Cultural Adoption is Not Appropriation

Borrowing from a culture is a sign of love and respect

British soul singer Joss Stone — photo: Benoît Derrier, Stockholm, Sweden

“unmistakable references to funk, R&B, and New Jack Swing in his art have long sparked whispers of appropriation — and lawsuits over alleged similarities — because he is not black, but owes his success to black music. (Mars’s background includes Filipino, Puerto Rican, Spanish, and Ashkenazi Jewish heritage.)” (The Vulture).

Lawsuits? I’m told you can’t copyright a recipe, a vibe, a feeling, only exact words and notes. But I’m not here to argue the case for Mars, only to differ with the idea that musical or other artists, when strongly influenced by another culture’s music, can’t borrow from it. In classical music, composers borrowed from their predecessors as well as their contemporaries in other cultures. In jazz, this great American idiom became a shared culture. It ended up becoming melting pot of musical ideas, often “appropriated” from classical music. The most iconic jazz stars of the past century borrowed ideas from impressionists like Debussy. Did anyone think they were trying to be white? Did someone scream the ‘A word’ when Miles Davis (who studied at Juilliard, by the way) played Surrey with a Fringe on Top, from the musical Oklahoma.

“In fact, during the 1920s which became known as the “Jazz Age,” jazz musicians rapidly turned to classical music as a medium through which jazz could be further developed. […] On the other side of the coin, as jazz developed, grew, established its identity, and began to adopt classical elements, jazz elements similarly began to surface in classical music.”

By the 1950’s, according to Caribbean HipCats, in an article called Jazz and racial segregation in the 1950’s,

“Jazz is a way to explain the collapse of racial segregation era in United States.”

I maintain that the confluence of the streams of black, white, and other musical players has accomplished much through the past century or so by bringing knowledge of the other straight to the people. I also think that singers like Nat King Cole probably brought some very white music (literally, White Christmas, for example) to new, black ears. Incidentally, Cole’s remarkable story is told in the 2014 documentary Afraid of the Dark.

Charlie Pride

“one of the few African Americans to have enjoyed considerable success in the country music industry and one of only three (along with DeFord Bailey and Darius Rucker) to have been inducted as a member of the Grand Ole Opry.”

Take a listen, Pride sounds like he fits right in to the country idiom. His love for country music seems less intuitive than the other artists, given that he was born in Mississippi and grew up at a time when few Blacks were treated well, let alone able to become huge stars of music and movies as some are today. Not enough, but it’s certainly getting better. At 18, he pitched in a team of the Negro American League, and that says a lot about the context, yet Pride went on to become a country music star.

Saxophone virtuoso and stereotype-breaker Grace Kelly

Retired recording, touring musician, lousy coder, 1990 Internet agency founder, podcaster since 2006, learning saxophone in 2018.

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