The trouble with cultural appropriation

In recent years, I’ve heard a lot of talk about cultural appropriation in the music industry. Not least about Miley Cyrus and the spectacle of ‘twerking’, but also Macklemore and Iggy Azalea (bog-standard targets). The charge of cultural appropriation alleges that these artists have stolen their style from black performers, and it seems clear that there is more than a hint of truth to this claim. But it shouldn’t be implied that this is just a cultural question.

The more serious cases being the fact that there is a Blues root to almost all music today. Black talent has been rinsed by the music industry for a very long time. It’s a great historical irony that the classical music of the United States, a profoundly racist society, is Jazz music – the rhythms of the oppressed – which emerged out of the Reconstruction period following the civil war. The end of this period came in the form of segregation and the rise of the Klan. As much as culture has always represented the heart of a heartless world the Jazz scene was the vivacity of a world devoid of hope.

All of this confirms the Janus-faced nature of history. So if we’re going to make a distinction it’s worth making one here: there’s the point that the music industry has rinsed Black America for a long time, and then there’s the concept of cultural appropriation and what it brings to this debate. This kind of cultural criticism is worth unpacking. The charge of cultural appropriation can only be asserted on the basis of certain presuppositions. First of all, it takes cultures as homogenous, self-enclosed, static entities; secondly, it implicitly advocates that this should be the case.

Not only is this presupposition wrong, it shouldn’t be the case either. Cultures don’t have borders and never have had borders. Nor should cultures have them. To take an example within a dominant culture: Beowulf, the oldest piece of English literature, was produced in Scandinavia. The English language is composed of many influences, famously so, from Latin, Greek, French, and even Irish; its homogeneity can only arise out of heterogeneous origins. The numerical system employed in the West is Arabic. What we might call cultural transmission can’t be avoided.

We seem to have reached a point where cultural appropriation now extends to criticism of individual conduct. This is especially ironic as the phrase was coined by George Lipsitz, who defined it as a form of strategic anti-essentialism (this was long before the momentous days of Tumblr). He warned against wanton appropriation which could be insensitive. This implies that there is a sensitive way to do so, and that has been lost to the whirlwind of social media. No one seems to have the time of day to look into the terms of debate, which obscures the issue further.

This is the crux of the matter. To suggest white guys with dreadlocks are ‘acting black’ implies a certain amount of identity essentialism (e.g. that there are social attributes belonging inherently to black and white people) which takes essence to precede existence. The contemporary Left can see this problem when it comes to transgenderism and rightly chides the radical feminists who question it. At the same time, it ought to be kept in mind that the gender roles shouldn’t be maintained as a binary in the first place and this also applies to the question at hand.

In its worst moments, the contemporary Left seems to have become preoccupied on interpersonal conduct. The response to every issue comes in the form of regulation, which seems to extend a kind of consumer ethics (in this case at least) and make it business ethics. So it’s at once moralistic, reformist and puritanical. It would be a mistake to characterise this as ‘identity politics’. It’s almost a kind of ‘lifestyle politics’ – it’s about who has the most responsible newsfeed – which is a retreat from organised politics. It belongs to the same family as ‘privilege-checking’ and ‘trigger warnings’.

As if what we need today is a new set of ethics and we can remake the world without power. This criticism shouldn’t be confused with not being a committed anti-racist. Exploitation in the music industry is a political and economic question, it’s not a moral and cultural one, we should respond accordingly without de-politicisation. When we’re talking about race we’re dealing with formations of social control and we shouldn’t forget that the scars and wounds are very deep. Ultimately, we should be looking to move beyond diversity and aim for greater hybridity and immixing – not less.

About Joshua White

a writer and journalist living in the UK where he works as Africa editor and researcher for the World Weekly. White is a philosophy graduate, specialising in political thought, and maintained a blog for several years. His main focus is national and international politics having written on subjects as seemingly far apart as US elections, Russian nationalism and the state of modern Britain.
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