APPROPRIATION VS. APPRECIATION – TEXT EMILY HARRISON
Cultural Appropriation has become a hot topic within the music industry. Most recently MIA tweeted:
The as yet unseen video is described by M.I.A. as a one take shot of an African dancer she spent 2 years tracking down, that she describes as ‘the best in the world’. M.I.A took to twitter to express her outrage at this form of censorship by the label through cultural appropriation, stopping the as yet unnamed talent being showcased just because she does not share the same ancestry as him. This is nothing new as M.I.A is just the latest in a long line of artists who have been accused of inappropriately appropriating another culture.
Although the idea is an old one, the debate reignited when Miley Cyrus well and truly kicked her wholesome image to the curb by twerking all over Robin Thicke’s crotch at the 2013 VMAs. Twerking originates from West Africa and has been around for hundreds of years but was popularized by the New Orleans bounce scene in the 1990s. Historically this is a dance invented by African people and therefore embodies something of black history and culture. The issue people have with Miley twerking, is that when she does it everyone talks about it, and it was suddenly hailed in the media as a new dance craze popularized by Miley, when obviously this is not the case. This is a problem, and is not something I would try to deny. But I am not sure that the answer is telling Miley she is not allowed to twerk. Miley Cyrus was not trying to deny the racial history of twerking, I think she just likes doing it. Jay Z agrees, himself saying of Miley that she is ‘the old world’s worst nightmare…black neighbor and the daughter not seeing colour’. The same way people like Mexican food, Bollywood movies or Reggae music, why can’t the same be applied to entertainment culture? Most people wouldn’t think twice about making curry or tacos for their friends for fear of a social hiding as those outside of Indian or Mexican culture shouldn’t appreciate culturally imbued dishes made by those outside of it. In reality cultural appropriation shaming would be to take a step back in the quest for equality delineating some things acceptable for certain races and not for others.
Artists like everyone else are influenced by their environment and popular culture, which thankfully does include aspects of all different cultures, so of course they are going to draw on these things in their music. Lorde’s song ‘Royals’ is about the excess the music industry promotes and the disparity between that and people’s real lives. The video itself is a bleak washed out look at the hopeless surburban life of a group of teenagers, intended to illustrate how they aspire, but will never be the people they look up to. There were accusations of cultural appropriation because Lorde had included references to ‘crystal, cadillacs, jet planes and tigers on a gold leash’. For one thing it is slightly racist to assume these things are vital elements of black culture but also Lorde is commenting on the influence of the excess of popular culture as a whole, including rap, on young kids without much money. Is she really taking advantage of rap and therefore black culture by saying that she looks up to rappers and the trappings of their success?
‘Appropriation’ as a term was born from the idea that we should not ‘whitewash’ culture as people have in the past. Appropriation refers to the adoption of aspects of a minority culture by a majority whilst writing it off as your own. But I don’t think that’s what is happening, if Iggy Azalea raps or Miley twerks they are not trying to claim that they invented those things or that they are the only ones doing them. We should obviously not ignore the influence people of all different ethnicities have played on vital elements of our popular culture, particularly music. Pop, Blues, Reggae, Dancehall, Bhangra, Afrobeat, … the list goes on and on. But the point is to understand the culturally rooted beginnings of these musical genres, and to appreciate when anyone of any ethnicity adds to the rich tapestry of that music.
Of course appreciation can be taken too far. Gwen Stefani claimed she was in awe of Japanese Harajuku girls and their unique sense of style, then went on to formulate an entire concept album around them. All her videos encompassed shots of the girls dancing or as her entourage. However you can understand why people have a problem when Stefani renamed the girl’s ludicrous names like ‘Love’ and ‘Baby’, making them follow her everywhere, reportedly only allowing them to speak Japanese. This level of fascination can’t help but be reminiscent of latter day freak show parades in which ‘uncivilized peoples’ were used as props for a crowd to gawp at.
It is clearly wrong when a white person gains fame, notoriety and fortune by piggybacking on other culture’s talent. There is a difference between actual appropriation and saying only certain people are able to do and appreciate certain things. Am I as a white person not allowed to enjoy rap or blues or reggae, or even to play it myself? If that argument were taken to its logical conclusion no one apart from Japanese people should be doing karaoke… Imagine a world without karaoke. Exactly.
We are missing the point of cultural appropriation; it should not be delineating who can say what, who listens to what, or who likes what, it should be recognizing the cultural history present. We should be celebrating the diverse society in which we now live. Of course we should be angry when an artist steps out of line, but we need to recognize when this actually happens because without cultural cross-over and appreciation we wouldn’t have had great artists like The Beastie Boys, The Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson and Eminem. Even worse we may stifle great future artists. M.I.A.’s predicament highlights precisely how the problem with misappropriation gone mad hasn’t gone away. It’s up to artists to decide how far their appreciation takes them but surely censorship isn’t an answer. Release the video MIA!