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Cultural appropriation: Who’s music is it anyway?

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Entertainment blogger Marty Dodge asked the question: Is the music biz racist? His reason for doing so was a report by the Black Music Congress which accused the music industry of favoring white performers of material from black cultures over black performers.

The music industry was charged with institutional racism at the Black Music Congress‘ debate, entitled ‘Are white artists like Eminem, Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera appropriating black music?’ held at City University London on January 31.

The perception was that the industry was keen to promote white artists performing black music, but reluctant to invest commensurate resources in black artists performing black music or specific types of black music. Although participants felt that white artists could participate within black music genres, so long as they acknowledged their sources and influences, there was however a view that there was a deliberate “political” and “racist” policy to sell black music styles with proven commercial potential using “safe” white faces.

Jazz musician Jamie Callum and soul singer Joss Stone were pointed out as examples – the former, a recipient of a reputed 1m pound record deal and huge marketing by the same company that didn’t offer the same opportunities to the more innovative black jazz musician Courtney Pine, and the latter is currently receiving a major push performing a style that most black artists would not be allowed to perform because the gate-keepers of the industry view it as non-commercial and old-fashioned.

I’ve been giving some thought to the issue of ‘cultural appropriation’ in regard to literature and music. Let’s consider music first. For the last few weeks I have been listening to The Soul Sessions, Joss Stone’s virgin release. Stone, who was criticized by the Black Music Congress, a British group that monitors the music industry there, burst onto the contemporary music scene after winning a contest in her native England. She is now 16 and her second album will soon be released.

The Soul Sessions occurred when Stone met rhythm and blues musicians she had longed idolized in Florida and Philadelphia. Her intended debut material was set aside and she recorded several R&B gems under the tutelage of soul legend Betty Wright. The songs are impeccable. With a voice that can range from husky to ethereal, Stone covers material that is anything from delicate to gut bucket. I first heard her best known song, “Super Duper Love” over the sound system at a Starbucks. I was incapable of leaving until I had learned who the artist was by hassling one of the baristas. The number is that striking. Stone does equal justice to “The Chokin’ Kind” and “Dirty Man.” She blazes new territory with a wonderful reinterpretation of the White Stripes’ “Fell in Love With a Boy.”

Tom Moon, at Black Voices, caught up with Wright and asked her what she thought about her protege.

Do you have to be Black to possess that elusive quality known as “soul”?

R&B veteran Betty Wright, of “Clean Up Woman” fame, doesn’t think so.

“I never looked at a person and said `that’s a soul singer’ judging by the color of their skin,” says the 49-year-old artist, who is African-American. “I used to get so ticked by that thinking, you know, `if she’s Black she sings soul and if she’s White she sings pop.'”

Wright doesn’t need to argue the point these days. All she has to do is put on “The Soul Sessions” (S-curve, 3 stars), the just-issued debut CD by Joss Stone that she helped produce.

Stone is a White 16-year-old from the English village of Devon. But when she sings Aretha Franklin or Carla Thomas, she sounds like one of those semi-anonymous background singers who, after serving up attitude on countless recordings from Detroit or Memphis, has emerged from the shadows with a few scores to settle. She has the natural voice, the crazy ad-lib skills, and an ability to project wisdom that is well beyond her years.

Should the blonde teenager, who knows very little about the culture from which the music she sings so well comes, be barred from performing it? I don’t see how anyone who considers creativity a valuable contribution to all cultures can answer that question ‘Yes.’

Duane, a commenter at Blogcritics, expressed an opinion I am tempted to reiterate.

I agree that it’s important for musicians to recognize and acknowledge the origins of the music from which they benefit. On the other hand, I don’t agree that race is all that relevant here. Once a musical form is created, it diffuses geographically and culturally. It gets diluted, augmented, twisted, parodied, improved, ruined, hybridized, merged…you name it. It has always been the case. For example, Franz Liszt “stole” Hungarian gypsy music and turned it into the Hungarian Rhapsodies (1840) with great success. You can’t keep music in a bottle.

But, when one accepts such a rose colored glasses view of reality, it requires looking past the fact that most cultural appropriation has been one-sided — the white and powerful taking from the colored and powerless. Furthermore, the appropriators have sometimes expressed scorn for the people whose culture they were taking their art from, such as Irishman Elvis Costello‘s infamous remarks years ago.

While touring the US in support of his Armed Forces album, Costello made the headlines after having an argument with Stephen Stills and Bonnie Bramlett where he stated that Ray Charles was “a blind, ignorant, nigger.” Costello later recanted his racist remark and kept a low profile for the remainder of the seventies.

Maybe it is just me, but I don’t find Costello’s description of James Brown, “a jive ass nigger,” heartwarming either.

The contempt in which many white people have held people of color, and many still do, doesn’t just disappear because someone chooses to borrow from gypsy, African-American, Hispanic or some other culture. The sneering and the imitation can coexist. For that reason, I believe that cultural appropriation bears watching. An aspect of it that the well-meaning can do something about is making sure opportunities are equally available to artists of color. If there is a brown, red, yellow or black teenager who performs some musical form as well as Joss Stone, that performer is equally entitled to the support she has received. Only when equality in treatment occurs will cultural appropriation no longer be an issue.

Note: This entry also appeared at Mac-a-ro-nies.

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About The Diva

  • I don’t think the issue is “can white people play black music?”, or “do white people have soul?”. What upsets black people is the idea that a black person performing black music has less of an opportunity to suceed than an equally or even less talented white person doing the same thing.

    Remember when Rock & Roll was just white people’s name for acceptable R&B? How long until people forget that Rap music was originally a shout from black inner city communities?

  • i guess i’m bein’ a little nieve here but do kids really give a hoot about skin color when it comes to rap & hiphop? hell, everybody and their grandma seems to have a copy of Outkast’s cd.

    if eminem was black would he have been less popular? i don’t really like him at all (except maybe “Lose Yourself”)…but that’s got more to do with me thinking he should like the dr. seuss of rappers.

    i’ll take Chuck D anyday.

    and by the way, i heard that cover of “Fell In Love With a Boy” on the radio..very cool.

  • Eric Olsen

    Interesting post, thanks. I think Gerrard has also hit on the real issue: from an artistic standpoint there is no such thing as “appropriation” – everything is available to everyone – but certainly “a black person performing black music” should have no less “an opportunity to suceed than an equally or even less talented white person doing the same thing.”

    I would further add, though, that there IS a certain novelty factor to anyone performing music that seems surprising to their age, gender, race, or whatever, and this novelty factor works in every direction, from Harry Connick Jr., to Hootie and the Blowfish, to Eminem.

  • in the ‘heavy’ direction: Living Color

  • duane

    Mac Diva, this is an interesting topic. I’m not an expert on musical history, so I’m happy to learn about it from you and other potential posters. Let me just throw this into the mix. Ted McCarty, a white dude, invented the Gibson ES-335 guitar. B.B. King used a customized version of the 335, which he christened “Lucille,” and made a helluva career playing blues. There you go. A musical form invented by blacks being expressed through a musical instrument invented by whites. I don’t see the problem. Gibson guitars makes some money, BB makes some money, the fans get the blues. I don’t see anyone complaining that BB is unfairly exploiting a white technology. That would be silly. The analogy I’m suggesting is that technology diffuses, just as musical forms diffuse.

    Another thing: don’t business decisions take precedence over any latent racism that members of the recording industry might possess? If they think something will sell, do they really give a damn whether the artist is black or white?

  • duane

    Also note the hardcore punk group Bad Brains as another example of the novelty factor.

  • Hi, Duane. I was going to email you that you were cited since you don’t have blog stats for it to show up in.

    I’m no musicologist either. But, considering that the banjo is an ancient West African instrument, and the guitar is related to it, I don’t think the ‘route of possession’ for those strings can so easily be traced to McCarty or anyone else. I last mentioned this matter in regard to an attack on black people by a definite racist associated with Silflay Hraka. He was screeching about ‘black music’ being noise pollution and his preference for country, preferably played in a part of the nation without blacks. I rocked his world by saying the banjo is an African instrument. Richard Einhorn, the famous composer, who happens to be one of my oldest blog friends, had a go at the fellow, too.

    Particularly appreciate your input, newbie Gerrard.

    This is going to be an at least three-part series on cultural appropriation.

    I’ll be doing an edit to this entry because an edit with a better photo of Joss did not take.

  • shaun

    i don’t think it is as much black or white thing as is a green thing. Call me ignorant, but i believe the music industry could care less about race these days. It is about what sells.

    Me personally, i could care less about the color of the artist, what i care about is what they are rapping abut. When a white guy starts talking about the hood and their bling bling, then i think their is a problem. but when a rapper is talking about real life he experience then i don’tt thing a music can be characterized as white music or black music.

    favorite rappers-
    Atmosphere (white)- talks about his white boy life in hinkley, minnesota.
    Black starr- talking about being black oppressed men in america.

    I love them both for thier inviduality.

  • Sean

    Rather than cultural appropriation, I look at my favorite music as gumbo. Everything gets tossed into the pot, and what comes out is damned fine. Listen to Ray Charles, Joe Tex or Esther Phillips sing country and western songs, or Dusty Springfield sing soul tunes, and you get an idea of what I am talking about. I heard Joss Stone before I knew what her skin color was, and my reaction was “Hot Damn! Who is that?!?!” I don’t know that Joss Stone “knows very little about the culture from which the music she sings so well comes” but she at least understands the songs intuitively. No one could sing them that well and not get them on some level. Compare her songs with Faith Hill’s leaden version of “Piece of my Heart.” Joss puts life into the songs she sings in a way that Faith Hill, who is nothing more than a pretty face, is simply unable to do.

    The Clash stole from Jamaican music in their song “Guns of Brixton,” but they forged something new out of it. Cypress Hill stole the bass line and melody from “Guns of Brixton” for their recent single (the title of which I am unable to recall), but they forged something new out of it. Someone else will lift from that single eventually. It all gets thrown into the pot, stirred up, and served again.

    I agree that artists need to acknowledge those who came before them. Those with any integrity usually do. My music collection is filled with records by soul and reggae artists who were cited as influences by my favorite white musicians, and with country & western and rock records cited as influences by my favorite black artists.

  • David

    As for jazz, there have always been important white musicians as far back Bix Beiderbeck, Jack Teagarden and Pee Wee Ellis. I think they were a small minority until around 1970 or so, since which it seems to be maybe half and half, which is to say that Black, unfair as this is, receive disproportionate representation in the talent departmen, and also tend to play with more blues feeling.

    Incidentally, EC strikes me as a thoroughly decent guy, and part of me says that he should not continue to be blamed for acting like an a-hole when he was drunk 3 decades ago (haven’t we all been there?), wherease the other part of me says he’s rich and famous, and I’m neither, so screw him.

  • David

    aside from my typos, I forgot to mention my main point: of course some White folks got soul. It’s all a matter of tendencies and percentages.

  • David

    Aside from my typos, I forgot to mention my main point: of course some White folks got soul. It’s all a matter of tendencies and percentages.

  • David

    Pee Wee Russell! Who’s Pee Wee Ellis? Sorry, I’d just come back from a long night of explaining English grammar in pidgin Chinese…

  • Dwaine AKA Scooter AKA D.J.

    Yeah, it’s ya boy, Dwaine AKA Scooter AKA D.J. back. For a limited time.

    About this article, I think that the music biz uses race to determine how to market music, but I don’t think that it’s racist. It also depends on actual TALENT.

    Did you hear that? TALENT.

  • Darren

    Here’s a piece from the New York Times that addressed the issue of “authenticity”:

    New York Times
    August 9, 1998
    So What’s All the Fuss About ‘Keeping It Real’?

    By MARK KEMP

    In the lobby of MTV’s headquarters in Times Square on a recent weekday, a young man in sneakers, warm-up pants and a T-shirt emblazoned with the Nike logo bumped into a friend coming out of an elevator. “What’s up?” he asked, to which the friend replied, “Oh, just keeping it real.” The expression has become something of a mantra among the hip-hop set, intended as an affirmation of one’s cultural integrity.
    But this notion of authenticity in contemporary popular music is hardly restricted to hip-hop. Since the late 1980’s, reality in music — whether expressed through lyrical journalism, true-life confession or strict stylistic adherence to one’s heritage — has become the standard against which one’s artistic integrity is measured. If a pop musician chooses to adopt a role that deviates from his or her experience, that artist is often seen as dishonest.
    Take Gillian Welch, a talented singer and songwriter whose old-time country and folk ballads have roused inordinately harsh commentary from even the most perceptive music critics. In her songs, the 30-year-old Ms. Welch adopts personas that have little in common with her own background; she was reared in Hollywood by parents who composed music for television series like “The Carol Burnett Show.” In a pan of the singer’s 1996 debut album, “Revival,” a reviewer for Rolling Stone magazine excoriated Ms. Welch for stepping outside her cultural, economic and geographic frame of reference.
    The singer’s second album, “Hell Among the Yearlings,” which was released two weeks ago, has already come under fire for the same offense. In a review that mildly praised the record, a Los Angeles Times writer offered this caveat: “The Appalachian sounds, subject matter and syntax still seem a bit suspect coming from a Los Angeles-raised singer-songwriter.”
    The issue of authenticity has long been a topic of debate among critics of the arts, particularly in popular music, in which the line between art and commerce is blurrier than it is in other fields. But at this late a date, it seems critics have lost sight of the meaning of authenticity. Which is more genuine, the artist who is committed to the art of artifice or the one who uses real tragedy to land a hit single? Strictly using the facts of an artist’s background as a barometer of his or her honesty not only has become tedious but is also downright lazy thinking.
    Henry Louis Gates Jr. once began an essay on the subject with an anecdote about a bet that the jazz trumpeter Roy Eldridge had made with the music writer Leonard Feather. Mr. Eldridge claimed he could tell a white musician from a black musician simply by listening to the music. Mr. Feather performed a blindfold test on Mr. Eldridge, who failed to identify a particular musician’s race more than half the time.
    Mr. Gates went on to cite several cases of authors who, in their writing, have successfully taken artistic license with cultural differences. “The lesson of the literary blindfold test is not that our social identities don’t matter,’’ Mr. Gates concluded, adding that it merely suggests that “no human culture is inaccessible to someone who makes the effort to understand, to learn, to inhabit another world.” Indeed, the compassionate creation of artifice — the ability of an artist to humbly immerse himself or herself into a totally different frame of reference — is perhaps the most highly evolved form of artistic expression.
    One songwriter who made that effort almost three decades ago is John Fogerty, who was born and reared in a working-class household in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 1969, when most young San Francisco musicians were experimenting with psychedelic rock-and-roll, Mr. Fogerty wrote a spare, blues-based song for his band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, called “Born on the Bayou.” Today, that song is considered a classic.
    Mr. Fogerty went on to write a string of similar hit singles whose lyrical and musical ideas were based in and around the backwoods of Mississippi and Louisiana, and Creedence Clearwater Revival is remembered and revered for being one of the more honest rock acts of the late 60’s and early 70’s.
    Young fans of Mr. Fogerty are often surprised to learn that the singer and songwriter made his first trip to the Mississippi Delta only two years ago. During Mr. Fogerty’s comeback performance in New York a couple of years ago, a young woman in the audience responded to the news of the artist’s recent pilgrimage down south with a furrowed brow. Not only was she unaware that Mr. Fogerty had just recently visited the region that had inspired so many of his songs, but she presumed he had, indeed, been born on the bayou.
    It was an honest mistake. The passion in Mr. Fogerty’s sandpaper vocal delivery, swamp-boogie guitar sound and eerie, hypnotic melodies suggest that his connection to the Deep South is authentic. And in a sense, it is. When Mr. Fogerty walked away from the grave site of the blues legend Robert Johnson with a resolve to continue sharing his own early songs with younger listeners, the singer’s experience was no less real than Mr. Johnson’s apocryphal pact with the Devil — wherein he chose the blues life style over a more conventional existence — at a lonesome Mississippi crossroads many decades ago.
    Gillian Welch’s biggest crime is that she has chosen a form of musical appropriation that is no longer fashionable. For example, many of the critics who have condemned Ms. Welch for adopting the sound of Appalachian folk music applaud the clever musical role-play of artists like Jon Spencer, the Brown University-educated founder of the late-80’s New York noise-rock band Pussy Galore and current leader of an experimental post-punk band he calls Blues Explosion. The difference between Mr. Spencer’s mimicry and Ms. Welch’s is that what Mr. Spencer brings to his amalgamation of Elvis Presley, James Brown and Chicago-style blues — humor, irreverence, cheekiness — is fairly obvious. Mr. Spencer’s interpretation of those artists and styles is not reprehensible to critics, although his mocking of Presley’s “Thankyavurymuch” might be viewed as condescending. When Mr. Spencer’s music works, however, one gets the feeling he’s genuinely passionate about the music that has inspired him. The same can be said of Ms. Welch, though her personal stamp on the music is more subtle.
    It was while Ms. Welch was attending the University of California at Santa Cruz that she discovered the high, lonesome bluegrass sound of the Stanley Brothers and became an ardent fan of the music. But she didn’t begin performing it until after she transferred to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she met her current musical partner, David Rawlings. In 1992, Ms. Welch and Mr. Rawlings moved to Nashville, and within a year Ms. Welch had won a songwriting award at an annual North Carolina bluegrass festival in honor of Merle Watson, the son of the legendary flat picker Doc Watson.
    The award was an acknowledgment that Ms. Welch’s mimicry was not unlike Creedence Clearwater Revival’s. In “Caleb Meyer,” the opening track of “Hell Among the Yearlings,” her pinched alto moans through the humid hum of an old-time acoustic guitar chord progression like a phantom in the mist of a Smoky Mountain morning. “He threw me in the needle bed/Across my dress he lay,” Ms. Welch sings. “Then he pinned my hands/Above my head/And I commenced to pray.”
    The first-person protagonist of Ms. Welch’s song may be a young girl from a time and place that Ms. Welch will never fully understand, but the feelings the singer expresses about rape, and the respect she displays for her chosen musical genre, are nothing if not poignantly authentic. Likewise, it matters not whether Ms. Welch has ever walked the streets of “the black dust towns of East Tennessee” about which she sings in “Miner’s Refrain” because the sense of foreboding that she expresses for the men who once labored in coal mines with futile hopes of a better life comes through loud and clear.
    In her music, Ms. Welch makes the effort that Mr. Gates speaks of in his essay, to learn about and to understand a world that she could never otherwise experience. And in doing so, she is keeping it about as real as it gets.

  • Thank you for your contribution, Darren. It supports my belief that if a person really knows the material he is using, he does not have to have come from that particular background to create authentic content.

  • Tom

    I would like to thank you for your examination of the music industry through a critical lens. It can certainly be galling to see the entertainment industry as a whole favour white people for doing the same thing that black people have, and wouldn’t be doing without the innovation of black people in the first place.

    As a non-black (but POC) jazz guitarist, I sometimes wonder if I am being appropriative myself. I have not lived in the same area, under the same social and economic conditions and the same cultural identity of black people in the united states. I then wonder why I am playing a music that originates from that place.

    In the area of Jazz, though, it becomes hard to declare who owns it. It certainly originated from black music, but is the music that it originated from “jazz”? It would be scarcely recognisable as such today. Innovators include whites as well, with Gershwin’s many contributions to jazz and ended up shaping it stylistically, and it has spread to other cultures and has synthesised musical elements from all over the world. Latin Jazz, and so called “Gypsy jazz” are testament to that.

    However, even in a multiracial cultural creation, whites are favoured over black people. Brubeck lamented his acclaim when he noted that Mingus had been passed over him undeserving. I think that when the privileged are troubled by their privilege, that indicates something seriously wrong. Most of the time, privilege is invisible to those that have it. So when the privileged are aware of and troubled by their privilege, I think we can be sure it’s present to a severely fucked up degree.