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Avoiding cultural appropriation in music

How can artists implement other cultures in their music without doing cultural appropriation?

 

A research paper by Numa

 

Introduction

 

In this thesis I am exploring the boundaries between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. Under what conditions is it appropriate to incorporate musical elements from foreign cultures into one’s own musical productions? It is very important that all artists as well as listeners are educated about what is correct and what is not. 

Cultural appropriation vs. cultural appreciation

 

In order to tackle the issue at its root, we first need to define what exactly “cultural appropriation” means. According to the Cambridge dictionary, “cultural appropriation” is defined as: “The act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture” (Cambridge Dictionary, 2022).

 

The term “cultural appropriation” is often confused with the very similar sounding word “cultural appreciation”. The latter in turn means, according to Urban Dictionary: “Taking the time out to learn about different cultures and their traditions. To become more open in understanding the truths about a culture and embracing them in a respectful manner” (Urban Dictionary, 2018). 


This simple comparison demonstrates that awareness seems to be an important first step if someone wants to discuss this topic. Putting this into context for musicians, the question arises, how much does someone actually need to know about a culture in order to be able to use its musical elements without having a guilty conscience?

Central issue: Historical power imbalance

 

The reason why some people are much more sensitive to the topic than others can often be related to personal experiences with racism. Racism is unfortunately still a big problem nowadays and can occur in many forms. In most cases, it originates from historical power imbalances. 

 

Let us take a look for instance at the music genre of reggae. The lyrics of many famous reggae pieces talk about themselves and their ancestors who have been feeling excluded and suffered racism due to colonization. The Rasta hairstyle in Jamaica originally started in the 1930s for religious reasons, but over the years it has become more and more a symbol of freedom, anti-regime, and peace in Jamaica. Under this argument, it could be understood that the Rasta hairstyle should only be worn by Jamaicans. The sense of disadvantage for a Jamaican person may originate when someone wearing the Rasta hairstyle does not belong to this culture and never has to fight against oppression and the aftermath of brutal colonialism.

 

On the other hand, there are opinions that refer to the history of dreadlocks, which goes back much further than just the Rastafarian history. From a legal perspective, dreadlocks cannot be copyrighted which means that anyone can wear them. Nevertheless, it is important to look at the bigger picture. And that means to take into consideration that dreadlocks are in most cases still associated with Rastafarian culture. 

 

For example, if a white-skinned person wears a dread-locks wig at the carnival, then in most cases the fake hair is glued to a hat in the colors of the Rastafari movement. The three colors we are talking about are green, gold and red. Green stands for the country’s intimate connection with nature, gold represents the gold stolen by the British colonialists and finally red, which commemorates bloodshed and the fallen people in the war against the British colonialists. 

 

Another example is the genocide and the displacements of indigenous people in America, which started in 1492 with the arrival of Columbus. Dressing up as an indigenous person at carnivals does not automatically mean to maliciously make fun of that race. However, adorned with feathers and war paint, one quickly embodies the stereotype of an indigenous Native American which is something that can be perceived negatively by descendants of indigenous populations.

 

If there is one thing that emerges from these examples, it is that this knowledge is absolutely mandatory in order to have the necessary awareness and respect for the subject matter.

Is there a boundary at all?


It could be said that the two concepts, cultural appropriation, and cultural appreciation, can be separated like black and white. Certainly, it can be either familiarized with a culture or not. But how deep should someone actually delve into the matter of a foreign culture? Is this something situated in a gray area? Let us make an example: Imagine somebody wants to record a foreign instrument for their project. One of the benefits when doing some research is that we can get knowledge about the cultural application as well as the history of an instrument. Not only does this improve the recordings, but additionally, the person playing the instrument has a completely different relationship to it.

 

In addition, when releasing music to an audience as an artist, it is possible to give other people an insight into a foreign culture, which ultimately embraces the culture in a positive way. However, simply using foreign instruments without informing oneself about their origins and their backgrounds is certainly not a criminal offense, but being aware of other critical opinions is important.

 

And yet: How much does someone really get to know a foreign culture before incorporating musical elements from it into their own productions? This can undoubtedly remain an individual decision. If there was a basic rule, then it might be called; those who get to deal with the topic will benefit in any case. For example, by gaining new knowledge about a culture, but also by more likely being respected by natives of a culture.

  

What applies to music?

 

When it comes to the music of a culture, it is fundamentally important to consider that it is very closely linked to other cultural traditions. Usually, it is not only the music that could be perceived as racist by someone, but also the whole combination of music, clothing style and other appropriated traditions. But what matters when simply being an artist that incorporates musical elements from a foreign culture?

 

Let us take a look at some of the most famous attempts of integrating musical elements of foreign cultures:

 

The Rolling Stones are setting a good example first. Although they are considered one of the most successful bands in history, they owe a lot of their success to the genre of blues. Before their big breakthrough, they mainly emulated R&B cover songs and even their name is based on a song called “Rollin’ Stone” by the dark-skinned artist Muddy Waters.

 

Nevertheless, the reason why the Rolling Stones never had to face great accusations of cultural appropriation was because they always communicated their ideas to the public in a transparent way while openly being great admirers of African American blues. Furthermore, they always gave credits to the cultures which they borrowed musical elements from.

 

Led Zeppelin released a reggae-like song called “D’Yer Mak’er” in 1973. At that time reggae was very much on the rise, especially because of the already very popular Bob Marley. It almost seemed as if Led Zeppelin wanted to jump on the reggae success train. In fact, the title “D’Yer Mak’er” makes fun of Jamaican pronunciations when they are speaking English.

 

At that time, the music magazine “Rolling Stone” already condemned them for the fact that the track would not even contain the essential elements of reggae, nor would they be respectful to the culture by the ridiculous naming of the song.

 

Another negative headline in the form of cultural appropriation was about Iggy Azalea. The rapper with an original Australian accent was harshly criticized for suddenly rapping with a “blaccent” accent. This is defined as when a non-black person mimics or mocks black vernacular. She denied any accusations of cultural appropriation. However, it has ever since damaged her reputation, especially because it made her seem unnatural and like someone she was not.

 

As an interim conclusion, we observe that it often does not go down well when famous people we know in a certain way try to radically change themselves. 

 

The best example of such a story features Miley Cyrus. The former childhood superstar had to struggle with huge image problems after she changed her entire lifestyle from being a sweet little rich girl to suddenly appearing in a dark urban way. In particular, when the original country singer suddenly switched to hip-hop, she was criticized a lot for using black culture as a career ladder.


The American artist Paul Simon produced a successful album called “Graceland” in 1986, which was a collaboration with a South African group called Boyoyo Boys. As a result, the South African sound was very much in focus, which didn’t seem to please everyone at the time of the release. What cannot be helped is that Simon is a privileged white artist, and this album certainly helped him to advance his career. What greatly limited his damage, however, was that he personally flew to Johannesburg in 1985 before the release and met with the band to create a creative environment for the collaboration. He always tried to include individuals of the culture into his work, as well as reflect his knowledge of the culture in the music. The key to his approach was acknowledgement, commitment to inclusion, and thoughtful understanding.

 

Conclusion

 

It is beneficial to keep some thoughts in mind when including musical elements from another culture in projects. The following points are essential when it comes to using foreign cultural elements:

 

Awareness

As already mentioned at the beginning of this research, familiarizing ourselves with the fundamental differences of cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation could be an important first step. This includes understanding that there are more sensitive and less sensitive people of the subject. It also means taking time to listen to people’s experiences, as well as trying to put oneself into their position. The most important point of awareness, however, if possible, is to spend some time on researching topics in order to better understand the story behind a sensitive matter, and thus empathize with people affected.

 

Credits

Another important element is to give credits to the adopted elements and to your collaborators, be it in the form of naming a specific musician or embracing the culture itself. This also applies to all financial transactions, for example everyone needs to receive their fair share. Full transparency should be visible to all parties at all times. In doing so, each artist has the right to claim for their contribution what they feel is reasonably fair.

 

Support

Closely connected to the credits is the supporting aspect. In the age of social media, communication is a key element and even a small repost or a collaboration itself can already have a big impact. If an artist has the goal to build up a community, he should not be afraid to give support to the people who inspire him or contribute to his music. At the same time, it is important to value another culture and to embody this to the outside world.

 

Respect

Respect towards cultures and all the people involved in the projects should be given at any time. This means not being judgmental but also authentically representing another culture when using elements from it. Under all circumstances, therefore, nothing should be ridiculed in order not to offend anyone.

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