Cultural Appropriation: A Reactionary Debate
Gearóid Ó Loingsigh
02 May 2020
In the world of identity politics and the myriad expressions of it, one topic pops its head up on a fairly regular basis, that of Cultural Appropriation. There is not one definition of it, but it basically goes that people from one particular culture use artefacts, expressions, musical forms, clothing and other things from a culture other than their own, generally to make money, but not always. Sometimes the mere use is enough to provoke the ire of identitarians and the liberal hangers on. Though it is an accusation generally levelled at white people, as Rihanna and Beyoncé found to their cost, anyone can be accused of it.
The debate around Cultural Appropriation makes a number of assumptions and ignores the glaring elephant in the room. The first assumption is that culture is static and "belongs" to a particular group. It also makes assumptions about who that group is. However, culture is neither static nor does it belong to any particular group, culture constantly evolves and changes beyond recognition, so much so, we can even see huge differences in societies over a period not just of centuries, but even a few decades, the Ireland of the 1950s is not the Ireland of 2020 and the same can be said for pretty much every country on the planet. Even, what liberals like to condescendingly look upon as "pure" cultures, those of native indigenous groups, change over time and new expressions come to the fore.
The native population of the US as part of their struggle against the white invaders, experienced a new cultural expression in the late 1800s called the Ghost Dance. It was a mixture of Christian ideas, Christ being a central part of this expression and of course indigenous culture, it was a reaction to white invasion and was for a short period a significant force. It was short lived, entered the cultural lives of indigenous groups and died.(1) Looking back on it, we can see the strange eclectic and syncretic mixtures of religions and cultures, something that those who shout about Cultural Appropriation would deny could ever happen or should ever happen. But it does. The other major mistake in the debate is the term Appropriation. In cultures, as happened with Christ in the Ghost Dance, artefacts, events, music and even historical or mythological figures are appropriated i.e. incorporated and re-signified. It is a common phenomenon that happens all the time. However, what identitarians refer to as Cultural Appropriation, is simply taking / borrowing / using something from a culture other than one's own, regardless of context and of course ignoring that elephant in the room: capitalism. Most of the identitarians who complain about Cultural Appropriation are not worried about who expresses something but who makes money from it and frequently ignore their own history and culture.
Part of the argument is that only the mythical 'We' get to express any element of what 'We' claim is our culture and 'We' get to have the sole right to produce artistic expressions of that. So many were enraged when a white Jewish artist, Dana Schutz, did a painting of Emmett Till, the young black child murdered by white racists in the US in the 1955. The artistic merits of her painting were not questioned that much, it was the fact that she, a white woman dared to depict Emmett Till. The row went around the world, British born artist Hannah Black stated:
"The painting should not be acceptable to anyone who cares or pretends to care about black people, because it is not acceptable for a white person to transmute black suffering into profit and fun, though the practice has been normalized for a long time,"(2)As is clear from the quote, Hannah Black is not opposed to making money out of Emmett Till's death, just that it can't be a white person. This argument is itself highly questionable and lacking in any moral compass or empathy for Emmett Till and others. But it is highly problematical in ways that many like Hannah Black may not suspect. One of the iconic songs of the struggle for civil rights in the US is Strange Fruit, immortalised by the black singer Billie Holiday, who recorded it in 1939. It is a haunting and emotive song that deals with lynchings in the deep south of the US.
Southern trees bear strange
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Many other artists have done cover versions of it, everyone from Nina Simone, Karan Casey, Siouxsie and the Banshees to UB40. But of course the song was not written by Billie Holiday, it was written by US Communist Abel Meeropol, under the pseudonym Lewis Allan. Meeropol was white and Jewish and well to do. His life was far removed from that of the Deep South and just as far removed from the black working class neighbourhoods in Chicago where Emmett Till would grow up in. Where would we be without that song if this white Jew had not written it? Of course, Meeropol was not the only one to "profit" off black culture and life, Alan Lomax who recorded Leadbelly and many other black, and white, artists did likewise as did most of the photographers who documented the struggle for civil rights, some of them sympathetic to the cause others hostile.
Pete Seeger liked to say that his father had said to him that plagiarism was basic to all culture and he was right, particularly with music. Seeger himself, was famous for playing the banjo, but the banjo, though linked in the popular imagination with rural whites in the US and also with Irish music, is neither a US nor an Irish instrument but rather an African one. The black musician Rhiannon Giddens has rescued the banjo as an instrument to be played by and for Black people.
“When you look into the minstrel band in the US and you see banjo, fiddle and tambourine, you might think they’re all ‘white’ instruments. But the banjo is from Africa, there are one-string fiddles all over the world, and the tambourine comes from frame drums that were brought up from north Africa through the Middle East and Italy. That’s world music right there. Musical and cultural ideas have been crossing over for ever. My projects are all going towards the theme, ‘We’re more alike than we’re different.’”(3)Part of her struggle to reclaim the banjo is that she has had to reclaim it not just from the white music industry and rural white communities, but to present it again to black people. The banjo had became associated with racist stereotypes and lost ground in the increasingly urbanised black community while remaining popular in the rural white community, a sign of how culture changes and how we all appropriate, re-appropriate and re-signify culture. Culture is very subjective and music as a cultural expression, just as much. I recall two black Colombian friends dropping round to my apartment in Bogotá frowning at the music that was coming out of my computer at the time. They asked me to play some black music, so I put on some Blues, the look of horror on their faces "that's not black music" they exclaimed, "put on some Salsa". Salsa is a musical form that has lots of black influences but it not by any stretch of the imagination a uniquely black form of music, and could a white or mestizo Cuban play it? Could we imagine a world in which Pete Seeger never played the banjo? Or one, where Jazz music did not have that whitest of white instruments, the saxophone? It was invented in the 1840s by the Belgian inventor Adolphe Sax. It was initially used for classical music and military bands and only came into use as a Jazz instrument in the 1920s. And what of the trumpet? Though trumpets have existed in various forms throughout history and across continents, the modern trumpet is a European instrument and like the saxophone a product of the industrial revolution. Could we imagine a world where Jazz had no saxophone or trumpet? What would the saxophone and trumpet be without Jazz? Just such a world would exist were we to pay any attention to the subjective and reactionary claims made around Cultural Appropriation. My two friends' reactions were not simply based on a personal rejection of American music as 'black' but more generally was a reflection of the subjectivity inherent in every social cultural form and expression and the contingency of such cultures in time and space.
The rows and ructions that arise apply across the board. Black artists have also been accused of Cultural Appropriation. In 2017 and 2018 a row erupted around the US artists Rihanna and Beyoncé and their appropriation of Egyptian culture. They had both appeared dressed as the ancient Egyptian goddess Nefertiti and Rihanna apparently has a tattoo of Nefertiti on her. Laughably some of the discussion went into the ludicrous notion about whether Nefertiti was black or not.
The row exposed some of the ridiculous claims made by those who claim to have sole rights to any particular culture. It became clear to some, for the first time ever, that Africa was not homogenous and parts of it are Arab, rupturing part of the racist white discourse around Africa and also the romantic Black Nationalist discourse. Let's be clear, ancient Egyptians were not Arabs, did not speak Arabic and there is little cultural continuity between ancient Egypt and the modern State and people of Egypt.
Similarly, despite all the glib tourist marketing keen to exploit the imprecision of the 'Celtic mists', modern Ireland is not a product of a singular Celtic culture existing for eons in isolation from the rest of the world. Many of the symbols we gladly accept as Celtic are in fact from earlier pre-Celtic cultures and are largely accepted as such due largely to the cultural constructs of the Nineteenth century 'cultural revival', which at least had the excuse of the lack of precise archeological data. We latterly discover that many of the symbolic artifacts belong to the neolithic people that the Bronze and then Iron age Celts defeated, enslaved and ultimately absorbed. Furthermore, the DNA of ancient Egyptians and Celts is not identical to that of the modern populations.
But such is the debate around 'appropriation'. An aspect of what is really a global human culture is claimed by some one individual who then self-appoints themselves as guardian of that culture and they exercise a copyright over it, a modern capitalist concept.
Kenan Malik posed these questions
But what is it for knowledge or an object to "belong" to a culture? And who gives permission for someone from another culture to use such knowledge or forms? The idea that the world could be divided into distinct cultures, and that every culture belonged to a particular people, has its roots in late 18th-century Europe…(4)It is a valid question that must be asked. It is worth pointing out that in almost all cases, those who shout the loudest on the issue, have not produced any of the clothes, designs, music, instruments etc that they claim to defend. Many, and not just the Irish and the Egyptians, have no basis to claim they belong to the mythical community, be it modern or ancient, that they say they 'own'. Not all of the disputes are between people from powerful groups, and Beyoncé in relation to Africa comes from a powerful group, some are between less powerful groups. One such example, is the row that broke out between the musician LeGrande from the First Nation group Cree and the Inuit. Legrande used an Inuit throat singing technique known as katajjaq. She apparently did not have permission, from whomever, to use this style. This of course, is down the proverbial rabbit hole material. As Malik points out in The Guardian.
What the row exposes is that such controversies are less about equity and opposition to racism than about cultural gatekeeping - self-appointed guardians licensing themselves as arbiters of the correct form of cultural borrowing. Such policing is deeply problematic, both artistically and politically.(5)As he points out elsewhere it is also about policing those same communities. We have seen this for years in Ireland where new dance forms or moves were rejected as not being Irish, and it took an American, Michael Flatley, to stir it up a bit (regardless of what you think of Riverdance, it shook up and popularised dance forms in Ireland). But even when it came to the Fleadh Cheoil (Festival of song) there have been arguments about what are real Irish musical instruments and some of those accepted as such are European in nature i.e. the fiddle, or violin as it is more commonly known. In fact, hardly any of the instruments typically associated with Irish music are Irish at all, the most Irish being the Uilleann Pipes, though being of a specific type they also are similar to a variety of pipes of one sort or another found throughout most of Europe. The introduction of instruments such as the Bouzouki, a Greek instrument was frowned upon by many, it is not part of the Fleadh, but Donal Lunny's brave decision to introduce it and use it in Irish music was a welcome one. Though to be fair to the gatekeepers of Irish music, they never frowned upon non Irish people playing, and people from everywhere from Colombia to Japan have taken part in the festivals without anyone screaming about Cultural Appropriation.
None of this is to say that there are no problems associated with culture and how it is used and exploited. Elvis Presley is often cited as one of the great cultural appropriators. He sang songs that were written by or for black artists and sang in a style that was associated with black musicians. One of his most famous songs is Hound Dog, a hit he had at the age of just 21. It was first recorded by the the black artist Big Mama Thornton. Her version is far superior, though less known, even today.(6) There is a simple reason why Elvis succeeded where black artists didn't; racism, Jim Crowe and the capitalist nature of the music industry. Elvis sang black songs or a black style of music with a white face to a white audience, as did Buddy Holly, Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis and others. Whites were the demographic with the greatest purchasing power and so black music was given a white face. Simple racism, simple economics of capitalism. What Elvis appropriated was a bank balance.
Some conservatives have tried to present Elvis as a promoter of multiculturism, a term which didn't really exist back then. He was not. Of course, he liked the music, but his was a commercial decision. When black communities in the US mobilised for civil rights, he was not to be found by their side. Lots of artists took up the cause, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, even Elvis' contemporary Johnny Cash was busy making overtures to the Native American people and prisoners. Elvis's political contributions were, as an admirer of J. Edgar Hoover, to offer his services as informer to the FBI and later to turn up with Richard Nixon, along the way singing what he termed as his American Trilogy, which included the chorus of the song I wish I was in Dixie. It has a nice tune and the chorus sounds harmless enough.
I wish I was in the land
Old times there are not forgotten
Look away, look away,
Look away Dixie land.
But the song is about a former slave yearning for the "good times" on the plantation! The political import of this in the charged atmosphere of the 1960s would have been acutely apparent and he would been only too aware of it. He does have his modern equivalents of course, such as Iggy Azaela, who has been accused of appropriating black culture. She does in much the same way as Elvis did. I have no particular love of her music, or that of the original black artists, I find it all very commercial and owing more to the boardroom than the recording studio. You may not like Iggy Azaela's music, how she represents herself, how some of her stuff may be offensive to black people, but her success is just a boardroom decision, owing as much to artistic ability and creativity as the boy band phenomenon, or the banal commercial music of the 1970s.
There are of course power relationships at play in bourgeois society, race and class are part of that, but challenging these power relations is not what concerns identitarians. They cite exploitation but shy away from confronting capitalist exploitation. Their concern is not for social justice, but for a slice of the cake. Most musicians in the world, play because they like music, successful musicians in the modern capitalist economies are the product of a cheque book. On the bus in Bogotá, where I live, Rap artists frequently get on to busk for money. They are not black and they are not making huge amounts of money, they wouldn't be on the bus if they were. No one is likely to ever challenge them over the musical forms they use in order to busk and they will never be accused of Cultural Appropriation as they what they do, affects nobody's bank balance. Musical forms and artists can exist for ages in neighbourhoods and communities and only become successful in economic terms because some capitalist decides to invest in them. This is not always done simply on the basis of artistic merit, but on the potential to shoehorn creative talent into a pre existing specific market. Madonna and P Diddy have one thing in common, in the future, students of marketing are more likely to study them, than students of music and Iggy Azaela will probably get a mention in those classrooms as well.
The identitarians who shout loudest about Cultural Appropriation rarely if ever mention capitalism or when they do, they are not critical of it. Their basic argument is that Black, Latino, Asians etc., can and should be exploited, unmercifully if possible, but that this should be done only by a bourgeoisie that defines itself as coming from that same community. They care not for the working class nor indeed for the culture they claim is being appropriated, but rather who is making money out of it. This is the antithesis of what the defence of culture looks like.
Pete Seeger is known for having recorded songs in numerous languages he did not speak, Japanese, German etc. One of his most famous songs is Wimoweh. It was not written by him but by Solomon Linda, a South African musician. Seeger's rendition of it, is phonetic and he gets it wrong. It was not Wimoweh, but Mbube. (7) Seeger however, popularised it outside of South Africa and there have been numerous covers of it, some good, some bad and some of the woeful pop translations into English (The Lion Sleeps Tonight). The Weavers along with Seeger recorded it in 1952. The story behind the song is that it was a hit when first recorded but Linda had sold all the rights for a measly lump sum and got no royalties from it. When Pete Seeger heard this, he wrote out a cheque for the sum he calculated he would owe and sent it to the Linda family. How many other artists did the same, we do not know. It is likely that few if any ever did so. By modern identitarian standards Seeger was guilty of Cultural Appropriation. At the time, Seeger was part of an international movement, in solidarity with liberation struggles around the world. Singing songs from those countries was just part of that. Music then was political. Black artists were to the fore in this, they were not on the side lines. It is often forgotten that the music industry promoted the Jacksons as a safe pair of hands in opposition to black musicians who were singing about injustice and lent their voices to the oppressed from their own communities and others. Those days are gone, few if any modern musicians are really concerned about such issues, though doing some cringe worthy event or making some woeful statement - a la Bono, is almost obligatory, but it is just a marketing strategy.
The Reggae group UB40 had some black members, though the lead singers in it were both white, this did not stop them singing about British Imperialism and the arms industry “I'm a British Subject, Not Proud of it” - “from Burden of Shame”, or the racial injustices of the US legal system, “Tyler”, or just generally about poverty “One in Ten”. They only became commercially successful when they put the politics into the background and recorded covers such as Red, Red, Wine on their “Labour of Love” album. But playing Reggae was never an issue. Nor was the success of predominantly white Ska groups such as Madness or The Specials an issue, even though the groups were far removed from the Jamaican fruit workers where the music originated.
Many of the identitarians who scream about Cultural Appropriation are only in solidarity with their own bank balances. Part of the problem is that, there has been a retreat from common concepts of humanity, international solidarity and political struggle. Again as Kenan Malik points out.
In recent decades, however, the universalist viewpoint has eroded, largely as many of the social movements that embodied that viewpoint have disintegrated. The social space vacated by that disintegration became filled by identity politics.
As the broader struggles for social transformation have faded, people have tended to retreat into their particular faiths or cultures, and to embrace more parochial forms of identity. In this process, the old cultural arguments of the racists have returned, but now rebranded as "antiracist".(8)They do indeed play into old racist tropes about the uniqueness and pureness of cultures. They are not only factually inaccurate, but they are dangerous too. The Nazis codified in law what was German culture, excluding such German composers as Mendelssohn, who though Christian, was of Jewish descent, so not quite part of the community. This would seem like an exaggeration, the Nazis as the go to bogeymen, but it is not the case. Once you begin to define culture as static, as belonging to some and not others, as being pure, then that is the road you go down. It doesn't automatically lead to concentration camps or genocide, of course, but it is deeply authoritarian and reactionary.
It condemns people to live within their own bubbles, of a community that only they can belong to and by extension they can belong to no other. Though many would shudder at the thought, it also means, no inter- racial relationships, no breaking with reactionary elements in your own community, so the recently acclaimed Netflix drama Unorthodox which is based on the autobiography of Deborah Feldman would be a big no- no. You belong to a community, how dare this Hassidic Jew break with her community and join another! What will she appropriate in her new life and from whom? This is the logical extension of the reactionary discussion on Cultural Appropriation. It cuts every way. There is no concept of class or class struggle, you have to accept to live under the yoke of "your own" capitalist class and all the repressive elements of "your" culture, no breaking with them. In the case of Feldman, being white, she integrated into the middle class intelligentsia, which from her book, it is clear she desired and aspired to do. Is she allowed to do that? It is not "her culture" after all, she belonged to a very distinct community. She was a Satmar Hassidic Jew, spoke Yiddish as her first language, not English, and grew up knowing no people from outside her community and culture.
Culture springs from material reality, it is a product of human endeavour and does not exist in isolation in the ether from the rest of society, nor do those societies exist in isolation. It is also bound by material reality, there is a material basis to the existence of culture and its expression. It is clear that under capitalism, culture is commodified and who does that and benefits from it depends on the power relations. What constitutes a culture is not a set piece of practices, ideas, it is a spectrum which is in constant flux, the real problem is that culture is just a commodity for most, to be produced and sold and also to be consumed. We have become alienated from cultural production, reduced to seeing it as a means to make money, the problem with the real appropriation of cultures, is that it is appropriation in the economic sense, someone is making money out of it, rather than it being a free exchange of ideas. Though, to some degree this has always been the case, but under modern capitalism the sums involved and the short periods of time in which they can be generated far surpasses any previous exchange or borrowing from other cultures. The history of humanity is based on such exchanges, the Zero in mathematics, Algebra, Writing, all are the product of people learning and taking from other cultures.
Nearly all examples of culture claimed as "belonging" exclusively to one group are false. The capitalist exploitation of culture is a problem with capitalism and how it uses and alienates us from our own reality. Why produce culture when you can buy it? Unlike Seeger they do not believe plagiarism is basic to all culture, but rather someone owns it, that someone is them (the individual, not the collective) and a fee may be charged. The capitalist owners of the means of cultural production are the self appointed gatekeepers determining who has to pay the fee from outside “their” community but they are also the gatekeepers within their own community. They decide who gets to break the rules, how, and who gets to make money out of it from within that community. It is the essence of neoliberal individualism and capitalist economics. It is in a word, reactionary.
(1) See, Brown, D. (2012) Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, New York, Open Road Integrated Media (ebook)
(2) Chicago Tribune (24/03/2017) A white artist responds to outcry over her controversial Emmett Till painting https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/ct-emmett-till-painting-controversy-20170323-story.html
(3) The Guardian (23/07/2018)
White people are so fragile, bless 'em'... meet Rhiannon Giddens, banjo
(4)Malik, K. (17/04/2016) The bane of cultural appropriation, Al Jazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2016/04/bane-cultural-appropriation-160414080237198.html
(5) Malik, K. (14/04/2019) Who polices the cultural appropriation gatekeepers, The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/apr/14/who-polices-cultural-appropriation-gatekeepers
(6) For an appreciation of Big Mama Thornton's version see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=frsBq9MCNVg
(8) Malik, K. (17/04/2016) Op. Cit.