Reconsidering Cultural Appropriation
By Wil Forbis
September 1, 2018
I should first be upfront about something. I used to think the idea of cultural appropriation was a bag of horseshit. In fact, as recently as several months ago I was heard on a podcast deriding the concept.
Lately though, while I haven't completely reversed my views, I have softened them a bit and I'll tell you why.
First, we should be clear what the term cultural appropriation means. Obviously a dictionary-in-hand parsing speaks of the idea of one group taking cultural elements from another. In practice the term almost always applies to white people taking culture from black and brown people. Elvis stole the blues from African Americans the charge goes. The Stones did the same thing. Katie Perry copped black braids from urban hair salons. Miley Cyrus stole twerking.
The “Elvis stole the blues” thing always bugged me. The accusation implies that Elvis schemed his way up the charts by taking black music and putting a white face on it but that never matched my sense of the history of Elvis. He seems to have genuinely loved and been excited by the sounds of black music and gave credit where it was due. The same could be said of the Stones. There's no doubt Mick and Keith were huge blues fans and saw their work as an homage to that art form.
The counter to this is usually that intent doesn't matter, impact does. Whatever these white artists intended, the result was they made millions off black music while black artists starved. And that's largely true though many black musicians saw Elvis and especially the Stones as breaking down barriers that allowed their music careers to thrive. But, I get the complaint one can make here: that this is essentially thanking Elvis and the Stones for opening up white audience's ears to music they should have been open to it in the first place. But at a certain point you have to concede that it's an imperfect world and in the real world it was better these white musicians did what they did than not.
Anyway, that argument can be continued back and forth (and it has in web forums and social media across the internet) with little resolution. I'm going to leave it be and talk about some articles that have challenged my views.
One was a piece that popped up in my hometown alt-paper, the San Diego City Beat. It was entitled "Modern reggae has a cultural appropriation problem" and, well, you can probably figure out what it was about. Essentially it took aim at the various "white guys with baseball caps" bands that play watered-down reggae songs that are more about island vibes and cannabis than revolution.
Interestingly, I was a little more open to its argument because I'm not a giant fan of reggae. I get defensive when people argue that white people shouldn't play blues or jazz because I'm a white guy who likes to play blues and jazz. But reggae kind of bores me and I don't reflexively defend white guys who play it.
Additionally, I do know enough about the history of reggae and Jamaica in the seventies (when reggae became internationally famous) to know that it really wasn't meant to be "chill" music. It was born of a culture that was desperate and activist and no stranger to violence. To quote a reggae aficionado quoted in the article:“Reggae music wasn’t easy back in the day,” she says. “It appealed to people that were oppressed and suffering. Bob Marley and Peter Tosh got beaten up. Bob Marley almost got killed. It wasn’t fun and games...."
As a result of this, I've always found something a bit off when I've seen bands that seem to be a bunch of drunken frat boys playing reggae. I've no doubt they love the music the same way Elvis and the Stones loved the blues, but something smells fishy. In a way I can't quite verbalize, I feel Jamaicans have greater "ownership" of reggae* that Americans blacks have over the blues.
* This brings up an interesting question: what about non-Jamaican blacks playing reggae---is that ok? I realize I have no claim to be an arbitrator of these things but that seems weird to me too. Less weird than white guys though.
Of course this opens up a lot of questions. What about British and American ska bands of the 70s and 80s? Are they all frauds? What about the reggae influenced music of the Police, The Clash and even the whitest of white bands (and longtime faves of mine), Rush? Do we now just shove that off the table? Of course not. For one, I think the those ska bands, while indebted to the Jamaican influence, took the ball and ran with it, creating their own thing in the process. And to disallow bands like the Police and Rush from being influenced by reggae is to essentially shut down musical cross-pollination which I think is impossible whatever the ethics of it are.
So let me move on to the second article that got me thinking about this. Titled "Stolen Language: The Strange Case of Meghan Trainor's Blaccent," it went after the white girl pop star for "talking black." The author made his case with autopsy-like attention to detail.
...If everyone in America started being really honest about how and where the language we use came from and how it got here, where would it end? What else would we have to admit was stolen?
This thought came back to me the other day when I heard Meghan Trainor’s megahit single “NO” in my car. It starts with a sung intro setting up the song's narrative theme, namely that the dude fixing his face to holler at Trainor in the club is about to get all types of rejected. In fact, the scrub can’t even get a word out before she sings, “But let me stop you there.” Trainor delivers this line in a noticeably weird tone. She actively chooses to leave off the “t” sound in “but” and replaces the “th” in “there” with a “d,” making the line sound closer to bu lemme stop you dere. It sounds forced coming from her, as though she were practicing a language she just recently learned.
These may come across as random and idiosyncratic vocal choices, but they are not. They are the recognized phonic conventions of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), a variety of English spoken largely, though not exclusively, by working-class and middle-class African-Americans. AAVE has been studied by linguists who cite it as a correct and complete language system with consistent internal logic and grammatical complexity. Society at large, however, still persists in treating AAVE as a sign of low intelligence, which means that people who speak it naturally are regarded as less worthy of jobs and respect. Later in the song, Trainor goes all in, straight-out singing, "I be like, nah” — that's the habitual/continuative aspect, a common feature of AAVE, for all you linguists out there. Trainor, who hails from Nantucket, noticeably loses these linguistic tics in her interviews. “Stop you dere” is such an awkward-sounding sentence coming from her that it can’t possibly be an accident. She doesn't sound like a black person when she sings; she sounds like a white person trying to talk black.
In reality, none of us need this linguistic mumbo-jumbo (Hmm, I wonder what culture came up with the phrase "mumbo-jumbo"?); we all recognize talking black when we hear it. But while I don't think I've always been conscious about it, this argument has long resonated with me. I can recall being a twenty-something in the northwest and having white friends who would either copiously quote rap lyrics or use black phrases that they had clearly picked up from MTV or movie. Why would they do this? To be cool; "talking black" has always been cool. But some part of me, when I heard this, would think, "Wait.. that's not yours." Something seemed phony about it, like they were putting on a costume but pretending that was who they really were.
Now I should come clean here: I almost certainly engaged in this sort of thing myself. But, in my mind, I was being "ironic" (remember, this was the 90s); I wasn't actually trying douse myself in the cool of blackness, but rather create a comedic jolt by talking in a way that clearly didn't match my face. Whether it worked or was offensive is something I'll let others decide though I suspect a lot of behavior I thought was clever back then was really pretty idiotic.
This second article cemented something in my head---one of these vague notions that's been percolating there for years without rising completely to consciousness. I get, on an emotional level, why this sort of thing is insulting to black people. You're going through life, talking a certain way---a way that you are aware brands you as an unintelligent low-life in the eyes of many---and then you see this multimillionaire pop star* talking in exactly the same way! Or you have hair braids of a type that to many folks means you should be attacking your ex on Jerry Springer and then Katy Perry shows up with the same damn thing. I can see why that would be infuriating. If black people, and other marginalized people, have had one thing in this country it's been possession of a certain kind of "cool." And here come a bunch of pasty pop stars attempting to grab that cool.
* In this era of reduced music profits I'm not sure Trainor actually is a multimillionaire but there's certainly the perception that she is.
What articles of the type mentioned above are trying to do is say, "we have a problem here." So the question then becomes, "what do we do about this problem?" That's where things get very sticky.
Essentially what's happening is that non-white people feel white people are taking their property. And to investigate that charge we need to think about what property is. We all understand the notion of property when it comes to physical objects---your house, your pants, your money, etc. If someone takes any of that we almost all universally agree it is theft and a violation.
We also have the notion of intellectual property. This is the idea that an entity can own ideas, concepts and such. The rules here are less obvious. The general argument is that only really unique and specific ideas---whether they be story concepts, drug formulations, software designs, music phrases or whatever---can be thought of as property. As a result, most lawsuits based on disputes over intellectual property are arguments about how unique a concept it. This gets problematic---an idea can be unique and yet still conceived of by two separate individuals around the same time. In that case, who is the “owner?”
Culture tends to be a mix of many components, both physical and non-physical. Physical artifacts are of course protected from theft as are their designs if they are copyrighted or patented in some way. But much of culture is non-physical---it's the prosody of people’s speech, their accent, their turns-of-phrase, their fashion, their philosophical and religious ideas and their approach to music and dance. Such things are very difficult to put a legal veil of protection over because they are so liquid. A catchphrase or meme can spread like wildfire these days; are we suddenly going to punish every person who says it? And who can claim to own it? How would they prove such a claim? The same might be true for a fashion or hairstyle trends. (I'm not talking about specific designs but general approaches, like hair braids.) These “culturalisms” are very liquid---they spread quickly and are impossible to contain.
Now I don't think anyone is really saying we should criminalize cultural appropriation. I think the view more is that white people should respect certain unspoken barriers. Don't use strongly black identified phrases, music types, fashion designs and so on. And we all already acknowledge these barriers to some degree. If your white friend shows up in a dashiki and speaking ebonics you're definitely going to look at him or her funny. The whole reason Rachel Dolezal attracted so much attention is because she was flagrantly violating these rules.
The complaint isn't that white people don't observe boundaries when it comes to other cultures, it's more where those boundaries are. And identifying those boundaries, and getting everyone to agree on them, is an almost impossible task. With physical objects, it very clear when someone is taking something that doesn't belong to them. But our sense is that much of intellectual property, or culture, lives in a sort of commons---a space that belongs to all people. And it's very fluid nature mandates that it will spread quickly. And I don't see how that can be stopped (or whether it should be.)
Like most of my articles on these types of questions, I have no definitive answer. But I am a bit more sensitive to the complaint of cultural appropriation than I was months ago. And I think the conversation driven by articles like the ones I linked above---sermonizing though they may be---are worth having.
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Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.