Craig David was basically the godfather of the infamous Flavas dolls

In the early 2000s, the brains behind Barbie debuted a new line of hip-hop- and Black-culture-inspired fashion dolls called Flavas. The verdict? They were problematic (and swiftly discontinued after a year of poor sales). Their legacy? Not entirely tainted, thanks to none other than U.K. R&B legend Craig David.

A photo of Craig David photoshopped over a photo of four of the Flavas dolls.

forget important things often. Birthdays, invoices, appointments, prescriptions, deadlines, an empty gas tank. I. Stay. Forgetting. My absentmindedness is selective, though — and isn’t everyone’s? The average person doesn’t remember the Pythagorean theorem or the Bill of Rights, but they sure as hell remember the iconic intro to “Ambitionz Az A Ridah” or the equally eminent pre-chorus of Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together.” And it might actually be erroneous of me to assume that fun stuff like lyrics or melodies is of no consequence. Because music is just as influential and necessary as numerous overrated concepts, say, the second amendment or hypotenuses. I can do without guns and math. But music? Nah. That shit is often indispensable; and even when it isn’t, it still beckons you to retain a memory of its particular character.

Or at least that is what I tell myself, because I know there’s a complicated, neurological explanation for my remembering the hook of a song that soundtracked a very specific commercial from 18 years ago — but not 13 times anything greater than 11. Nonetheless, I do remember said hook quite well: an unknown male voice asking,What’s your flava? Tell me what’s your flava,” over and over, atop a beat that society would characterize as urban, funky, or hip. And urban, funky, and hip, indeed, was the product being marketed, a new line of fashion dolls manufactured by Mattel. They were called Flavas, of course.

The first commercial for the Flavas line, circa 2003.

Spoiler alert: I never owned a Flavas doll. I was more of a My Scene, Bratz, occasional Barbie kind of 8-year-old. But during the Flavas’ lifetime, which was equally short and controversial, the commercials pushed on kids’ channels imbued within me moderate interest — not necessarily in the earwormy “What’s Your Flava?” theme song, but rather the fashion and lifestyle of the “Flavas crew” itself. The six dolls were outfitted in baggy garb and oversized icing clearly inspired by hip-hop’s Y2K “bling era”; with bendable-ish limbs, they spent their plasticized pastimes breaking in front of nondescript, brick housing complex stoops, and dapping up the homies.

While the market competition — aka the Bratz pack and MyScene girlies — loved sushi-serving karaoke bars, fashion shows, and masquerade-themed slumber parties, the Flavas crew ostensibly enjoyed public basketball courts, stoop chillin’, and boomboxes playing hip-hop beats. I, a little suburban girl growing up in a middle-class, predominately white area, couldn’t relate — but I could ogle at the dolls in slight curiosity when I saw them in action on TV or boxed up in the aisles of Toys “R” Us.

The Flavas crew. (Question: why were the white girls always placed front-and-center?

Even back then, I knew that the Flavas were… different. But to describe the dolls as “different” is also to beat around the bush — because any socially aware person living in this present decade would recognize the Flavas’ sensationalized idiosyncrasies as blatantly problematic. However, the Flavas weren’t around in 2021; they were inventions of yesteryear, a primitive time in which Xtina wore box braids and J.Lo made it out with barely a scratch after using the n-word on a remix of “I’m Real.” So, for now, I’ll just call the dolls different, because that’s how most people would’ve carefully described them. But liberal euphemisms and post-racial fantasies aside: the dolls were racist. Period, point-blank.

“They managed to appropriate Black culture in a way that a toy manufacturer never had: fully; terribly; sans a single fuck given. And for that, even today’s wokest colored folks can’t help but hoot and holler — because Mattel really tried it. But then the unexpected happened: unlike most cultural phenomena that use Black aesthetics and stereotypes as a blueprint, the Flavas line tanked.”

Still, I’ll be the first to say that when it came to the inception of the Flavas, Mattel was doing something different. They managed to appropriate Black culture in a way that a toy manufacturer never had: fully; terribly; sans a single fuck given. And for that, even today’s wokest colored folks can’t help but hoot and holler — because Mattel really tried it. But then the unexpected happened: unlike most cultural phenomena that use Black aesthetics and stereotypes as a blueprint, the Flavas line tanked.

A white female Flavas doll spray-paints a brick wall with graffiti lettering. She’s wearing a fuzzy black coat, makeup, and blonde microbraids.
A white female Flavas doll spray-paints a brick wall with graffiti lettering. She’s wearing a fuzzy black coat, makeup, and blonde microbraids.
White girls with microbraids >>>>> (Photography by My Plastic Life)

Within a year, Kiyoni Brown, Happy D, Tika, Liam, P. Bo, and Tre were all pulled from toy store shelves due to sales described as “disastrous” by the Wall Street Journal. And along with the discontinuation of the Flavas dolls was the absence of two other things: the catchy What’s your flava? Tell me what’s your flava” melody that defined the Flavas’ televised presence; and the enigmatic male singer who delivered it. Outside the confines of my own recollections, neither would ever be heard again.

Or so I thought.

welcomed Craig David into my life in 2016, when Grammy-winning electronic producer Kaytranada featured the British crooner on his debut album, 99.9%. To all the Black aunties reading this: I know, I know, I was sleep for like, 16 years. In my own defense, I probably had heard David’s music way before that in passing — perhaps in the late 2000s, when my parents tuned into any urban contemporary radio station. But “Got it Good,” the track Kaytra and David collaborated on, was my first formal introduction to David’s irresistible musicality: a smooth, velvety tenor delivering contemporary R&B narratives slicker and smarter than his better-known American peers’, yet notably penned by David himself.

The music video for “Fill Me In,” Craig David’s debut solo single, released in 2000.

Still, despite falling in love with the electro-R&B reverie of “Got it Good,” I failed to really dive into David’s personal catalog. Don’t read this too loudly — but I thought about David in the same capacity as Teedra Moses, Joe, or Jazmine Sullivan (pre-Heaux Tales or Reality Show): appreciatively, but sparingly, and never with enough curiosity to wrap my ears around the sonic peculiarities that their cult following adored.

I’ll stop with all the confessions, because I sense that I’m already on the watch list for Black folks who need their millennial culture card revoked. Plus, to exacerbate my own embarrassment — and likely solidify my exile — I’ll admit that the person who introduced me to David’s best songs was my white boyfriend, who’s a big fan of the singer-songwriter’s debut (and most commercially successful) LP, Born to Do It (2000). But the truth is the truth; a yt boy put me on. And a month or so ago, Jed was watching one of David’s many, many IGTV videos, in which the 39-year-old performs remixes and flips of his own songs in what appears to be an incredibly vibey home studio. I didn’t see who was on the screen, but I did recognize the synthesized vocal refrain pumping from the tinny, tiny speakers of Jed’s iPhone 8. What’s your flava? Tell me what’s your flava.

I was for-sure familiar with the hook — it was from a relic of a TV commercial. But which?

Now, I know y’all already know where I’m going with this: “What’s Your Flava?” is not a jingle, nor was David arbitrarily borrowing or sampling the track for kicks. It was his record — and the reason I recognized the song was that kid Syd had listened to it many times before, many years before, when its chorus was smushed between segments of The Powerpuff Girls and alongside Kidz Bop or Supersoaker commercials. Upon this knowledge acquisition (via my good sisters Google and Wikipedia, of course) I suddenly felt very enlightened — but such newfound insight opened a whole other can of worms. Which came first: the song or the Flavas dolls? And did this mean that *the* Craig Ashley David MBE was technically the godfather of the Flavas crew, however unremarkable or unsavory of an association that was?

“I imagine the business agreement bit went as such: Mattel told David’s people they wanted to use the cut for their groundbreaking collection of multi-ethnic, hip-hop-inspired fashion dolls; David and his people were like, aight, bet, lowkey sounds trash, but we’ll let you use it for this Very Large Sum of Money; then, Mattel said, okay, deal, seems like an excellent investment for this excellent product line. And the rest is history.”

To all this, you might say, who gives a shit? But obviously you do, because you’re still reading this. And so do I — in fact, it’s seemingly lilliputian connections like that of David and the failed Flavas that breathe life into my aging soul. So that weeks-ago evening, upon which I deduced that Mattel must’ve paid a real, famous musician a real big amount of money to help bring to life the creative vision of their real corny doll line, I felt beyond awakened, almost as awakened as Janet Jackson felt in the late ’90s after purportedly curing her chronic depression with coffee enemas.

But I digress. From what my Basic Sleuthing revealed, “What’s Your Flava?” was released in 2002 as the lead single from David’s sophomore album Slicker Than Your Average; on the contrary, Flavas debuted one year after that. Additional Intensive Investigating also revealed that in 2003, Mattel representative Julie Jensen (yes, yes she is) told USA Today that adopting a song by an “incredible” R&B artist like David would strengthen the Flavas brand’s core position, which was “all about authenticity and reality.” I imagine the business agreement bit went as such: Mattel told David’s people they wanted to use the cut for their groundbreaking collection of multi-ethnic, hip-hop-inspired fashion dolls; David and his people were like, aight, bet, lowkey sounds trash, but we’ll let you use it for this Very Large Sum of Money; then, Mattel said, okay, deal, seems like an excellent investment for this excellent product line. And the rest is history.

Craig David’s second album, “Slicker than Your Average,” released via Atlantic in 2002.

But unlike the lengthy chronicles of commercially successful doll brands, like Bratz or Barbie and My Scene, Flavas’ own life and times were cut short, crashing and burning in 2004. And while I’d be lying if I said I knew precisely why no one or they mama wanted to buy a Flavas doll nearly two decades ago, we can assume that the brand’s many moving parts — from its misrepresentation of hip-hop culture and “urban” fashion, to its offering of rub-on tattoos and “graffitied” packaging and advertisements — collectively propelled its demise.

Ngl, I would thrift this dude’s jacket.

Likewise, Mattel’s inappropriate conviction that a track like “What’s Your Flava?” could be marketed to an audience of 8- to 12-year-old girls was icing atop the calamity cake. Sure, only the song’s ambiguous chorus appeared in the Flavas commercials, while the rest of David’s winking, carnal lyricism — You’re what I want, your what I need / I want to taste ya, take ya home with me / You look so good, good enough to eat / I wonder if I can peel your wrapper, I can be your fantasy — was exchanged for new, G-rated script (My flava is always me, ’cause flava’s ya individuality / Now switch your flava, to switch your mood / Your flava is always true). But let’s be real — if blessed with the opportunity to bump “What’s Your Flava?” in its full, horny glory, anyone over the age of 14 would detect its truth… including mom and dad.

And perhaps parents were the fuel to the dumpster fire named Flavas. Because even though the thoughtless appropriation of Black culture and its branches is profitable amongst the youth, teens and young adults are rarely the ones buying toys for kids and tween girls — rather, at the time, Gen X parents and baby-boomer grandparents were. And in a Western world that’s still hella white and hella racist, Caucasian folks continue to be scared shitless of exposing their kids to anything Black-ish. After all, the Flavas toys could inspire their children to listen to “ghetto” music, buy CZ chains, or sag their pants. You know, real hood shit.

“And even when Mattel got almost everything wrong with the Flavas, they did manage to do one thing sort of right: investing in a prominent, young Black artist to soundtrack a brand beholden to the creativity of Black youth.”

In August 2003, former EBONY Editor-in-Chief Kyra Kyles wrote about the Flavas for the Chicago Tribune. Her pithy review for the product line was penned with more snark than ire, but with it, she dropped plentiful gems that perfectly summarized why the dolls were a problem:

“The [Flavas] are not so much cultural caricatures as embarrassing attempts to encapsulate what hip-hop means. Each female Flava comes with rub-on tattoos, impossibly tight mini-skirts and a ghetto blaster. A ghetto blaster in 2003? Is Mattel trying to get Kiyoni and P Bo arrested on the ‘L’? At the very least, get those girls an MP3 player and a year’s subscription to the new Napster. But all joking aside, the Flavas represent two evils: these dolls pander to the most unimaginative stereotypes about hip-hop and our increasingly multicultural society; by putting hip-hop in a graffiti-covered box, Mattel contradicts the very ‘individualism’ it claims to embrace.”

Kyles speaks nothing but the truth. But as a Black woman, I also have to smile a bit every time I look at photos of the fashion dolls on Google Images or watch them do their “thang” in 16:9 commercials on YouTube — because the reality is that the dolls were simulacra of Y2K culture that BIPOC communities simultaneously appreciate and critique, like The Proud Family (colorist) or Gwen Stefani’s Love. Angel. Music. Baby. era (racist). And even when Mattel got almost everything wrong with the Flavas, they did manage to do one thing sort of right: investing in a prominent, young Black artist to soundtrack a brand beholden to the creativity of Black youth.

I’ve been thinking about David quite a bit over these last few weeks. I still ponder a few things I’ll never know the answers to, like whether or not Mattel came correct when buying the usage rights to use “What’s Your Flava?”, or if David anticipated cashing out more than a puny year’s worth of residuals when handing over his song. But beyond all that, I mostly wonder what David thought of the Flavas himself — as a Black man whose art sculpted the culture, did he believe the dolls were just innocuous representations of it? And would he remember them today?

Probably not — but I’d love to think so. Because I’m positive I’m not the only early mid-20-something woman who retained David’s infectious songwriting more than the product that songwriting was promoting. And thanks to him, 17 years later, the Flavas are surprisingly worth waxing nostalgic about.

Sydney N. Sweeney is a writer, editor, and critic based in Los Angeles. Her work focuses on culture, music, identity, and pop nostalgia.