If there’s one thing we’ve learned in the last few years of racial reckoning, it’s that cultural appropriation was never acceptable — even in a different era of history. Gwen Stefani is being asked to speak about one of the most successful periods in her solo career — her Harajuku Girls era — and take a closer look at what it represented. The answer may not make you very happy.
To put into context how Stefani capitalized off the four Japanese and Japanese-American dancers, we have to go back to 2004. She named them “Love,” “Angel,” “Music” and “Baby” based on the name of her first album and her clothing line. The young women’s fashion and accessories were inspired by the youth culture in a district of Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan. They appeared in eight of her music videos, including “Hollaback Girl” and “What You Waiting For?” and they posed silently next to her on the red carpet for press appearances.
Stefani doesn’t see anything wrong with promoting Japanese culture as a white artist and the possible racial stereotypes the four dancers represent — she didn’t then and she doesn’t in 2021. She stands firm in her belief that “if we didn’t buy and sell and trade our cultures in, we wouldn’t have so much beauty.” The pop star confidently told Paper magazine, “We learn from each other, we share from each other, we grow from each other. And all these rules are just dividing us more and more.” What gets us going on this is that these aren’t “rules,” these are ways society is learning how to understand and respect Asian and Asian-American culture in the most honorable way.
Calling out The Voice judge isn’t anything new, especially if we look back at what Margaret Cho had to say in 2005 and realize we didn’t listen to her. The comedian dives right into what the Harajuku Girls represent, and remember, these are her thoughts from 17 years ago. “I want to like them, and I want to think they are great, but I am not sure if I can,” she wrote on her personal website. “I mean, racial stereotypes are really cute sometimes, and I don’t want to bum everyone out by pointing out the minstrel show.”
That’s a hard thing to read knowing a Korean-American performer pointed this out to Stefani and the rest of us — and it was just breezed over while her career churned out hit after hit in her Harajuku phase. What’s even more hurtful is that she’s doubling down on her cultural appropriation by using two of the Harajuku Girls in 2021. Angel and Music, dressed as Love and Baby, made an appearance in her January music video, “Let Me Reintroduce Myself.” With the lessons we’ve learned, we should have been calling this out from the day the video dropped, but instead, Stefani was allowed to remain unbothered by what she’s done.
Before you go, click here to see some of the most dramatic celebrity transformations of the past decade.