Cultural Adoption is Not Appropriation
There have been a few recent waves of the kind of “outrage” only Twitter and its ilk can propagate. I’m not familiar with the music of Bruno Mars, but I know he’s a huge star, and apparently a great performer. I had to cringe when I saw that he was attacked for “cultural appropriation” in that his
“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.
A University of British Columbia paper by Liesa Karen Norman, The respective influence of jazz and classical music on each other, the evolution of third stream and fusion and the effects thereof into the 21st century puts it this way:
“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.
Here’s why it matters that we should not let this appropriation charge undo the great work done by artists. To live together, we need to understand each other and appreciate our relative contributions to culture. Jazz — often considered to be one of the great African-American gifts to the entire world — was enriched by the craft of white musicians like Bill Evans, Chet Baker, Stan Getz and dozens of others. Black jazz greats like Dizzy Gillespie borrowed liberally from Cuban music. Some studied with famous classical teachers. Quincy Jones studied with Nadia Boulanger. Blues violinist Don ‘Sugarcane’ Harris studied classical violin and often cited classical passages in his Pure Food & Drug Act cadenzas.
In 2015, The Guardian asked why no one was scandalized by Eminem’s Grammy while a big deal was made about Iggy Azalea. My view is much simpler: We need to understand that the highest form of flattery is imitation, and unless an artist pretends he or she invented a style, there’s no crime here, only appreciation and a desire to create in that mold.
Charlie Pride, according to Wikipedia, is
“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.
What is being called “appropriation” is really almost always a deep and heartfelt love of music of a certain genre, and in a sense, it wants to ignore things like the color of skin or the original language of the originating source. You can hear rap and hip hop in dozens of languages in nearly every country in the world. When groups like the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin began by copying the blues, a significant wave of authentic blues artists gained new fans. These young British musicians collected and truly loved the music. They went on to make other music and their inspiration, B.B. King, Albert King, Albert Collins, Freddy King and so many others went on to have success with white audiences and new ones around the world.
I have also heard complaints about restaurants appropriating cultures. I would apply the same arguments to music, food, and any artistic endeavor: Fusion is good, it is up to the audience to decide whether they want to go further by sampling the original inspiration. Most, I believe, will do just that.
Postscriptum from a review of Isle of the Dogs, in which the author appears to question the appropriation of Wes Anderson throughout the article, then reaches this sensible conclusion:
“If we police boundaries too strictly, we’re stifling the possibility of cross-fertilisation and invention. If you do it well enough, it’s not appropriation, it’s conversation.”
This integration of other cultures in one’s art is the ultimate sign of respect and admiration. I think it’s also our best hope for better appreciation of each other.