Cultural Appropriation

Earlier this week, we reported on Vic Mensa’s comments on Cultural Appropriation, in which he used Justin Timberlake as an example. Cultural appropriation is nothing new as a topic. Grantland (R.I.P) called it the term of the year back in 2013. The Atlantic discussed being tired of talking about it in 2014. But yet it’s clear from comments like the one we got below that there’s still work to be done actually explaining it. 

 

The world as it really is

The world is unequal. We all know this in some shape or form, but it can be tough for some people – usually white people – to accept just how unequal it is. In just about every facet of everyday life, people of different races are treated completely differently for the same things. In this set of statistics we’re about to use, we’re mainly going to focus on black people, but be sure that every ethnicity aside from white feels these disadvantages. And, within those groups, women have it worse than men, LGBT worse than heterosexual, and Transgender people of colour are at very high risk. We’re mainly sticking to treatment of blacks for brevity, not because we’re unaware of these dynamics. 

In 2012, Matthew Lee, head of Fair Finance Watch and Inner City Press did a study that found that Wells Fargo & Co., J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. and KeyCorp all charged significantly more to blacks for mortgage rates. Rentals are often no better. The BBC did a study into letting agencies that discovered that most operated a covert ‘no blacks’ policy at the owner’s request (before anyone says ‘owners house, their rules’ this is an illegal practice). Redlining negatively affects black Americans to this day and even Donald Trump was sued for not renting to blacks in the 1970s. 

Workplace discrimination also happens. Before we even get into the statistics here, writing this as a second generation child of immigrants, workplace discrimination was such a fact of life, it’s long been a regular feature of gallows humour (and slight respectability politics) amongst many black families. My parents consistently joked, (or semi-joked) that they gave me the name Jason so my CV wouldn’t be thrown in the bin on a name basis. A study by NBER Faculty Research Fellows Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan found that “Job applicants with white names needed to send about 10 resumes to get one callback; those with African-American names needed to send around 15 resumes to get one callback." While five extra resumes doesn’t seem like that much, the fact that these are name based only shows just how prevalent workplace discrimination is. Even the supposedly equal world of Journalism is 94% white in the UK even though most Journalism jobs are based in London, a city where People of colour (POC for short) make up 44% of the city. 

 Even if you do manage to make money, affluent blacks and latinos, due to those higher mortgage rates, still live in poorer neighbourhoods than white working class people. Even the recession of 2007 affected people differently, with hispanic families wealth falling by 44%, blacks by 31% and Whites by only 11%. People of colour were also targeted for the sub-prime loans that caused the financial crash in the first place, which led to a large number of minorities losing their homes.

According to a Department of Education report, black children are also punished ‘more frequently and more harshly than their white counterparts’. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health also reported that White Americans also use more drugs than Black Americans but that Black people were three times more likely to be arrested for drug possession. Blacks are then 21% more likely to receive a longer sentence than whites for the same drug related offence. 

So, we have a world where being black means that you’re charged more for mortgages and, even then, you’ll be targeted for bad subprime-esque loans, it’s harder to get housing rentals, often can’t get business loans, receive regular racial discrimination in the workplace, be punished more harshly from childhood and receive far harsher sentences than whites for the same crime. And that’s before we even mention police brutality. 

We say all this to say that your world experience will be extremely different based solely on race alone. If your argument ignores this, it is an invalid argument. We tend to find that most issues with cultural appropriation stem from a lack of misunderstanding on this point. 

Jesse Williams, Justin Timberlake and Vic Mensa

Which brings us back to Jesse Williams and his BET Speech. His speech spoke on police brutality, specifically taking care to mention that black women also suffer (something often overlooked). He spoke on a number of issues, but ended on the topic of cultural appropriation. 

“We’ve been floating this country on credit for centuries, and we’re done watching and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us, burying black people out of sight and out of mind while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil – black gold, ghettoizing and demeaning our creations then stealing them, gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit. The thing is though… the thing is that just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real.”

Great speech! Justin Timberlake agreed, tweeting ‘inspired’ after it. Then someone brought up that Timberlake’s solo career is built on black music and the fact he left Janet Jackson out to dry after the Super Bowl fiasco. Timberlake replied in the most #alllivesmatter way possible, proving that he didn’t actually take in any of the Jesse Williams speech. On the Nightly Show, Vic Mensa used Timberlake as an example of artists who continually profit from black sounds, while contributing nothing to the wider culture. The key point here, which Mensa expanded on later, was that Timberlake was just a single example. Mensa could’ve used any number of artists to illustrate this point. After all, we’re all still recovering from blaccented Iggy Azalea (who would be far more interesting if she rapped in an Australian accent) and her career downfall. We understand that ‘Vic Mensa slams Justin Timberlake’ is a better headline than ‘Vic Mensa discusses cultural appropriation’ but the latter is closer to accuracy.

Going beyond that, it’s a pop star right of passage to have an ‘edgy’ phase, which usually consists of them using black men as props and to silently signify danger (The same kind of silent implication that gets black people unjustly murdered by police). Everyone from Miley Cyrus to Madonna has gone through such a phase, and it usually goes unquestioned. Going back further, the most popular bands that your dad can’t stop going on about – Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Beatles, etc – were also heavily influenced by black folk and blues singers, to the point of their music basically being a sample of it. Even Eric Clapton, who was so racist at a concert that he caused the opening of an anti-racist league, is heavily influenced by BB King. The Rolling Stones were so influenced by black blues artists they got their name from the Muddy Waters song ‘Rolling Stone’. Keith Richards once said jokingly about Chuck Berry that "It's very difficult for me to talk about Chuck Berry 'cause I lifted every lick he ever played. This is the gentleman who started it all, as far as I'm concerned." 

But while this was a case of a musician fully acknowledging their influence, therefore steering clear of cultural appropriation, this wasn’t usually the case. In 1955, Pat Boone picked up Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti, pretended it wasn’t even a cover, and charted higher than the original version did just two months earlier. When Little Richard was asked about it, he said “They didn’t want me to be in the white guys’ way… I felt I was pushed into a rhythm and blues corner to keep out of rocker’s way, because that’s where the money is. When ‘Tutti Frutti’ came out… They needed a rock star to block me out of white homes because I was a hero to white kids. The white kids would have Pat Boone upon the dresser and me in the drawer ‘cause they liked my version better, but the families didn’t want me because of the image that I was projecting.”

We’ve moved beyond the outright theft of songs ala Tutti Frutti but the system did move towards milquetoast covers that barely changed anything other than the race of the person singing the song. We bring all this up to point out that when Vic Mensa was talking about Justin Timberlake, he wasn’t really talking about Justin Timberlake. He was talking about a system that is in love with black culture, but not black people. So, as a white artist with privileges black artists don’t have – studies have shown that white men are the only people who get praised for talking diversity – the least white artists could do is give a little back to the community they clearly have so much interest in.

How appropriation differs from Pizza chains

“What about pizza chains? or punk aesthetics?”

Ok, now here’s where you fucked up. Punk aesthetics have been turned into branding, yes. But it’s still called a punk aesthetic. No one is rebranding punk like they tried to rebrand Kim Kardashian’s cornrows as ‘box braids’. For punk aesthetics or pizza chains to be anywhere similar to appropriation, they’d need to make up their own name for it, ignore the existing history of it and then credit it to someone who had nothing to do with the creation of it. That’d be appropriation.

No one is disputing who created punk (outside of inside squabbles). No one is disputing that Italians created pizza. No one denied that Kurt Cobain was the primary influence in that infamous Perry Ellis collection Marc Jacobs did. No one denies that James Naismith invented basketball. 

The issue with cultural appropriation – and why it differs from cultural appreciation – is that people of colour aren’t rewarded for their work and are subsequently treated as invisible. The commenter also says that Vic Mensa had nothing to ‘complain’ about. First, the framing of any POC talking about something that affects them as ‘complaining’ is a subtle method used to demean their words.

Second, Italians would be able to ‘complain’ if they’d been treated in the same manner as Nearis Green. Green was a slave who Jack Daniels are now acknowledging was instrumental in their creation of their whiskey. In the New York Times piece, they said that “In the same way that white cookbook authors often appropriated recipes from their black cooks, white distillery owners took credit for the whiskey.” So, we have a $2.9 billion industry that is only now acknowledging that a black slave was instrumental in creating their whisky. In fact, even a distilling method called the Lincoln County process is said to have likely came from slaves. In the same NY Times piece, it notes that “According to legend, the process was invented in 1825 by a white Tennessean named Alfred Eaton. But Mr. Eddy, the Jack Daniel’s historian, and others now say it’s just as likely that the practice evolved from slave distilling traditions.” 

And Green’s descendants, several of whom still live in the area and have worked for the distillery (just as employees, not board members, which would be fair considering their legacy), won’t be compensated despite having a relative at the nucleus of the company. While this is just one example, there’s plenty more that show that appropriation is embedded into society, rather than some recent discovery. 

Appropriation/Appreciation

The most common argument we see against calls of appropriation is ‘I’m appreciating the culture’. In equal land, which we’ve earlier established is a myth, that’s great. In the real world however, there’s always a power dynamic at play. Often, things that black people (or any other non-dominant culture) do/say/wear are ghettoised and demonised. Then, when a white person does it, it’s suddenly a praised act. The aforementioned box braids is one example. Kylie Jenner’s entire aesthetic is stolen from black women and she’s now credited as a trend setter. 

Appreciation is great when it’s a two-way street. But that often isn’t the case. In fact, all too often, appreciation is used as a get of jail free card by people who’d rather not talk about such things. Valentino claimed appreciation in their offensive fashion collection from last year, but didn’t actually name a single specific influence from their ‘African’ inspired collection. Actual appreciation would be akin to what Raf Simons did with Ruby Sterling or, at least, doing what Grace Wales Bonner does and specifically naming people she’s inspired by.

So, actual appreciation involves giving something back - be it credit, money or just a voice when people need you. If you need a great example of actual appreciation, look no further than David Bowie. When David Bowie made his Young Americans album, he hired people such as then unknown Luther Vandross to work on it with him, he specifically asked to go on BET to sing it and he always called what he did ‘plastic soul’, giving homage to those before him. He, of course, also spoke up on behalf of black musicians, such as the 1983 MTV interview when he called out MTV on how badly they treated black musicians. To give a snapshot of that time, while Bowie was speaking up on behalf of black musicians, Morrissey said in a 1986 interview that Reggae was “the most racist music in the entire world” because speaking on behalf of black civil rights was a “total glorification of black supremacy” and proof that defence of black people had become “extreme”. So, it’s fair to say that Bowie was ahead of his time.

But what can I do about it?

Use Your Privilege. All you have to do is say something. Bowie set the perfect example. As we’ve noted already, white men get praise for talking diversity in a way no one else does. After all, there was a reason everyone used to send those searing Jon Stewart takedowns that just consisted of things black people had been saying for years. The reason people are so disappointed in Timberlake is because they can reach an audience that black people never can without being labelled as complaining. 

If you want to be influenced by black culture? Fine. Just say something and show that you really care about black people as people rather than just using them when it’s convenient for you. That’s what appreciation looks like. Bowie managed it in 1983, surely you can in 2016?

Why should I care?

You don’t have to.

We understand that, as a white person, you’ve likely been told a bunch of empty platitudes that will lead you to believe that ‘well, if the world’s so against black people they must’ve done something wrong’. We understand that the world has been working relatively fairly for you, so it’s hard to fathom that it’d be so unfair for someone just because of the colour of their skin. But if you refuse to accept that other people are telling the truth about their lives then just get out of the way and stop wasting time with obtuse arguments. The devil has enough advocates, and the world has enough ‘well meaning’ people who just impede conversation with either guilt, fragility or an aggressive combination of both.