Is Rihanna’s Harper’s Bazaar China cover shoot cultural appropriation?

rihanna bazaar china

Rihanna loves Asia, and Asia loves RiRi. Remember at the Met Gala in 2015, when the theme was “China Through the Looking Glass,” and Rihanna full-on studied the theme and worked privately with a Chinese designer (Guo Pei) to create a one-of-a-kind look to perfectly encapsulate the theme? Yeah. Rihanna is a popular cover choice for magazines around the world, so it’s no surprise that Harper’s Bazaar China decided to use Rihanna for the subject of their latest cover shoot. Consider this too: I bet her Fenty fashion label is looking to have a massive breakthrough in Chinese markets. That’s probably why she agreed to the Bazaar China cover too.

So, Rihanna did the cover and cover shoot. It was styled by Chinese stylists, shot by a Chinese photographer, visually edited by Chinese visual artists, and on and on. So… are these photos cultural appropriation or are these photos a true homage and true representation of what’s happening in Chinese fashion culture today? Are they honoring Chinese style and Chinese fashion, as done by a Chinese team to a Western celebrity? Or should a Western celebrity sit this one out? It’s a larger conversation online about whether this is appropriation or simply Rihanna working with Chinese stylists and designers FOR a Chinese audience. I don’t have an answer – like, some of the photos seem like A LOT to me, but would I feel differently if I was the intended audience? Would I feel happy that a Western celebrity worked with a Chinese team to “get it right”?

I also think it’s worth noting that true homages do happen, and that many of these Chinese designers would probably love to expand their markets too. Rihanna is likely promoting Fenty in China in the magazine, but by using Rihanna, those Chinese designers are getting global exposure too.


Photos courtesy of Harper’s Bazaar China.

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77 Responses to “Is Rihanna’s Harper’s Bazaar China cover shoot cultural appropriation?”

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  1. Nev says:

    No. It’s lovely.

    • babyboo says:

      Not appropriation, admiration. I feel she always had closeness to Chinese culture in her artistry and this was Chinese artists having vision for her. If she took this and run w it on her own, making cash off it without any credits, like Kim K, it would be. However this is a lesson in admiration of other culture – where credit is given and respect kept.

  2. Maddy says:

    “It was styled by Chinese stylists, shot by a Chinese photographer, visually edited by Chinese visual artists, and on and on.”

    And there you have it. It was their vision for her.

    • Erinn says:

      If that’s the case, I’m essentially cool with it, though my opinion is pretty freaking low on the ‘who matters’ chart since I’m a middle class white lady.

      I think it can be tricky to determine what’s homage and what’s appropriation – sometimes it’s super clear, other times it gets way more into a gray area. The photos by themselves I was a little wary about – but if she’s made sure to get it right and this was the vision of the Chinese stylists/photogs/etc it’s certainly not some dastardly appropriation grab. I think it could still maybe fall into the gray area, but barely.

      Ultimately, I think she needs to incorporate a TON of that gorgeous sapphire blue into her wardrobe because she looks absolutely stunning in it.

      • Nahema says:

        It’s murky ground for sure but how would the world be reacting if this was a white western celeb in Rihanna’s place? I’m sure then people would feel it was much more clearly appropriation.

        It’s just my opinion but I think a homage would be a lot more subtle and I feel bad saying that, since I really like Rihanna and think she really does try hard to get it right.

      • Christina says:

        Erinn, your middle class white lady opinions are appreciated by this middle class Mexican-American lady! You are such an effective ally on this forum, so let me thank you.

      • Carol says:

        I have a friend who is Chinese and she finds the appropriation argument completely ridiculous. When I asked her if it bothers her that non-Chinese people use traditional Chinese apparel or anything else that is specific to China for photo shoots, album covers or any visual promotions styled by white folks, she said in general, it doesn’t bother her at all. She thinks the cultural appropriation sensitivity has gone out of control. I somehow agree with her.

    • Tushy says:

      Isn’t it a Chinese magazine in China? American cultural standards don’t apply. In China racism is a huge issue, having a black woman on a magazine is a huge step forward and even entertaining and America centric race conversation about it feels very American imperialism to me and perhaps we need to step back and ask if in our quest for a cultural revolution for our own home isn’t becoming an imperialist journey to conform the world to our sensibilities.

      This is a big step for China, it happened in China, it was run by Chinese people IN CHINA. This has nothing to do with America and our cultural issues.

      • Christina says:

        Tushy, thank you. Americans tend to think everything is about us. I think it’s the Manifest Destiny/American Exceptionalism thing that makes us think in terms of us only. Americans want to wear other cultures as costumes, so we don’t always recognize an homage or a professionally curated tribute. A bunch of Americans will now go as Rihanna in a Chinese outfit to Halloween parties this year. Sigh…

      • DS9 says:


        In general, this could be problematic for a black woman yes, but we aren’t colonizers, white people are. We’re also actively discriminated against in many Asian cultures so it’s not the same history or lens.

      • Bo Peep says:

        @tushy THIS 100%. It’s not cultural appropriation if this took place in China under the artistic direction of Chinese people.

        Cultural appropriation affects overseas populations/immigrants more than it affects native populations. Chinese people are the majority in China. They do not face lack of acceptance from their peers for wearing Chinese traditional wear.

        On the other hand, Chinese Americans are stigmatized for doing the same in America, where they are a minority. They are considered to be unwilling to assimilate and exoticized for their decisions. In America, it’s a show of privilege when white Americans (the majority) can wear Chinese traditional clothing (the clothing of a minority group) and not only still receive acceptance but be considered edgy for donning a new style, when the same does not apply to Chinese Americans. That’s why it’s cultural appropriation. And these circumstances are not in play in Rihanna’s photoshoot.

      • Lulu says:

        TUSHY thank you! No other words need to be said. 👏👏👏

  3. teehee says:

    They chose to style her this way.
    I grant people of a culture to decide who gets to wear what.

  4. Eliza says:

    Appreciation and appropriation sometimes are close and sometimes it’s very obvious not. This to me is close, I can’t speak on if this crosses that line so I’d love to hear what others think.

    • Ainsley7 says:

      It can’t be considered appropriation because you can’t steal your own culture. Chinese people chose this look for her. It’s only appropriation when someone is taking something that doesn’t belong to them without the owner’s permission. This is just one culture sharing it’s traditions with someone from another culture. I think it’s a good thing when it’s done with respect from both sides.

  5. Thebees says:

    No, it’s not.

  6. Donna Martin says:

    I don’t think it’s appropriation based on how it was done. Imagine she’s in China with a Chinese publication and they wanted to style her this way and she said no. Is that racist then? I’m hispanic and I know it would be offensive if she declined us as it would be our vision for our audience. If this was done in North America it would be a complete different issue.

  7. Miffy says:

    The line between appropriation and homage is the really nuanced ‘honouring vs fetishising’. You never get the sense with Rihanna of her ‘trying on a culture’, she’s never approached a culture as an accessory. Therein lies the difference. And with a Chinese team behind it how could it be appropriation?

    • Melly says:

      Completely agree with everything you said. It seems clear to me that she is ‘honoring’ Chinese fashion while still being authentically herself. It doesn’t look like she’s wearing a costume, she’s showcasing Chinese fashion.

  8. Billbop says:

    I think people need to relax about this nonsense of “cultural appropriation”. It is such a slippery slope…

    I am of German ancestry (I am a child of a legal immigrant from
    Germany) and seriously, am I going to get all hot and bothered during the next German Festival if non-Germans are wearing lederhosen???

    Let people dress up for God sake!

    I think she looks gorgeous.

    • Allie says:

      Apart from some Bavarians nobody is wearing Lederhosen. So everybody looks like a dressed up moron – even inhabitants of Munich during the Oktoberfest. 🙂

      • bored at work says:

        God yes – it’s ridiculous! And the worst part is that people all over Germany have started to dress up (and for them it IS a costume) in Dirndl and Lederhosen for Oktoberfest-like festivities…

      • minime says:

        non German living in Germany and yes, it just looks super silly. Not if we’re in the Alps or really anywhere in Bayern where people wear it in a natural way as working clothes or celebration clothes for special occasions. That I find quite nice and interesting, since it is really a cultural symbol. But I can only cringe when I see tourists and people outside Bavaria wearing these cheap costumes..Whatever, they should do what they want but really just looks idiot. And specially for women I can’t see what is the appeal to use an apron as a dress, but to each their own.

        I don’t think the example of Ri here is cultural appropriation but a nice homage. In every culture there are aesthetic aspects that are just beyond beautiful and should be appreciated outside of it IMO. I think it’s great if we can still appreciate these aspects. I’m mostly happy when I see other people taking interest in our cultural aesthetics as long as they make reference to it. Still I think it’s a difficult topic and I think it’s important to stay sensitive to what the culture affected has to say about it.

      • Elisa says:

        I`m Austrian and in my country it is super popular to wear traditional costumes (dirndl, lederhosen) for all kinds of events, especially among younger people. Some of my family and friends even got married in traditional costumes and all guests were kindly asked to wear it. 😉
        I went to the Wiener Wiesn last year (Viennese Oktoberfest, but on a smaller scale) and loads of people were in dirndl and lederhosen…
        Of course Austria has a long-standing tradition for this stuff but it got popular again a few years back. I don`t mind it, as long as people have fun. 🙂

    • Valiantly Varnished says:

      This comment shows that you don’t actually understand what cultural appropriation is. Because that’s not it hun. Please educate yourself on the subject before pooh poohing it and stating that people need to “relax” about it.

      • Yup, Me says:

        Thank you. Just out here being loud and wrong.

      • Wisca says:

        The *legal immigrant* phrase sets the tone and deeper meaning for the critique of cultural appropriation.

      • DS9 says:

        All day, @VV and it’s always some pale folks whose culture is otherwise respected or honored, who has airways been seen as beautiful and worthy of celebration who dismiss our concerns.

      • Molly says:

        I knew this commenter was white before I got seven words into the post. Yep. ‘Twas right.

  9. Udi says:

    Oh come on. Chinese people wanted her on the cover, they styled her, photographed her and then put her on a cover catering to Chinese people. How is that appropriation?? We need to stop being offended on behalf of people. That prom dress incident was an abomination, useless criticism by white people when the Chinese didn’t give af. Indian here, If you love sarees and you are white, you can wear them if you live bindis and glass bangles and any other Indian accessories, you can absolutely wear them. No Indian will be offended, we love people of other ethnicities wearing our clothes or coming in contact with our culture. For it to be appropriation, there has to be an element of disrespect. Which is absent here. I am totally tired of this ridiculous notion that such innocent things can constitute cultural appropriation.
    Now Lana Del Rey wearing a Native American headdress is cultural appropriation. But JLaw wearing Mexican inspired skirts for Dior, when Dior flew in the women they were inspired them gave them full credit and runway time is not cultural appropriation. There has to be an element of disrespect or/ and exploitation for it to be.

    • K.T says:

      I agree. I wish people would calm down and a bit more nuance & generosity to the cultural appropriation debate. In my opinion the right focus would show respect, intelligence & if there is a big systemic gap then that is a problem we should rectify. It shouldn’t be about hindering artist’s creativity.
      This editorial is more cyber-mash up and seems to be totally messing around with pan-Chinese (and many other random) elements in a way that’s fantasy punk and futuristic. That’s why Rihanna works for this shoot because it’s weird mishmash of a designer’s vision and not a type of identity based historical roadmap.

      • otaku fairy... says:

        “I agree. I wish people would calm down and a bit more nuance & generosity to the cultural appropriation debate. In my opinion the right focus would show respect, intelligence & if there is a big systemic gap then that is a problem we should rectify. It shouldn’t be about hindering artist’s creativity.” This, or about having something to weaponize when you really have other issues around a person.

    • otaku fairy... says:

      Good points. Sometimes we visualize people (especially stars and icons) outside of our own race or culture too in fashions and things connected to our cultures- especially artsy, creative types. There should be some room for that.

  10. Allie says:

    So, everyone who is saying “no”: Is it cool with people because she is not a white person or because the team who styled her belongs to the culture she’s portraying?

    • Maddy says:

      It’s cool because of the people who styled her and who she’s catering to. She’s on the cover of a Chinese magazine.
      If this was a Fenty Beauty ad for the American/European market, styled and shot by an American creative team, it would be a whole different thing.

    • ByTheSea says:

      It’s cool because she didn’t take it upon herself to do it; it was the people of the culture who styled her. She didn’t appropriate; it was gifted for this particular occasion.

      • Jadedone says:

        That being said it was cultural appropriation when she did the video Princess of China

    • Cindy says:

      It’s because Chinese people chose to do this. It’d be just as unproblematic if it were Madonna or Britney Spears. If a Chinese team decided to put this on a Chinese magazine that’s their problem and us Americans need to learn to shut the f*ck up and not tell other people what they are supposed and not supposed to be offended by.

  11. Mb says:

    What a stupid article. Of course its not cultural appropriation, it’s not even close.
    But can we talk about how unbelievably gorgeous these pics are?!

  12. Mary says:

    How is this cultural appropriation. A Chinese team put this all together and was ter Rihanna dressed like this . Rihanna has always spoken highly about Chinese fashion and culture. She always gives the culture she appreaciting credit and tells you what’s great and why it should be appreaciated . She doesn’t take and pretend she invented it . That’s the difference

  13. SKF says:

    I actually think it is incredibly paternalistic when western cultures get their panties in a bunch over cultural appropriation when it is a case like this. Unless the culture being “appropriated” says it’s is cultural appropriation; just let it be. It is not our place to diagnose an issue like this without consulting with the people whose culture is being borrowed or represented. Doing so is just as bad as actual cultural appropriation because it is removing agency from people and pretending that we know better – which is extremely patronising.

    China is one of the strongest countries and cultures on earth. This shoot was for a Chinese magazine with a Chinese team deciding on all of the elements. Therefore, it is in no way cultural appropriation.

    Cultures are allowed to be proud of sharing and spreading their cultures without these ridiculous conversations.

    So, let’s save that label for things like Max Mara’s terrible appropriation of the Oma people’s traditional designs without consolation, payment or reference to the source.

  14. Well-Wisher says:

    It is a work of art. More importantly do the Chinese find the cover one of their cultural appropriation?

  15. janet says:

    I don’t think Rihanna is trying for Fenty to get sold in China. Doesn’t China require any products sold in their market be tested on animals and Fenty Beauty clearly states they don’t do this?

    • MellyMel says:

      I think they are referring to her fashion line being sold in China & not the makeup.

    • Leriel says:

      Not a beauty line,but her new luxury fashion line. China is huge market for luxury brands now, a lot of them narrow China through their campaigns now, sometimes its bad (like D&G campaign with Chinese model), sometimes its weird, but normal, like Chanel campaign for their beauty line, targeting entire east Asian market. Rihanna is making her brand with LVMH company, so I guess they want it to be sold.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

      Not exactly. Products in mainland China, sold in brick and mortar stores, must be tested on animals. Products sold in Hong Kong (not sure about other SARs) or online from other countries can be cruelty-free.

  16. AprilMay says:

    “It was styled by Chinese stylists, shot by a Chinese photographer, visually edited by Chinese visual artists, and on and on” So no we shouldnt have a problem with it. They did it in a way that was in no doubt respectful to their culture and it was their choice to dress/style her this way.
    Also I doubt shes doing it to try and promote Fenty Beauty in China. They require all beauty products to be tested on animals if theyre to be sold there and theyre cruelty free products. Her clothing lines possibly, but not her beauty line.

  17. Bebe says:

    I think it isn’t in this case. But I still remember being so appalled that she dresses up as a geisha for the “Princess of China” video a few years back. Not strictly relevant, to be fair.

  18. Valiantly Varnished says:

    No. This isn’t cultural appropriation. She was styled by Chinese stylists, shot by a Chinese photographer for a Chinese publication. That’s not how appropriation works. It would be different of it had been a team of white folks dressing her up. That clearly isn’t the case.

  19. MellyMel says:

    Not appropriation in this case since everyone involved with the team working on this shoot is Chinese. The covers are so pretty…that second one is pure art.

  20. eto says:

    I followed the convo a bit on twitter and many white folks were just using it to say, “If Rihanna can do THIS, than why can’t I do THAT, double standards blah blah blah” not Chinese folks saying that they were offended.

    Less of an actual conversation and more of intentionally misunderstanding cultural appropriation to further the construct that mere idea of cultural appropriation is discrimination against white people.

    No controversy here, imo.

  21. LoriC says:

    I agree that this was their vision for her and it was as much a benefit to their brands as her brand. But I do have to wonder if she was white, would people feel the same way. If say Taylor Swift did this exact same thing, would people be OK with it. I really highly doubt it.

    Which brings us back to the cultural appropriation discussion. Why is it OK for some people to do it but not others? The rules are so vague, it’s hard to not offend.

    • DS9 says:

      The rules are not that vague and if the only difference you see to a question like this is color, then that’s your answer. Because white people.

      You can’t spend centuries dismissing a culture as foreign, barbaric, exotic, less than, etc to the point of war, genocide, discrimination, and exclusion and then later try to make it acceptable within a narrow, white, Eurocentric lens.

    • Cindy says:

      I mean if all it’d change is that it’s Taylor Swift on the cover I don’t understand why it would change the fact it’s a Chinese photographer working for a Chinese magazine sold to Chinese people.

      I guess my point is: us Americans need to learn how to STFU and let other cultures do their own thing. It’s like that Matt Damon movie about the Great Wall – Chinese directors and producers made the choice of putting him in the film, but American white people complained because they felt China should be more offended than that. Because who understands Chinese sensitivity better than American white women.

      • DS9 says:

        To be clear, I’m not the one who argued that it’s the involvement of others who are Chinese that makes it not cultural appropriation so perhaps I’m not the one you needed to tag.

        It certainly helps but the Chinese market absolutely can be opportunistic and be willing to go low on their own culture just to make sales. Just as black women and other POC can be exploitative of another culture.

        In the Matt Damon example, it wasn’t his presence alone that made it cultural appropriation. The whole project was a poor representation of Asian culture and the story centered a white mam, which is part of why it didn’t do so well. It’s not the worst example bit it wasn’t necessary either.

        And your argument doesn’t hold water. Being offered a part doesn’t mean one has to take it or that there aren’t some cultural landmines best avoided. Please see Scarjo or Emma Stone in whatever that movie was where she clearly wasn’t Asian.

    • otaku fairy... says:

      It wouldn’t be appropriation if Taylor Swift did this either. I don’t like her but it’s important to be upfront about the real issues we have with people without using things like this (another example of a misused topic: accusations of ‘queerbaiting’) as a shield.
      The thing with fair maiden Taylor though is some of the same people who would defend her doing it or at least not have a problem with her doing it may react differently if someone like Emily Ratajkowski, Halsey, or Demi Lovato did it because they already have nasty issues with those women to begin with. So I absolutely would throw that up if I caught it. This is a recurring theme. Same if they were chill with a man doing it but had an issue with a woman doing it.

  22. val says:

    This is….just beautiful.

  23. DS9 says:

    It’s always amazing to me how upset white people get when told they can’t do something because they are white.

    The indignity! The outrage!

    And often over things that won’t hurt them a bit but does harm others, like uttering the n word or wearing a religious headress to Coachella.

    Not real discriminatory shit like being denied a loan or a lease or getting passed over for a job or having your resume tossed in the trash without consideration.

    “But why can’t white people do it?” is such a childish argument, deliberately ignorant, and a flat out denial of oppression and yet spoken with such philosophical earnestness.

    The answer is simple.

    Because of white supremacy.

    Just start adding that word to the back if it helps. It’s not because you yourself or Taylor Swift or whomever is white themselves.

    It’s because of White Supremacy

  24. Cindy says:

    Tbh, I think the fact people are even having this discussion is more racist and goes to show what foreigners always complain about us – that Americans go around the world acting like we know what’s best for them.

    Chinese people chose to do this shot with Rihanna on the cover. That Americans are telling Chinese people they are supposed to be offended by their own work is patronizing on so, so many levels.

    • tolly says:

      Agreed! This is some condescending white savior BS. Some people just love the sound of their own voices when they express their “concerns.”

    • Nicole Le says:

      Thank you. As someone that is a 1st Generation born Asian American, this is exactly how I feel. I don’t need anyone being offended on “my behalf”. If my own race wants to complain, great. If not, shush.

  25. Chrissy S says:

    Let’s put it like this, if you travel to say India, and a dress maker comes up to you and asks you to wear a sari she just made. She wants to take pictures and have you model the dress. She even asks you to keep the dress afterwards to remember the moment. Is that cultural appropriation? I don’t see how if you’re gifted the item from the culture it comes from and they ask you to wear it. Same with Riri in this scenario.

  26. Mash says:

    so what yal NOT about to do is try to CANCEL rihanna because white people arent given the same go head as POCs typically with a culture’s indigenous dressing. White supremacy is why everything is examined with yal…. and for that blame the current and your ancestors for the whitewashing code that has made society more observant.

    She looks lovely…i feel this styling tho is kinda geisha like which is japanese….but hey the chinese harper bazaar styled this and chose rihanna…

    she is saved….and yal DONT DO IT


  27. Libby says:

    I think it’s really easy to tell if something is cultural appropriation. If you weaponize your own culture or disrespect/mock someone else’s, that’s where the problems begin, regardless of your heritage. This photo shoot was masterfully done, and you can see the thoughtfulness in the details and posing. I think these are some of the most beautiful and artistic photos I’ve seen from magazine’s recently, and they might be my favorites of Rhianna, ever.

  28. Jane says:

    To me it is cultural appropriation bc the argument is based on the fact that Asian Americans are made fun of for embracing their culture but when another culture does it, it’s seen as cool. And it simply doesn’t stop at only at Americans. The same group that fights for racial equality for their own culture against whites will then turn around and join white groups in using racist and hurtful stereotypes against another minority group. If we lived in a world where this didn’t occur, then yes it would be Rihanna just showing homage. But we don’t and the fact that Rihanna has previously used racist stereotypes against Karrecuche Tran ( rice cake meme), a woman of another Asian culture, further makes it unacceptable that she gets to play dress up for a culture that she has made fun of ( both Chinese and Vietnamese use rice cakes, even if they are not same.)

  29. Veronica S. says:

    I mean, I fully admit I have ring in this fight because I’m a white American woman, but my general understanding is that if it’s done for the culture BY the culture and with permission, it’s not appropriation. Rihanna is doing this for a Chinese magazine headed by Chinese parties. It’s not being sold in Europe or America as a statement of exoticism. This is more like…culture sharing to me. Neither side is using culturally relevant garments for material gain or othering.

    But again, I’m not Chinese, so I’m totally open to being told I’m completely wrong on that part. *shrugs*

  30. detritus says:

    The blue dress and the bird ( cormorant?) charm omg. So absolutely beautiful, with the red and the sceptre(I don’t know what it is but it looks epic) and I love what they did with her.

    China has a problem with racism (like most places), and black folk are pretty rare population-wise and considered bad sellers in terms of projects. So IMO this isn’t about our lens as North American’s, it’s about China’s and the people there. Both Harper’s and Rih are taking a risk here, and it’s multi-layered with the appeal to traditional elements, colours and styling against Rih’s disruptive persona and business model (I mean that in the best way).

  31. polionna says:

    Harpers Bazaar China. End of discussion. It’s funny that it’s the West that’s freaking out about this so now thinking the discussion should really be more about Western saviors deciding what’s offensive or not. I’m Asian just FYI.

  32. ikki says:

    it is. imagine a chinese model wearing a black cultural look – the criticism would be loud af.

  33. Li says:

    It is not, and it’s a lovely cover. But if she’d been white (or KKW) she would have been crucified.