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Drake & Dancehall: Why Drake's Music Isn't Appropriation

Let's get this straight.

When I heard that Drake had released a new album, I rushed to listen because, since 2009, he’s given me the perfect song for the summer. Drake always had an affinity for reggae, even in his early works, but he went full dancehall on us with his 2016 hits “One Dance” and “Controlla”. His latest project, More Life, features more of the same with songs like “Madiba Riddim” & “Blem”.

In response, social media commentary & think-pieces have surfaced accusing Drake of exploiting dancehall. A quick Google search reveals the concerns that Drake, a native of Toronto, is guilty of appropriation.

I, however, challenge that notion. Those claims reflect a current trend of accusing artists of appropriation that does not consider the ways technology has changed our world. Instead, I posit that Drake’s dancehall vibe is an example of a lesser-known social phenomenon: acculturation. In today’s hyper-woke culture, where the line between social consciousness and trendiness is increasingly blurred, we must be sure that we understand the difference between the two before we launch accusations.

Appropriation, in the fairest sense, is when A) a person/culture takes something originated by another person/culture, B) claims the stolen things as their own original & unique creation, then C) intentionally blocks proper recognition to the originator by erasing the cultural history and the creator. It is NOT when A) a person/culture is inspired by another person/culture, B) honestly and genuinely practices the creation, and C) properly credits the person/culture that originated it. At that point, it is acculturation.

Acculturation is the inevitable cultural cross-fertilization that occurs when cultures meet; specifically the way cultures influence and adopt elements of each other. We have to acknowledge that when we put our culture on the world stage, through radio, television, and the internet, recorded for all posterity; acculturation will inevitably occur within the new generations that are exposed to it. When children in England, Tokyo, and Brazil grow up watching MTV and BET; when they hear music made by people of color on their radio; when they come from parents and grandparents who grew up watching movies, seeing art, and art forms created by people of color; when their culture is impacted and altered by this exposure, it’s a genuine exchange. Elements of our culture become adopted to the point that, for some, it becomes a natural form of expression.

Drake grew up in the ‘90s, when Queen Latifah and Arrested Development laced their songs with patois; when Chaka Demus and Pliers took the world by storm with “Murder She Wrote”; when The Score by The Fugees gave us a remix of Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” with Bob's son Stephen. Drake heard Lauryn Hill’s milestone album The Miseducation, which sampled Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam” on “Lost Ones”, and reimagined Bob Marley’s “Concrete Jungle” on “Forgive Them Father”. Growing up in Toronto, which has a vibrant Caribbean community, he heard The Wailers, Jimmy Cliff, Marcia Griffiths, Toots and the Maytals; he lived through the dancehall explosion of Beanie Man and Shaggy. He was around when Sean Paul dominated 2003 with “Gimme the Light”, “Like Glue”, and “Get Busy”. Moreover, dancehall and reggae owe a debt to the African sounds and rhythms which we all inherit as children of the Mother Land. Drake absorbed all that into his musical consciousness during the formative years of his youth; it should come as no surprise, then, that it has become a part of his musical language in maturity. It’s not appropriation, it’s acculturation. We must begin to critically note the differences between the two.

This critical differentiation extends to a larger conversation of appropriation as well: it includes the way we perceive white artists, on certain occasions. Amy Winehouse was accused of appropriation when her groundbreaking Back to Black album debuted, with its heavy sounds of soul, neo-soul, jazz, & reggae. However, the moment I heard her, I knew her. I knew that like me, she’d sat in her room with her legs crossed, replaying The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill over and over. She’d breathed in the catalogs of  Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, and Bob Marley. She’d absorbed the vocal styles of Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald. She also recognized and honored the Black geniuses that made her: she spoke the names of Ray Charles & Donnie Hathaway on the album’s first single, the gospel-influenced big-band stomper “Rehab”. She cited Lauryn, Sarah Vaughn, and The Supremes as inspirations. The song “Me & Mr. Jones” was an ode to rapper Nas, whose music she loved and who she shared a birthday with. She’d grown up hearing jazz, hip-hop, soul, and reggae on the radios and record stores in England. That’s not appropriation, that’s acculturation. Consider Eminem, who grew up in the slums of Detroit, surrounded by drugs and violence; who turned to hip-hop as an escape; who started from the ground up in hip-hop battle-rap cyphers; who always paid tribute to his progenitors Tupac, Biggie, Dre, and Snoop. It’s acculturation at that point.

Now, there are instances where appropriation is the right accusations to throw. When predominately-white luxury department stores decide to sell collard greens and "soul food", erasing its history and creators, that’s appropriation. When Elvis is called the King of Rock & Roll, but pioneers like Little Richard, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Ray Charles, and Church Berry are ignored, that’s appropriation. When Kylie Jenner wears dreadlocks and is praised as a fashion-forward original, that’s appropriation. It’s appropriation because these people take a Black creation, erase and refuse to acknowledge the creators, and, in a colonial manner, claim ownership of, and even fetishize, the things they stole.

Yet, if the recipients of cultural cross-fertilization honestly practice an art that came from another culture, AND genuinely pays proper tribute to the culture that inspired them, it is hypocritical and problematic to label them appropriators.

For example, in the “woke” community, a new definition of appropriation is being spread, which suggests that any white person who does something that originated from Blacks is an appropriator. That definition is fundamentally flawed since, by that logic, Black people could also be accused of appropriation as well. Some of what we do, willingly, originated from other cultures. For instance, American Blacks developed jazz by combining African rhythms and sounds with French impressionist chords/progressions & Russian atonalism, using the Italian-created piano as a chief instrument. Were we then appropriators? Was Andre Watts, the first major Black classical pianist, an appropriator since he was playing European music on a European instrument. Were Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, and Camilla Williams (the first major Black opera singers) guilty of appropriation when they sang using a European style of singing to perform Italian and Russian operas?

There’s a thin line between appropriation and acculturation, and muddling it deters the celebration and furtherance of art. We need to be more careful when we launch accusations of appropriation because fighting for the respect of Black arts is important, but the fight must be accurate.

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Umohowet Yelayu writer, poet, musician, from Chicago, IL. His debut collection of poetry "Songs of Our Old Orbits" was published in 2018. He has worked in education, social-emotional counseling, and community development, for nationally funded nonprofits and in the nation’s fourth largest public school system. He is the founder and chief executive officer of The Civil Regeneration Fellowship, a nonprofit organization that provides services to schools, families, and communities-in-need in the four areas of Education, Mental Health, Community Development, and the Arts. He is the founder of the Uchu Taiyoko Ryu Dojo, a community marital arts and yoga program in Chicago.