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Appreciation or Appropriation? Cultural Appropriation Examined Through Music

By February 2, 2016 0

Can somebody please tell me when exactly cultural appreciation became cultural appropriation?

Was it the the moment Robert Matthew Van Winkle demanded that we collectively “Stop, drop, collaborate and listen”?

Or was it that time that the Western world collectively realized Riff Raff was an actual thing with an actual fan base?

In my estimation the roots of what is known today as ‘cultural appropriation’ lie in the fragmented, segregated roots of American music. In telling the tale of the American musical landscape and its evolution from the blues to modern hip-hop, one necessarily traces over the origins of cultural theft. Not cultural imitation. Not cultural adoption. Cultural theft.

Make no mistake about it: imitation can be a form of flattery. Until imitation crosses the line into thievery, that is.

Former sharecropper Muddy Waters worked tireless days in the Mississippi heat, harvesting cotton and other crops for a measly wage and the promise of a roof over his head for another night. He was flattered when he received a telegram from a nascent British rock group by the name of the Rolling Stones informing him that his music had inspired their band’s name. This is exactly the type of imitation that can result in unforeseen connections and collaboration between cultures, in this case a group of white, middle-class British teens and an uneducated black man who knew nothing but rural plantation living until the late stages of his life.

Remember: the line between imitation and thievery is a thin one. One of the key differences contributing to the formation of that line is the acknowledgment of the original source of inspiration, whether it be an individual, a movement, or a culture as a whole.

Led Zeppelin helped to crystallize this sometimes indefinite distinction, stealing lyrics, themes, and titles of songs from blues artists-including but not limited to Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf- and passing them off as completely original works. An out-of-court settlement helped to establish Led as one of the early cases of high-profile cultural appropriation, though certainly not the last.

We saw this trend of borrowing without attribution continue as music evolved from the blues into more modern forms of uniquely American music. This has led to increasing accusations of inter-culture thievery which has extended past the realm of merely music.

‘Hip-Hop culture’, as it has been referred to, lent us the Vanilla Ice’s and Macklemores of the world, part of a larger melding of cultures facilitated by television and the internet. To reinforce my main point, Rob Van Winkle’s egomaniacal, rapping alter ego would have fallen squarely into the category of cultural imitation, all things being equal.

Instead, he embellished his upbringing to mimic that of the poor, urban, predominantly African-American rap artists who had come before him, and was exposed for his story telling. Perhaps the frosted tips soaked too far into his scalp. Perhaps he thought fictionalized ‘street cred’ would give his album sales a bump. Regardless, somewhere along the line Ice confused borrowing from an art form associated with black culture with actually being part of the culture.

All of this music-centric history brings us to our main point: if you are going to accuse somebody of appropriating your culture- black, white, Asian, Middle Eastern, or otherwise- know the difference between inspired imitation and shameless thievery.

Though there is no clear-cut rule, it seems as if protests over Halloween costumes are misguided. Though embellished stereotypes can cross lines of simple respect, the holiday is meant to promote dressing up as something you are not, whether it is Derek Jeter or Pocahontas. This one-day game of pretend should not be confused with malicious theft of culture experienced by the likes of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.

The consternation over ‘cultural appropriation’, however valid at times, harbors the devastating potential for us to forget the value which inter-culture borrowing has lent society. We never would have had Eminem had he not adopted-and importantly, adapted- an art established and dominated by black artists.

On the flip side basketball, which has given us the NBA, a sporting culture heavily favored in the African-American community, was invented by the whitest of white boys, Dr. James Naismith. Tiger Woods became an inspiration for white and black youth alike by reaching the precipice of the golf world, a sport created by and traditionally dominated by white males.

So, before you accuse somebody of stealing your culture, take a moment to ask yourself: is the example you speak of merely appreciation, or does it cross the line into appropriation?