Cultural Appropriation in Music: What Is It and Why Is It Bad?


Written by Mary Woodcock

14 November 2014

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In recent years you might have heard the phrase ‘cultural appropriation’. If you don’t know what it is, it is not something new. It has probably been around since just humans started inventing their own cultures, but the most famous example of it in the past is Elvis, who took black music (rock & roll) and used it to make his career. Nowadays, with globalization and social media at our fingertips, we can see it everywhere, and people who do appropriate other people’s cultures for their own entertainment or monetary gain can be found and called out. To avoid being the unlucky artist who loses fans because of cultural appropriation, read on to find out what it is and why it is bad.

                               An Australian who raps like an American and is dressed like an Indian

The ultimate personification of cultural appropriation in our era has got to be Iggy Azalea. For those that don’t know her, she is a white Australian rapper who sounds like a black girl from Atlanta. This in itself is problematic as she does not rap in her own accent, like fellow Australian rappers the Hilltop Hoods, but mimics the accents of Americans. In a genre like hip hop where there is a huge importance in being real or being true to yourself she definitely does not stay true to her roots. As well as appropriating African American culture, she has got into trouble in the past for appropriating Indian culture in her video Bounce. Dressing in a sari and wearing a bindi in this case is a fashion statement, whereas for Indians a sari is normal clothing and for Hindus a bindi is a spiritual symbol. Pop star Selena Gomez has also gotten in trouble for wearing a sari and bindi as well as doing a shoddy attempt at Bollywood dancing during her performance on the show Dancing With The Stars. While non-Indian artists such as Azalea and Gomez are seen as being cultured and fashionable for wearing a sari and bindi, Indians would be seen as failing to assimilate or being too traditional for wearing them. Artists are not the only ones guilty of appropriating Indian culture, but festivals too.  An event known as Holi Festival of Colours and another one called Holi One have been travelling around the world putting on music festivals, however they have appropriated the Hindu spring festival Holi, where coloured powder and coloured water is thrown at each other. The music festivals do not take place on the actual Holi date, and no traditional Indian music is played at these festivals. It is just an excuse for people to make money off someone else’s culture and take out all religious context from it. The trouble with this is that people who don’t already know the real Holi festival will associate Holi and powder throwing with these music festivals. In fact if you type in Holi on google, the music festivals pop up first, not the actual religious festival! Imagine if more people thought Christmas was a rave than an actual religious holiday. As India has the second largest population in the world, it is not a good idea to alienate your fanbase there.


Another group whose culture has been appropriated extensively in the US are the Native Americans. The most famous example of this is from the backlash Pharrell received for wearing a Native American headdress on the cover of Elle magazine. Native Americans in the US were angry because in their culture a headdress is a sign of spiritual and political importance and must be earned through acts of honour. You are awarded one feather at a time, so the more feathers you have the more good deeds or acts of bravery you have accomplished. It is seen as deeply disrespectful for someone to wear a headdress if they have not earned their feathers, so when Pharrell wore one it obviously angered Native Americans, despite him claiming that he has Native American ancestry (which meant he should have known more about his own culture).  Pharrell is not the only guilty one, as many festival goers don headdresses. This has caused festivals such as Coachella to be infamous for cultural appropriation, where offenders are said to wear ‘hipster headdresses’. As well as this Coachella provides tipi’s to rent from the hefty price of $2,200 for the weekend! Just like the Holi music festivals the organizers are actively making a profit from appropriating other people’s culture. The irony is that the Coachella festival takes place on land that used to belong to Native Americans, so of course they would be angry that these foreign invaders are dressing up like them, after hundreds of years of genocide and suppressing Native American culture. However in Canada the Bass Coast festival has been sensible and banned all wearing of Native American headdresses and anything resembling them. Take Canada’s example and be respectful to other people’s culture especially if you are currently residing in their ancestral land. 

The next example is not the cultural appropriation of an ancient culture, but the appropriation of hip hop culture. As I mentioned before, Iggy Azalea is one culprit, however someone just as guilty of it is Miley Cyrus. Before her sudden change of image from Disney star to a father’s nightmare she said to her songwriters “I want urban, I just want something that just feels black”. She got her wish as her song “We Can’t Stop” got a “black sound” and she took centre stage in the video while everyone black was used as a prop to give her street cred. As well as this she has been credited as the Queen of Twerking, leading most suburban people to think that she invented it. While twerking is not really a good aspect of hip hop culture, it has been around for years, just listen to a Lil Jon song or Ying Yang Twinz from ten years ago and you will hear them talking about it. This whole twerking craze has got out of hand, with artists who definitely do not have a “black sound” using twerking in their videos, such as Taylor Swift and more bizarrely metal band Mastodon. A dance more closer to hip hop roots has also been appropriated, the Harlem Shake, due to the song Harlem Shake by Baauer and the viral memes that people made based on it. However the Harlem Shake that became famous due to these viral memes are nothing like the actual Harlem Shake dance, as they just involved people jumping around like idiots after the beat drops. If you don’t know the original Harlem Shake you can check it out here, it is more difficult to do than jumping around and takes some skill to do. Obviously it angered residents of Harlem who saw it as people taking the piss out of a dance they created. The most recent form of cultural appropriation is the genre now known as trap. If you ask a hip hop head what trap is, they will probably tell you it is hip hop that from the South of the US that is bass heavy and the lyrics dealt with issues such as drug dealing, crime and general problems in the ghetto. It was called trap because those artists were stuck in the ‘trap’ of the ghetto. If you ask someone who doesn’t listen to hip hop what trap is, they will probably tell you it’s some fucking sick new genre that’s way better than dubstep and the drops are wicked. What they don’t know is that trap has been around since the 90’s, not just from 2012, and they don’t know the context of the word trap. Almost all of the new trap music does not have any lyrics at all, which defeats the purpose of the genre being called “trap”. Like the Harlem Shake and twerking, anyone who hears the newer versions of them will associate them with the white singers and producers that made it mainstream, rather than the black originators from the ghettos of the US. The true roots will be forgotten if it keeps on getting appropriated in the wrong way.

UGK’s track Pocket Full of Stones from this album was one of the first trap songs of the 90’s

As you can see there are no real benefits to cultural appropriation, except monetary gain if you are already famous. If you are an artist starting out, your career might be cut short if you have to deal with angry fans or get labeled racist or ignorant. It is better to be safe than sorry, but also better to show respect to all people. If there is something from another culture that you like, do some research first to see if it can be used in the context of your music. Get the opinions of people from that culture, or better yet get them involved with your music. 

Written by Jonathon Wood @ Music Gateway

Follow Jonathon on Twitter @SatrioSounds

 

 

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