Cultural appropriation is a sociological concept which views the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture as a largely negative phenomenon.
I’ve seen the term “cultural appropriation” cropping up a lot lately in my social media timelines – it seems to be fashionable to lay into people’s fashion choices, hairstyles, tattoos, furnishings, cooking and dining, show and stage designs, etc, etc, etc. Now I agree, a lot of what we in the West borrow from other cultures is done so crudely and in such poor taste that it frequently oversteps the mark into stereotyping and, at its worst, outright racism. See the entirely gratuitous image of Geisha-Katy Perry at the head of this page for a screamingly unsubtle example of such.
That isn’t what this post is about, though.
I was thinking about this subject whilst DJ-ing this weekend. My events set lists tend to be very broad and eclectic (as an example of how far apart the extremes can be, this weekend’s sets included Audrey Hepburn & Knife Party) so there’s a whole bunch of influences, cross-pollination of ideas and re-hashings of the giants on whose shoulders we stand on display there. It occured to me that if you were to try to unpick the myriad of “cultural appropriations” present in popular music over the last 50 years, and to actively avoid them, you’d basically have to turn your music player of choice off, right now, and leave it off. Probably forever.
I couldn’t find a track in my entire library that I could honestly say hadn’t borrowed in some way from a culture, tradition, religion or continent that isn’t, strictly speaking, mine. In fact, most of the influences in rock’n’roll onwards can be directly traced back to slavery, which is frankly just bloody shameful when you think about it. As a white male English man. I should probably only have “Greensleeves” on my iPod.
However… (bear with me here. Some of this you might have to take on trust, but believe me, I know whereof I speak)… musicians don’t think or operate this way at all.
Take two musicians of wildly different cultures, no shared language, no common social cues and sit them down together. I guarantee you that within an hour they’ll have a) created something beautiful and new, b) learnt a shed-ton about each other’s lives and c) have had an awesome time in the process. They will have also, as a matter of course, appropriated the living snot out of each other’s musical heritage. But that’s what we do. We share, without thinking and without talking about it.
I’m not saying that all musical appropriation of other cultures is this clean or friendly. Yes, there’s been outright theft, yes there’s been some absolutely mortifying bad taste. But, the next time you flick through your vinyl collection, your CD rack, your iTunes, through all that richness and variation and breadth that you have at your fingertips, ask yourself this: would you really want it to have been any other way?