Cultural Appropriation in Music (Thoughts and Examples)

Image: Singer MØ admitted she felt that the video for her collab with Major Lazer for the song “Lean On” was cultural appropriation. Diplo, one of the trio that makes up Major Lazer, stated “India is special and its beauty absolutely humbled me… we wanted to incorporate the attitude and positive vibes into our video”. This is just one of the countless examples online where people clash to define the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation.

Cultural appropriation occurs when one culture uses elements of another culture in a negative or unacknowledged manner. The ongoing debate over cultural appropriation focuses mainly on cases in which a dominant culture appropriated elements of a minority in the production of a work of art.

Cultural appropriation, however, doesn’t happen solely in art. The recurrent use of Native American terms in American sports, for example, constitutes one of the most debated instances of cultural appropriation. Sports teams such as the Kansas City Chiefs, the Washington Redskins, or the Cleveland Indians are repeatedly criticized for exploiting Native American culture despite having nothing concrete to do with it.

Many people (including musicians) also appropriate other cultures to make fashion statements. In 2018, Pharrell Williams and Adidas were accused of cultural appropriation for releasing a line of sneakers inspired by the sacred Hindu festival Holi. White men and women with dreadlocks are constantly accused of appropriating a hairstyle that, according to the Rastafari religion, “connect wearers to Jah.” Native American culture is also recurrently exploited, with sacred Native American warbonnets being used in public by everyone from famous musicians to Victoria’s Secret models.

There’s no denying that cultural appropriation is a controversial subject in this day and age. The widespread opinion is that cultural appropriation is bad and that appropriators deserve to be punished (and even “canceled”) for appropriating other cultures. But is the question that simple? Or is there more to cultural appropriation than what first meets the eye?

While it’s easy to point fingers and publish angry tweets anytime a famous artist or celebrity appropriates another culture, the subject of cultural appropriation is more debatable, complex, and multi-layered than most people assume at first. In this article, I will be taking a closer look in an attempt to be as unbiased as possible at this divisive topic.

The fine line between cultural appreciation and appropriation in music

Before stepping into the matter of cultural appropriation per se, it’s important to learn about what cultural appropriation is not.

Cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation are different because the latter implies the unacknowledged overtaking of someone else’s culture for financial gain or prestige.

When a White man listens to African-American hip-hop simply because he loves the music, he is appreciating culture. But when a White man pretends to be a member of the Black community to sell his newest hip-hop album, he is appropriating culture. This example is particularly worrying because White people are a dominant culture in most of the Western world, including the United States.

There’s nothing contentious about cultural appreciation because it’s a win-win game: it’s merely about respectfully engaging with another culture. Cultural appropriation, on the other hand, can be devastating, as minority cultures are often dispossessed of their cultural history, denied good financial opportunities, and mocked by a dominant culture.

Cultural appropriation vs cultural assimilation

Cultural appropriation is also different from cultural assimilation, even though both can be hurtful for minority cultures. While cultural appropriation implies the “stealing” of cultural elements of another culture, cultural assimilation is the process of incentivizing a minority culture to deny its traditions in order to accommodate a dominant culture.

There are many levels to cultural appreciation

Some critics view cultural appropriation as a form of theft, but this isn’t always the case. There are many levels of cultural appropriation, and some are more hurtful than others. Later in this article, I will even argue that some forms of textbook cultural appropriation can be beneficial not only to both cultures involved but also to art (and music in particular) as a whole.

One of the worst instances of cultural appropriation one can think of involves the stealing of works of art from colonized countries by the dominant countries that used to colonize them. British museums, for example, are still packed with works of art from ex-colonies that were bluntly stolen away from minority cultures.

As more and more people ask for the repatriation of these foreign works of art, it’s clear that British museums have been appropriating other cultures for centuries in a fundamentally non-beneficial way. British museums are denying the museums in their ex-colonies the opportunity to protect important artifacts from their own cultures and profit (if they wish to) from them. What’s even more shocking is that the citizens of Britain’s ex-colonies need to catch a plane and buy a ticket to a British museum if they want to check out most of their own cultural relics!

Even though the British museums defend themselves by claiming that they’re “protecting” and “preserving” these foreign works of art, it has become clear that foreign museums are now more than equipped to do the same. This is cultural appropriation at its worse because the dominant culture benefits from appropriating a minority culture without providing anything whatsoever in return.

Orientalism—the imitation or promotion of aspects of Eastern culture in the Western world—is cultural appreciation on a different level. While hurtful Asian stereotypes are sadly still being used in modern works of art, the original 19th-century Orientalism was, at times, a nice form of cultural appropriation.

Hermann Hesse’s seminal work “Siddharta,” for example, is a beautiful book about Buddhism and Hinduism that respectfully appropriates Eastern culture, helping to promote it in the Western world. “Siddharta” was such a popular book at the time of its release that it even encouraged readers in Europe to buy books written by Asian authors to learn more about Buddhism and Hinduism. While it’s clear that Hesse appropriated and benefited from Eastern culture, it’s impossible to deny “Siddharta” made the world a better place for pretty much anyone.

But what can we learn from some of the most cited examples of cultural appropriation in music?

Famous examples of cultural appropriation in the music industry

There is at least one famous instance of cultural appropriation in any art form. But how does cultural appropriation work in music?

To learn more about this phenomenon, let’s analyze some of the most famous examples of cultural appropriation in the music industry.

Tasteless fashion statements

The way musicians dress is very important, especially in the mainstream pop scene. Sadly, some artists have made poor fashion decisions in the past, negatively impacting minority cultures in the process.

At the 2013 American Music Awards, pop singer Katy Perry wore a traditional Japanese kimono on stage and was heavily criticized online. The author/psychiatrist Ravi Chandra compared Perry’s act of cultural appropriation to wearing blackface on stage.

Many famous musicians have also worn Native American warbonnets on stage despite having nothing to do with Native American culture. The likes of Jamiroquai and Ted Nugent were criticized for appropriating an object that’s considered sacred by a minority culture just to make a meaningless fashion statement.

In the music video of her 2013 single “Bounce,” the rapper/singer Iggy Azalea filmed a scene in which she pretended to be in a traditional Indian wedding and wore a sacred Hindu wedding gown. Azalea’s music video was deemed offensive by many Indians, especially because Azalea was born in Australia, with no ties to India.

Here is the music video for the Major Lazer song featuring MØ that we mentioned earlier in the article.

White guys taking the prize

Fortunately, this type of cultural appropriation doesn’t happen as often in today’s world. However, it was extremely common in the first half of the 20th century, back when White people were unfairly praised and compensated for performing music that originated in other cultures.

Today, it’s too easy to forget that rock-and-roll music was created by Black musicians such as Little Richard and Chuck Berry. Despite being the pioneers and ultimate representatives of the genre, Richard, Berry, and countless other Black rock-and-roll musicians weren’t nearly as successful as White rock-and-roll musicians in their heyday. While Elvis Presley’s success can be partly blamed on his natural sex appeal, what’s to say of Bill Haley, Buddy Holly, and many others?

Another gross example of cultural appropriation coming from the ’50s involves the nearly-forgotten genre of Exotica. Basically, Exotica was traditional music from Polynesia and the South Pacific wrapped in easy-listening production. The only problem? It was only profitable for White guys!

While some Latin-American artists with close ties to South Pacific culture did get in on the wagon (including the late Peruvian diva Yma Sumac), Exotica music was mostly composed, performed, and published by White people.

Martin Denny’s best-selling 1957 album “Exotica,” for example, features zero Polynesian/South-Pacific musicians. Even the model on the cover (a clear fetishization of women from the South Pacific) is American: she’s the singer Sandy Warner, born in New York City!

Cultural Appropriation in Hip-Hip

Instances of cultural appropriation in hip-hop have become increasingly common in recent years. Trap music, for example, started as a hip-hop subgenre almost exclusively performed by Black rappers and ended up becoming a subgenre of EDM almost exclusively performed by White producers in a few years.

To be clear, not all cases of White rappers appropriating elements of Black culture are bad. However, there are countless cases where it becomes offensive once it takes the form of mockery.

The term blackfishing is an apt term for many of these people, which applies to White people who pretend to be Black online to attract more followers. These people are not admiring Black culture; they merely believe that they can exploit it for their personal gain.

Sheer mockery

Laughing is the best medicine, but there’s nothing funny about dominant cultures mocking minorities by appropriating elements of their culture. Nevertheless, this happens extensively not only in film, TV, and stand-up comedy but also in music.

One of the most famous examples of not-so-funny cultural appropriation involves the 1973 Led Zeppelin song “D’yer Mak’er,” which was considered to be a mockery of Jamaican music (and Bob Marley in particular) at the time of its release. According to the critics, they weren’t just trying to make reggae; they were trying to make fun of reggae!

To this day, “D’yer Mak’er” remains not only one of the few misses in Led Zeppelin’s excellent music catalog but also one of the clearest examples of cultural appropriation done wrong. What’s worse is that, for many people, it ended up symbolizing what reggae sounds like! In a 2006 concert, for instance, a not-yet-famous Lady Gaga played a cover of “D’yer Mak’er” and introduced the song by asking the crowd “Do you guys like reggae?”

Can cultural appropriation be a good thing in music?

Cultural appropriation only ever has the potential to be good when it promotes the exchange of ideas, helps new art to come to life, connects people from different cultures, and makes artists feel genuinely inspired by different cultures. In this case, you’ve probably already gone into the realm of what’s deemed as “cultural appreciation”.

Here is an argument about how cultural appropriation can potentially be a good thing in music, as long as it’s in the right setting:

Not all people buy into the idea that cultural appropriation is always bad because they view that many instances of cultural appropriation have done nothing wrong to the world. Take Bill Evans, for example. He was a White man in the Black-dominated jazz scene of the ’50s, which is equivalent to the modern-day wigga (as described by Norman Mailer). Nevertheless, Evans appropriated jazz in a way that not only made jazz as a whole better but also ended up benefitting Black musicians. Without Evans’ precious contribution, Miles Davis would have had a much harder time pioneering modal jazz with his revolutionary “Kind of Blue.”

Professor John McWhorter makes a good point in favor of a positive kind of cultural appropriation when he states that culture isn’t a limited resource. If one artist simply feels inspired by elements of another culture and produces an original work of art without harming people from a minority, why should he or she be blamed for it? Limiting artists to their “original” cultures and forbidding them from using elements of any other culture may sound less like a moral guideline and more like a form of art censorship.

Cultural appropriation can also be a form of cultural exchange or, to put it bluntly, cultural co-appropriation. In 2005, for instance, the French musician Manu Chao produced the Amadou & Mariam album “Dimanche à Bamako.” Manu Chao used the music of a Malian duo for his profit, but his priceless contribution to the record also profited Amadou & Mariam. Without Manu Chao’s Western-style production, “Dimanche à Bamako” would’ve probably been overlooked in the West, and Amadou & Mariam wouldn’t be the world-famous act they are today.

The verdict

Do you feel like appropriating elements of a different culture in your next single? Consider our bad (and a few good) examples of cultural appropriation and you’ll probably know what to do.

The subject of cultural appropriation will continue to make many people angry, but it’s important to see all sides of this complex matter before jumping to conclusions. As we have seen, cultural appropriation isn’t all bad.

To conclude the matter, I suggest that we start using the term “cultural appropriation” to describe positive/harmless instances of cultural appropriation and the term “cultural misappropriation” to describe negative instances of cultural appropriation.

Brian Clark

Brian Clark

I’ve been a writer with Musician Wave for six years, turning my 17-year journey as a multi-instrumentalist and music producer into insightful news, tutorials, reviews, and features.

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