Miley Cyrus imitated a Hindu Bindi by wearing colored dots across the center of her forehead. The Chicago Blackhawks hockey team has the image of an Indigenous person with feathers and war paint as its logo. Katy Perry donned geisha garb at the Video Music Awards. Gordon Ramsay opened a new, Asian-inspired London restaurant with a non-Asian chef. Teen heart throb Zac Efron once sported dreadlocks “just for fun.” All met with disdain and were accused of “cultural appropriation.” What’s going on here?
Cultural appropriation occurs when the fashion, iconography, or styles of one culture are misappropriated by another culture. Progressive critics see it as stereotyping, an ugly echo of colonialism, and the continued subjugation and exploitation of minority populations. Conservative critics consider it just another example of political correctness gone wild and proof of the cancel culture.
Art, music, and fashion have always mined other cultures for inspiration. Roman sculpture was modeled on the genius of the Greeks. Picasso adopted motifs from African masks. Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album reverberates with the music of South Africa’s Soweto township. All art forms are imitative to a degree. Nothing is created sui generis, i.e., completely unique.
So, what makes cultural appropriation worthy of criticism? It’s considered offensive when it’s merely frivolous and doesn’t represent any understanding of the oppressed and marginalized people who created the artform. This offensiveness gets ratcheted up when the appropriation is done for profit. Some of the best examples are found in music.
If we swing dance down memory lane, we meet Paul Whiteman and his orchestra. They were all the rage in the 1920s and ’30s, and Whiteman (who had an awkward last name given this discussion) was dubbed the “King of Jazz.” However, he freely appropriated Black songs and arrangements and employed all-white musicians. His claim that he had “made an honest woman out of jazz” rankles people today, though he did help popularize this revolutionary musical genre across white America.
If we flash forward to 1956, we hear the raucous beat of Elvis Presley’s iconic “Hound Dog.” However, the big E wasn’t the first to record it. He co-opted the tune from the Black female blues singer, Big Mama Thornton. Her 1953 record sold 500,000 copies. That’s not bad, but Elvis’s version sold 10 million! That the song was written by two Jewish guys who loved rhythm and blues, Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, only adds interest to the discussion. Elvis was crowned the “King of Rock and Roll,” though Little Richard certainly had a more valid claim to the throne because everyone from Elvis to the Beatles copied his original song-styling.
The cultural appropriation in music by white people continued in the 1950s with the Crew Cuts’ “Sh-Boom,” a cover of an earlier version by the Chords, a Black group. Perhaps the most egregious exploitations were Pat Boone’s soul-less recordings of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally.” If you still remember the white buck-shoed Boone, you might ask where’s the harm in all of this? Simply put, it meant lost sales for Black artists. Rock critic Ed Ward saw the covers as attempts to “whiten” up songs and market them behind the “corporate might of a major label.” Record producers added to this insult by buying the rights to songs from black composers who never saw another nickel if the tunes became big hits. Today this rings the gong as systemic racism.
It’s true that over time, a gray area developed in music. Artists like the Beatles paid open tribute to the influential legacy of Black performers with “Twist and Shout,” originally performed by the Isley Brothers, and the Rolling Stones adopted their name from a Muddy Waters song. In return, Otis Redding covered the Stones’ “Satisfaction” and Jimi Hendrix did Bob Dylan’s “All along the Watchtower.” With this respectful cross-pollination, there was no one-sided exploitation or stereotyping.
Unfortunately, music’s cultural appropriation continues when Taylor Swift or Iggy Azalea rap and white performers talk with “blaccents.” Granted, none of this is earth shattering as major issues go, but it still represents the packaging of blackness to be more palatable to a broader, white culture.
Cultural appropriation also marginalizes Black performers who are denied a spot on the national stage where space is limited, and it trivializes the societal angst from which the music springs. Too much of the content and vocal styling of jazz, the blues, rhythm and blues, and rap began as cries for help born of struggle, heartache, and despair. This should always be respected by artists and listeners alike.
Frank Batavick writes from Westminster. His column appears every other Friday. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.