Tribute or Thievery? A Look at Cultural Appropriation in Music

Article by: Kay S.

Edited by: Kody T.

Graphic by: Nabil R.

Cultural appropriation is a term that is tossed around a lot in the news, but what exactly is it?

According to Merriam Webster Dictionary, cultural appropriation is a term used to describe the takeover of creative or artistic forms, themes, or practices of one cultural group by another. It is, in general, used to describe Western appropriations of non‐Western or non‐white forms, and carries connotations of exploitation and dominance. It’s distinguished from an equal cultural exchange due to an imbalance of power, often as a byproduct of colonialism and oppression.

Cultural appropriation has always been considered a harmful violation of the collective intellectual property rights of minority cultures, notably those of indigenous culture and those living under colonial rule. However, cultural appropriation is often and unfortunately unavoidable when multiple cultures come together, and it can include using another culture’s cultural and religious traditions, fashion, symbols, language, and songs. Quite often, this is done along racial and ethnic lines with little to no understanding of the other’s history, experience, and practices.

Cultural appropriation in the music industry began in the 1950s, when white musicians started borrowing the musical stylings of their African-American counterparts. Because African-Americans were not accepted in American society at that time, record executives chose to have white artists replicate the sound of black musicians. The result was that music like rock-n-roll is largely associated with whites while black pioneers like Big Mama Thornton are largely forgotten.

Art and music forms that originated in minority groups come to be associated with members of the dominant group. As a result, the dominant groups are deemed innovative and fashion-forward while the disadvantaged groups they ‘borrow’ from will continue to face a lot of negative stereotypes implying that they are lacking in intelligence and creativity. I think it’s extremely disrespectful for people to take symbols and sacred objects from a culture and wear it as a sort of fashion accessory without adequate knowledge of the background that it comes from. It’s especially a shame when people go to music festivals or fashion shows wearing Native American war bonnets, or an even more popular example, the Indian bindi, or the Japanese kimono. The slow, yet sure, evolution of these examples going from objects of spirituality and culture to mere fashion accessories thanks to the frightfully common appropriation of these items is a disappointing thing to see indeed.

The question of whether using another culture’s imagery and symbols that are not your own is a homage or an insult is at the core of cultural appropriation. What one person perceives as a tribute, others may perceive it as disrespectful. This is certainly a fine line and one that must be carefully considered. Genuine interest in other cultures is not to be discounted. The sharing of ideas, traditions, and material items makes life interesting and helps diversify the world, but if the weight behind the tradition and culture is taken lightly, it could mean a loss of the diversity in culture in the world.

It is the intention with what we bring up these issues with that remains most important and something that everyone should be conscious of as we learn from others.