deeper level ignores the fact that he is not just flexing, but unintentionally (or intentionally…) placing himself as more superior to the other Black people who are in the same image.
In fact, this portrayal of himself appearing superior to Black people appears in some of the lyrics in his body of work, not just in his album cover.
"Always wondered to myself if I could really be a leader
Of a group of brown-skinned boys when I'm not brown-skinned."
- Jack Harlow in Baxter Avenue
Why would you as a White man want to be a "leader of a group of Brown-skinned boys"?
I genuinely do not know the answer.
However, this line in conjunction with this album cover is concerning. Similar to the cinematic trope where the White character saves the Black people from their predicament while still maintaining their white privilege, this cover and these lyrics is giving off White-saviour energy. It is certainly believable that his portrayal as the superior figure in his album cover was intentional.
So is this artwork for That’s What They All Say, racist?
In short, yes. The portrayal of the other Black people in relation to Harlow and the power dynamics demonstrated in the artwork is evidence of White supremacy.
The inclusion of the woman in the picture, although it may be well-intentioned, is used to elevate Harlow to a higher position in the picture, rather than him being photographed by himself. Or, the inclusion of the Black women in a more humanising way would have not communicated the same power structures.
Similarly, the addition of the Black children idolising Harlow adds to the narrative of him being the superior figure. The lyrics extracted from Baxter Avenue further supports this.
Context matters. In this case, the context is Harlow being the White male with White privilege. If a Black male created the exact same image, it would not communicate the same power dynamics. Although, we would still have to unpack the misogynistic portrayal of the Black women.
To White artists in hip-hop:
I encourage you to educate yourselves on why hip-hop culture is so important to exclusively Black people and how it was created as an alternative to the other spaces in which Black people were, and continue to be pushed out of.
Hip-hop culture should not be a space where White rappers exercise their White privilege.
I am hopeful that white hip-hop artists who inform themselves on these topics will become more conscious of how they participate in hip-hop culture, ensuring they are not perpetuating white supremacy especially in spaces intended for black people to escape from white supremacy.