A few weeks ago I responded to a tweet about white people appropriating black music, and ended up in a chat with some hurt white people confused as to what qualifies as appropriation—as some of their favorite artists came up as appropriators in the conversation. I’ve been musing how to bring this topic up for a while, and with the recent Charlottesville madness, I thought it was time to give it a crack and open up a dialogue on it.
According to Google, appropriation is “the action of taking something for one's own use.” This is done within the music industry often, as music invented and developed within the black community is borrowed from or directly copied by a white person. Here is where the confusion begins for many, as the valid point of "everything begins with imitation" is brought up.
Every musician has influences, that is very true. The issue, however, lies with the lack of proper credit to these influences, and more importantly, that these influences aren’t getting their due monetarily and popularity wise. Moreover, these black influences experience barriers in terms of industry gatekeepers, while the influenced white musician is skipping through an open gate. Lastly, the trend of showing off the negative stereotypes of black culture and disregarding the other parts that are involved, demonstrates a lack of understanding and respect for the music one is taking.
For example, this BET article features tweets from Richey Collazo, who points out the trend of white pop stars who go through a “coming of age” phase, in which they begin to work with black artists/producers, and incorporate R&B and hip-hop into their music. This phase is often their “bad girl/guy” phase, in which they “push boundaries” and are “edgy,” where they were once innocent and pure. After this phase is over, however, and when they start to “want to be positive” again, they start skating away from these genres and collaborators. As if all there is to blackness and black music is getting drunk, smoking weed and shaking your booty. I think these two tweets say it best:
“they either make R&B to prove how raunchy and grown and sexual they are or hip hop to show how hard and street and rough they've become. “
“and all you're doing is showing us the stereotypes you place on blackness. you think us and our culture = sexual deviance & gang banging”
Taking what you want from black music, using it as a tool to be edgy, while not respecting all of the genre/people, and then throwing it away when it becomes inconvenient is cultural appropriation. Many of the pop stars we know and love have followed this formula.
I recently read a tweet where a woman believed that Blondie invented rap music and I was absolutely flabbergasted. What a GREAT example. While artists such as Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash (the actual inventors) were rapping since the mid '70s in order to uplift the black community and fight gang violence, the white gatekeepers of the music industry had no interest in playing hip-hop or rap on the radio at the time. But just as has been done time and time again (e.g. Motown), they were happy to feature the music in a white, blond package. The song, “Rapture,” became a #1 pop hit in the '80’s, and then some confused white people decided that she invented it.
Rock and Roll is another great example, while jazz improvisation, blues and R&B were the starting points for the growth of the genre, when artists such as Chuck Berry and the underrepresented Sister Rosetta Tharpe began to play around with the ideas on an electric guitar, you would never know it without going out of your way to learn music history. Elvis Presley is a classic example of someone who was influenced by black music, but reaped the benefits that many of his black influences never enjoyed. Even nowadays, I think we can all agree that rock music is considered to be a white genre, but its history isn’t acknowledged by many. It’s not like black people aren’t making rock music, they just often don’t get as much attention because of the forgotten history. If only hip-hop and R&B are considered to be “black music,” then a blog or radio show that typically features “black music” won’t include rock music into their line up. Vice versa, a black artist playing rock music may get passed over by a rock blog or radio station because, whether consciously aware of it or not, on some level it’s not “real rock” in this gatekeeper’s mind. The music industry is just as much about image as it is the music, so if an artist doesn’t fit within the stereotypical image one has of a genre or style, they can/are very easily passed over. Rock & Roll definitely has been appropriated by white people in this sense.
There are many examples and arguments I could put forth that would be enough to write a book about the appropriation of black music. However, this is just a blog post. At the end of the day, the appropriation is so rampant that we take it for granted. While we can all agree the white people that don’t acknowledge how black music influenced their writing and style are appropriators, the gray area comes in with those who do. Even if a white artists says they were influenced by a black artist, the fact that many of these black artists never enjoyed success or notoriety on the level of these influenced artists is a demonstration of the racist microaggression woven into our culture that people can’t, or refuse, to see. Furthermore, the ala cart method of using the negative stereotypes within black music as a tool for gain, and throwing them away when you’re done with them, pays no respect to black music. While not always intentional and malicious, this all still is appropriation, and an example of how ingrained racism is within our culture.