Cultural Appropriation, The Unoriginal Sin

Cultural Appropriation, The Unoriginal Sin

Cultural Appropriation: The act of taking something from another culture with the specific intent of supplanting the original by destroying the context and meaning.

Case in point: Rock & Roll

Every time a musical genre emerge from the African-American community, it's lifted by the white community and eventually blanched to the point there is no longer any African-American content.

Rock & roll was originally considered "race music" because of the heavy rhythm & blues influence and the large number of African-American performers in the early years of the genre.  But by the late 1960s -- even tho the white musicians did not intend to do so (blame the music companies and show bookers) -- African-Americans had been pretty much forced out of rock & roll as a creative force and reduced to sidemen.  Some hung on as golden oldie acts, others changed genres.

Rock & roll itself became simply…rock, a conscious marketing decision to repudiate its rhythm & blues ancestry.

Black rockers became marginalized in the very genre they created.

So the African-American community created soul...and whites appropriated that. So they created rap...and whites appropriated that. So they created hip-hop...

…guess what's happening?

African-American musicians are treated like the character Chief White Halfoat in the novel Catch-22.  Halfoat possesses an unerring ability to homestead atop heretofore undiscovered oil reserves. The moment he strikes oil, white businessmen force him off his land.  Soon they’re watching whatever direction he’s heading in and rush ahead to start drilling before he set up his camp.

It doesn't matter what the intent of other musicians are. The business behind the music, and the culture that makes the business profitable, creates and defines the outcome.

Specifically in the case of black music in America, it like much else in African-American culture was created in direct response to being excluded from mainstream white culture.

It was very much to claim something of their own, something to express themselves with since they were quite deliberately kept from contributing to mainstream American culture as African-Americans.

It was an attempt to forge an identity, a community, a culture that would accept them when the larger culture around them wouldn't.

For the larger culture to then appropriate that expression and repurpose it for its own use while systematically marginalizing or excluding the very people it was created for is galling at the very least.

It would be different if America operated like ancient Rome, that regardless of your heritage or previous condition of servitude, once you obtained Roman citizenship you were treated equally with all other Roman citizens.

Pop music -- which for the purposes of this discussion I'm classifying as easy to follow music with little challenging content (musically or lyrically) -- is primarily white sounding music. The early black crossover stars in pop music sounded more like their white contemporaries than those who stayed in jazz or rhythm & blues. The ones who broke through later -- Michael Jackson springs to mind -- did so only because white performers appropriated the original black style and made it acceptable.

Has there ever been a greater musical atrocity than Pat Boone’s cover of “Stagger Lee”?

Now, some white people who are either unwilling or incapable of facing facts in this matter pathetically try to play the victim card and claim "white culture gets appropriated, too" when other cultures use Western technology.

Ofay, please…

Tool use, fire, and the domestication of animals all originated in Africa, and since they are the root of all other technology, that claim is bogus.

Not that it matters.  Technology is contextually neutral; a culture's use of that technology does carry a context.

Not to mention the enormous difference between taking something from another culture and selling a gadget that one encourages buyers to find new ways of using.

If I sell you a hammer, I'm giving you tacit permission to use it for your own purposes.  You can hammer nails with it, crack walnuts, use it to prop up the corner of your desk where the foot broke off, kill your neighbor, etc., etc., and of course, etc.

But if I write a love poem to my wife and you overhear it and you copy it and change the context so it becomes about a pet instead of a spouse and you sell it, you are taking something that has a personal meaning for me and mine and exploiting it for your own advantage without consulting me first.

Granted the larger issue of cultural appropriation is  much more complicated than that example.  Any number of composers / artists / performers / creators -- white and ethnic --  lifted ideas / motifs / styles from other cultures and incorporated them into their work..

But all American musical genres eventually plug back into the main circuit of African-American music: Gospel, ragtime, delta blues, and especially jazz.

Even country music touches on that root: It was originally called folk music and equated with the delta blues and traditional songs from immigrant groups until the red scare of the late 40s / early 50s tainted that term in mainstream America's eyes -- or rather, ears -- and was re-branded and marketed at country or country & western instead.

The first superstar songwriter in America was Stephen Foster who deliberately and consciously mimicked both the style and content of African-American music.

Minstrel shows and blackface performers proved hugely popular from the early 19th century thru to the early 20th (minstrel shows fading first around 1900 though white performers in blackface continued well past Al Jolson’s Jazz Singer in 1927).

There are no equivalents among any other ethnic music in America.

When Mozart lifted ideas from Middle Eastern music to incorporate in his opera, Abduction From The Seraglio, he was lifting from a thriving culture in an empire large enough to rival anything in Europe.  Further, he used the ideas once then moved on to other, more original creations; he didn't build a business model promoting that particular style of music.

Or consider the case of "Miserlou", derived from a Middle Eastern folk tune and turned into a bit of kitsch faux exotica by American big band and swing performers.  It was a corny pastiche of Middle Eastern music until Dick Dale got his hands on it and turned it into the hard driving theme of the surf music explosion in 1962.

Dale, of course, was born Richard Mansour, a Lebanese-Polish-Belurisian-American who learned how to play music growing up in an Arab neighborhood -- in Boston -- and when he got the chance showed everybody how it should be done, blending both traditional Middle Eastern and contemporary American styles.

But while surf music has a clear Arabic influence thru Dale and “Miserlou”, it never crowded real Middle Eastern music out of existence. 

Nor was the culture "Miserlou" emerged from marginalized in the way the African-American community was.  The Middle East may not be as politically influential as other areas of the world, but they are still their own people, their own culture.

There's a difference between a symbiotic relationship, a parasitic relationship, and a predatory one.

All art forms evolve, and typically after coming in contact with new and different ideas. That's a symbiotic relationship.

Some art forms evolve by taking the creative momentum from another form then stifling the original source so it won't be a competitor.. That's a parasitic relationship.

Some art forms evolve (although not very well) by destroying any competition. That's a predatory relationship.

By and large, the relationship of white culture to black culture in this country has not been a symbiotic one.


© Buzz Dixon

she sat on a rock

she sat on a rock

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