Discussions about American Apparel’s new Afrika line of clothing on this blog, Feministing and Racialicious sparked some confusion among people who wondered “What’s so wrong with being inspired by another culture?” Nothing, really. But “inspiration” drawn from a historically oppressed culture comes with a tangle of baggage born of generations of marginalization and bias.
It’s all about the oppression
Cultural appropriation is the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group. It denotes acculturation or assimilation, but often connotes a negative view towards acculturation from a minority culture by a dominant culture. It can include the introduction of forms of dress or personal adornment, music and art, religion, language, or social behavior. These elements, once removed from their indigenous cultural contexts, may take on meanings that are significantly divergent from, or merely less nuanced than, those they originally held. Or, they may be stripped of meaning altogether.
The term cultural appropriation can have a negative connotation. It generally is applied when the subject culture is a minority culture or somehow subordinate in social, political, economic, or military status to the appropriating culture; or, when there are other issues involved, such as a history of ethnic or racial conflict between the two groups.Cultural and racial theorist, George Lipsitz, outlined this concept of cultural appropriation in his seminal term “strategic anti-essentialism”. Strategic anti-essentialism is defined as the calculated use of a cultural form, outside of your own, to define yourself or your group. Strategic anti-essentialism can be seen both in minority cultures and majority cultures, and are not confined to only the appropriation of the other. For example, the American band Redbone, comprised of founding members of Mexican heritage, essentialized their group as belonging to the
Native American tradition, and are known for their famous songs in support of the American Indian Movement “We Were All Wounded at Wounded Knee” and “Custer Had It Coming”. However, as Lipsitz argues, when the majority culture attempts to strategically anti-essentialize themselves by appropriating a minority culture, they must take great care to recognize the specific socio-historical circumstances and significance of these cultural forms so as not the perpetuate the already existing, majority vs. minority, unequal power relations.
In other words: It’s the oppression, stupid.
A Japanese teen wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the logo of a big American company is not the same as Madonna sporting a bindi as part of her latest reinvention. The difference is history and power. Colonization has made Western Anglo culture supreme–powerful and coveted. It is understood in its diversity and nuance as other cultures can only hope to be. Ignorance of culture that is a burden to Asians, African and indigenous peoples, is unknown to most European descendants or at least lacks the same negative impact.
It matters who is doing the appropriating. If a dominant culture fancies some random element (a mode of dress, a manner of speaking, a style of music) of my culture interesting or exotic, but otherwise disdains my being and seeks to marginalize me, it is surely an insult.
She loves me; she loves me not
I was thinking about this while reading Daphne A. Brooks’ article on Amy Winehouse in this week’s issue of The Nation. In “Tainted Love,” Brooks writes about the Winehouse sound that I found so compelling on the artist’s two releases:
Black women are everywhere and nowhere in Winehouse’s work. Their extraordinary craft as virtuosic vocalists is the pulse of Back to Black, an album on which Winehouse mixes and matches the vocalizing of 1940s jazz divas and 1990s neo-soul queens in equal measure. Piling on a motley array of personas, she summons the elegance of Etta “At Last” James alongside roughneck, round-the-way allusions to pub crawls and Brixton nightlife, as well as standard pop women’s melancholic confessionals about the evils of “stupid men.” What holds it all together is her slinky contralto and shrewd ability to cut and mix ’60s R&B and Ronnie Spector Wall of Sound “blues pop” vocals with the ghostly remnants of hip-hop neo-soul’s last great hope, Lauryn Hill. Who needs black female singers in the flesh when Winehouse can crank out their sound at the drop of a hat?
Last March, New Yorker pop critic Sasha Frere-Jones wrote that Winehouse’s inflections and phonemes don’t add up to any known style.” Her “mush-mouthed” phrasings on tracks such as “You Know I’m No Good” are, he wrote, her “real innovation,” a “Winehouse signature” that stresses linguistic distortion and sounds heavy on the wine. This, to some, is the sonic allure of Amy Winehouse: her absolutely inscrutable delivery seemingly sets her apart from the legions of white artists who’ve hopped on the Don Cornelius soul train to find their niche.
Let’s be real. These “mush-mouthed” phrasings are anything but new. Winehouse is drawing on a known style that’s a hundred years old, rooted in a tradition of female minstrelsy. Think of the oft-overlooked blues recording pioneer Mamie Smith, the artist who, with songwriter Perry Bradford, laid down the first-ever blues recording by an African-American vocalist, “Crazy Blues,” in 1920. Mamie Smith is hardly an iconic figure like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. Her rep as “a vaudeville chanteuse” rather than a juke-joint vet all but guarantees her exclusion from the traditional blues canon. But it’s this background that enabled Smith to draw on a range of styles crafted in part from watching and listening to white female performers like Sophie Tucker and, eventually, Mae West–white women who, as theater scholar Jayna Brown has written, often learned to “perform blackness” from the women who worked for them. It goes to show that there were plenty of women, black and white, who benefited from the minstrel craze.
A black person might feel flattered at what appears to be Winehouse’s deep appreciation for “race music.” One might be grateful that the pop artist seeks inspiration frm African American culture and pays tribute through her style to too-easily forgotten women like Ma Rainey and Mamie Smith. I might feel that Winehouse was executing an homage to my culture, had the addled chanteuse not been caught on video singing racist slurs to the melody of the kids’ rhyme “Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes.”
So, what to think of Winehouse’s appropriation in that light? It seems that a love of pulsing beats and from-the-gut singing does not translate into love and respect for the people that birthed the genre.
Ethnicity sanitized for your protection
Even if Winehouse had never revealed her prejudice, should black folks be glad that white artists are able to appropriate music rooted in the African diaspora and the black American experience, tone down the soul, market it behind a paler face and find the fame that eludes similar artists of color?
Consider Sharon Jones, the 52-year-old singer who usually fronts The Dap Kings, the band that has backed Winehouse. Jones and The Dap Kings “are widely thought to be spearheads of a revivalist movement that aims to capture the essence of funk/soul music as it was at its height in the mid-1960s to mid-1970s.” Curiously though, after three albums, Jones’ retro belting has earned her cult fame but none of Winehouse’s success. Thin, young, white and tragic sells so much better than dark, plump and middle-aged.
There is a long history of of white musicians being inspired by black music and finding fame with an “exotic” but safer sound, while their black muses languished in obscurity. Without diminishing the impact of artists like Elvis and The Rolling Stones on the popular music scene, surely it is clear that they benefited from a culture that would never allow a bluesman like Robert Johnson to gain mainstream prominence. The fresh sounds that electrified rock audiences weren’t really so fresh, just appropriated from an artist and culture made invisible by racism.
There’s the rub
What’s so wrong with being inspired by another culture? I’m not sure how to answer, because borrowing from a historically oppressed culture is not as simple as some would want it to be. Fair or not, there are hundreds of years of meaning behind that faux African print dress, that Motown-inspired tune and the silent Harajuku posse. I haven’t even touched on the stickiness of appropriating religious items and culture. (With Halloween on the way, we’ll all have a great opportunity to witness all the ways Americans “pay homage to” the West African religion of Voudou.) For many people of color, it’s nearly impossible to unhook what the mainstream believes is harmless cultural borrowing from the broader experience and history of our people. “Harmless” is really in the eye of the beholder.