What is Cultural Appropriation?
Cultural appropriation is a complex sociological phenomena that has devastating effects on minority populations. The working definition of cultural appropriation is a power dynamic where members of a dominant culture or race ignorantly take elements of a culture or people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.
I see examples of unconscious cultural appropriation extremely often. To understand, and subsequently learn how to combat this problem is a small contribution I can make to improve my community.
Please take this short survey about your personal opinions on cultural appropriation:
Unfortunately, appropriation of all races is rampant throughout American history, but the flagrant theft of black culture, namely in the music industry was an issue plaguing many aspects of American history.
The first age of appropriation within the music industry emerged during the civil rights era. Take Elvis Presley. Elvis is widely hailed as the King of Rock and Roll, but few know his forefathers and mothers, such as Sister Rosetta Thorpe, Tracy Chapman, Chuck Berry, Blind Willie McTell, and B.B King who were performing the same music before him yet received, and continue to receive little to no credit (Bradford, Jones). Elvis was an amalgamation of black rock, blues, and jazz artists, who because of the segregation at the time were not recognized for their genius. Elvis, and countless other musicians of their time and ours, took black music, and popularized it by simply singing it as a white male (Ward).
A new period of cultural theft began shortly after the birth of hip-hop. In order to fully understand the impact that this cultural appropriation has on minority populations, one must examine the history of hip- hop. Hip- hop’s lyrical roots are planted in that of West African griots, or storytellers, who sung of deaths, births, weddings, or any other pertinent information as a correspondence device (Blanchard). This then transformed into metaphors and rhymes that slaves would sing to communicate escape plans without their masters hearing word.
Fast forward to the 1960s, and one finds young, black artists putting spoken word to a beat. The earliest rappers set out on a mission, not only to entertain, but to do as their ancestors did, and communicate an important message above their beats. Afrika Bambatta, Kool Herc, and Grandmaster Flash invented hip- hop to preach a different sermon to the gangs of their native New York City and give young, disenfranchised, and marginalized black youths a different path. Unfortunately, once rap became popularized, wealthy businessmen saw the profit in the music, and transformed it into a mainstream industry. In other words, “the commodification of rap has allowed large paychecks and platinum records to erase the historical, social, and economic contexts, out of which rap has emerged, from public consciousness” (Blanchard). Upon further research, it is no surprise that recording labels once black owned, were being bought out by wealthy white men (McDonald). Although in the 1960s and 70s, whites were in a seemingly infinitely better position than blacks, producers still took the ideas, culture, and even words of blacks to put money in their pockets. This is literal theft. Money that should have been going into the accounts of the black artists who created this positive form of expression out of oppression, was taken. These were the seeds that grew out to become the cultural appropriation we are familiar with today.
“We’ve been floating this country on credit for centuries, yo, and we’re done watching and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us, burying black people out of sight and out of mind while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil – black gold, ghettoizing and demeaning our creations then stealing them, gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit.”
—- Jesse Williams during his BET acceptance speech
Why should Macklemore win a Grammy when just twenty six years ago George W. Bush dismissed Ice T.’s provocative and pertinent song “Cop Killer” as “wholesale” when in truth it brought to light the horror of police brutality? Macklemore was hailed for a song about shopping at a thrift store while black rappers were ostracized by the leaders of our country for speaking their mind.
Why should Tomi Lahren rap to 21 Savage’s song “Bank Account” while tweeting months before: “Meet the new KKK, they call themselves ‘Black Lives Matter’ but make no mistake their goals are far from equality”? As if that was not a sure example of her oblivion, Tomi proceeded to support Trump’s comment about “s**thole countries” which includes 21’s native Dominica (Hashimi).
The irony of these situations are unapologetically conspicuous, but it is important to keep in mind that these are only two of thousands if not millions examples of cultural appropriation dating back hundreds of years.
To those who do not believe in cultural appropriation:
There are many people that dismiss cultural appropriation to be a product of the overly- sensitized “snowflake” or hyper progressive generations. I invite those people to not only check their privilege, but take the time to research the effects and history of cultural appropriation beyond what brief information I have been able to provide.
Moreover, many say race is a socially constructed barrier created to divide, and cultural appropriation is simply another way to discriminate against people. While race is, arguably, a social construct, hundreds of years of history that includes heinous examples of discrimination and oppression can not be disregard as a “social construct.”
Rap is the beautiful flower that bloomed from the ugly, and widely invisible roots of racism. In fact, hip hop as we know it today was created in a time of great strife:
“Hip hop culture emerged in the context of New York City’s economic restructuring during the 1970s. In that decade, fiscal crisis, deindustrialization, white flight, and urban renewal decimated the Bronx. The South Bronx shed tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs. Forty percent of the industrial sector disappeared. The youth unemployment rate rose to 60%. Urban renewal projects and the construction of the Cross-Bronx Expressway displaced African Americans and Puerto Ricans. Around 60,000 Bronx homes were razed during the 1960s and 1970s. The decline of the Black Power movement, the rise of drug markets, and street gangs provided the backdrop for young blacks and Puerto Ricans who sought to make sense of their lives artistically during the late 1970s and early 1980s” (McCoy).
It is simply unjust for others to reap the reward without at least understanding the centuries of struggle people went through to birth this art form.
There are no racial walls being built or bridges being burned. I, and many members of minority groups, simply ask for acknowledgement.
Watch this short video to better understand the modern impacts of cultural appropriation:
Warning: Some profane language
Coming up with a solution to this problem is difficult, for there is no one solution that would fully solve the problem, but there are many musicians who have made it their life’s work to appreciate black culture. Take Johnny Otis. Johnny Otis was a prominent jazz and blues artists, to some one of the greatest, in the mid 1900s, and he was white (Cartwright). George Lipsitz, professor of Black Studies and sociology at UC Santa Barbara writes: “Johnny felt conflicted about being a white man in black music… He felt the imitators got more credit than the originators. And he believed that if he was going to draw from the well of black creativity, he owed something to the black culture that created it.” This is a great example of cultural appreciation, and it helps define where cultural appropriation ends, and cultural appreciation begins.
For example, not allowing whites to rap is simply discriminatory, and would take away from some of the musical geniuses we have today. Take white rapper Eminem, he is a well respected lyrical mastermind, but he is rarely accused of cultural appropriation. Why? Because he acknowledges and vocalizes his white privilege. It is not white people rapping, or singing rock and roll that is the problem, but their ignorance to those with similar talents but infinitely more barriers. That is why, in his provocative song, “White America,” Eminem raps, “if I was black I would have sold half”(Eminem). Eminem’s approach to his art, which includes recognition of his white privilege, is one other musicians can follow.
Another plausible solution is to have the communities who created the music, be in control of its production and distribution, so the music never loses sight of its roots and beginnings.
What can you do?
Do not simply consume: It is completely acceptable to listen and enjoy black music and culture, but rather than mindlessly listen music, listen to the words. Look up the artists and read their stories to better understand the power of their music.
Do your research: Before going to the concert of, say, Iggy Azalea or Macklemore, see what attempts they have made to give back to the culture that they profit off of.
Disrupt the status quo: Refuse to support mainstream artists that reap the rewards of a culture that they do not understand or actively support. Non- corporation can be extremely powerful.
Use your eyes and voice: If you see examples of cultural appropriation during day to day life, speak up, and work to educate people on the harm they may be causing.
Work to understand: One way to indirectly interact with culture is to appreciate their arts, but one can also interact with the people to directly immersive themselves in their cultures.
Seek to educate: Many people can afford to be oblivious to these issues. Work to make cultural appropriation a visible issue by using the platforms available at your fingertips. If you are reading this, I am assuming you have access to some sort of electronic device. Write blogs, send tweets, and attempt to educate a larger number of people. Support organizations such as Stop the Cult that work to stop cultural appropriation.
This article details what one can do daily to prevent cultural appropriation.
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