Singer Tori Kelly announced a new release, much to the delight of her fans who have been pestering the Grammy winner for new music. But to say she looks unrecognizable in the cover art for her new song would be an understatement.


Yesterday, fans flooded the comments section of the announcement for “Missin U” to remark on her new appearance.


Tori’s last release was her 2020 Christmas album, A Tori Kelly Christmas. But there seemed to be some sort of hold up over the last two years in getting new music out. She addressed these delays last summer on Twitter, expressing frustration over what she called the “business side of things”, saying there was a lot more to it than just releasing songs at her convenience. 

Despite most of the comments under her new release announcement seeming to be in support of her, her new music and her new look, there was speculation about what this rebrand may mean. And given the contrast of her new look compared to her old one, some are questioning whether this is an instance of blackfishing.

Blackfishing is a term coined by writer Wanna Thompson. It refers to instances where white people alter their face and appearance with different social media or camera filters, makeup, or even cosmetic surgery to look more Black. 

It became a popular conversation within the last few years after an influx of women, many from the U.K., including Jesy Nelson from Little Mix, were dragged online for making themselves appear excessively tanned or with “Blacker” features than they were naturally born with, such as changing hairstyles to include unnaturally curly or crimpy textures, which is a form of cultural appropriation. Some accused them of doing this simply for the benefit of being perceived as more attractive and gaining more clout on social media.

One of the main reasons it’s problematic is because historically, dark-skinned women have been ostracized for the same natural features which doesn’t happen when it’s recreated and imitated on white bodies, particularly when it comes to hair. Women of colour have rarely benefitted from having these physical features in the way white women have been praised for it. 


After Wanna coined the term, specifically assigned to people trying to emulate a Black aesthetic, Metro journalist Natalie Morris went on to explore the idea of “mixed-fishing” – which is a specific attempt to replicate a mixed or biracial aesthetic because of the benefits that come from being racially ambiguous.

And that brings us back to Tori Kelly. She’s replaced the “white” look and aesthetic since her days on American Idol – the curly blonde hair and white skin, and now has a dark olive complexion and jet Black hair. The nuance in this conversation, though, stems from the fact that Tori is in fact mixed, with Jamaican and Puerto Rican heritage. So is this blackfishing? Is it mixed-fishing?

The answer is no. But as I said, there’s nuance.

I’ve written before about the inherent privilege biracial people, like myself, are born with. Particularly when they are as white-passing as someone like Tori Kelly or Meghan Markle. Mixed people get to play around with our image and aesthetic in ways Black people, and darker-skinned Black people in particular, cannot. In doing so, they recognize the looks that garner them the most privilege in society – and more often than not, settle on that for a period of time. 

Not everyone can sit in a tanning bed repeatedly to alter their skin colour. And not everyone can sit and apply different cosmetics, an industry that already grossly underserves darker skin tones, to appear a way they do not look naturally. But white people can. And biracial people can use their proximity to whiteness to benefit from appearing more ethnic or more racially ambiguous.

The timing of Tori’s so-called rebrand is also worthy of note. From her early days as a YouTube singer, eventually going on to audition for American Idol, her journey to stardom was not linear. She alternated between different forms of music, including country, pop and gospel. And for most of that journey, up until now, she maintained a very white-passing look. 


One fan shared photos of her as a child to defend Tori against comparisons to Jesy Nelson, adding that Tori has always proudly claimed her mixed heritage. But the idea that Tori, or anyone for that matter, cannot be proud of being mixed while simultaneously reaping the benefits of their proximity to whiteness is precisely the nuance in this conversation. 

Last December, I reflected on Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s series on Netflix – and how one of the things that stood out to me the most were the photos of Meghan as a kid. You could see the Blackness in the texture of her hair. I wrote about how, for mixed people, straightening your hair can be a coming-of-age moment when you release yourself from the bounds of the hair you’ve known, and realize you have some agency over the hair you wear

Despite Tori donning curly hair quite frequently, one conscious choice she made that aligned her with more of a European look was having blonde hair. For years. When you couple that hair colour choice with her light skin tone, you do have to question whether this was a strategic career decision that indeed helped her be more palatable as an artist, as an American Idol contestant, and as a woman making her way through the world. And even if it wasn’t, that was still the benefit she got to reap.


Being biracial can be a polarizing experience – and we see that in Tori’s range of musical productions and collaborations, ranging from country and gospel songs with everyone from Kirk Franklin to Andrea Bocelli. We’ve seen so many artists go through phases of different genre exploration. But this is an incredibly difficult thing to do for Black artists, particularly if they do not embody the look of fitting into a certain genre.

Remember when Miley Cyrus couldn’t stop twerking? Then she went on to make very disparaging remarks about hip-hop, despite making Bangerz, an album inspired by hip-hop which featured artists like Snoop Dogg and Timbaland? It led to her infamous feud with Nicki Minaj, who called her out at the 2015 VMAs over cultural appropriation. Miley eventually returned to her roots as a pop and rock singer and has had great success since doing so, recently becoming the longest-running number one female solo artist with her song “Flowers” since Adele’s “Easy On Me”. 

As much as Tori’s new era is likely just the continuation of her exploration of music and of self, neither can be done on a fulsome scale without examining whether, as an artist, you are upholding harmful systems in Hollywood. And if so – how you can lend your privilege to help even the playing field.