June 27, 2017
Posted in Personal
Back in the 1960’s I remember seeing a cartoon by Jules Feiffer in which a black hipster said “I dug jazz then whitey picked up on it…” then repeated it in the next few panels with some other thing that whites had appropriated (to use contemporary language.) The cartoon’s last panel said “Then I dug freedom…and finally lost him.” This comes to mind whenever I read about some black folk complaining that this white person has adopted a black style or black music or hairdo.
The discussions about appropriation I read about today usually revolve around three issues. First, white artists are making money, sometimes a lot of money, by adapting black music which then becomes popular to white and black audiences. Black artists usually don’t have this reach and don’t make as much money. Sometimes there are blatant ripoff’s like Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” stealing of Marvin Gaye’s music. Other times it is just perhaps well meaning people like Justin Timberlake for example. The second argument is about inauthenticity. The white person born and bred in the suburbs is claiming to express the same feelings of those born in lesser circumstances. They are claiming the benefits of black artistry born in oppression without experiencing the conditions which brought it about. They have not earned the right to use black culture and they are not entitled to it. The third argument I hear boils down to they are stealing something from me, something which is very important to me: my identity. Their use of language, hairstyles, music is taking something which was marking me as a member of a unique ethnicity. Even when they have stolen my humanity there was something I could cling to, something esoteric that was uniquely mine. Now they are taking that too.
I must admit that at first I felt this way too. Back in the sixties I wouldn’t buy music (particularly jazz) by a white artist. I reasoned that the whites in the music market would provide enough financial support for that artist. I was going to put my few dollars to support black artists. For so many white artists their music lacked creativity, soul, true emotion, or cutting edge innovation. Years later I offered a history class on jazz. It was a class of about fifty and there was an elderly white gentleman auditor who didn’t talk but avidly listened to what was going down. One day I played a song by Paul Whiteman (a more appropriately named person I have never known) who was a white bandleader popular in the 1930’s and 40’s. I played the cut and then asked a general question of the class, “What do you think of that?” There was awkward silence that stretched on into several minutes. Finally from the back of the room the elderly auditor said, “Sounded pretty good at the time.” With the ice broken we could talk about how Whiteman’s music differed from say Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington or Count Basie.
Nowadays I don’t think of appropriation the same way. White musical artists have been covering and adapting black music for generations so getting upset about it serves no purpose. One could argue that there would be no white American popular music without it. Downbeat magazine ( a jazz magazine) had an annual critics poll that had a category “Talent Deserving Wider Recognition.” Wags used to argue that they should also have a category “Recognition deserving Wider Talent.” Regardless of who makes it there is good music and bad music, period.
I don’t care that Rachel Dolezal wears braids or has adopted an African name. To be truthful I don’t care about Ms. Dolezal at all. What others claim takes nothing from me. As long as I go on presenting the identity I have honestly, doing the things I do openly, and saying the things I believe, let the chips fall where they may. At this point in my life I don’t have the time or inclination to do otherwise. Some folks will accept it and some won’t. Life goes on. Just as I have the right to project what I think of as my identity, so do other people. I am free to accept or reject their claims. I reject Ms. Dolezal’s claim of transraciality. I reject the claim that a Trump supporter is not racist. I reject that Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” is good music. I accept Dave Brubeck’s claim that he is a jazz artist. I accept Eminem’s claims that he is a rap artist, I accept Bruno Mars as a winner of BET awards because all make some good music.
So what then is appropriate appropriation? First, the appropriator has to acknowledge the source of the appropriation and try to share the financial success that comes with it. With the English blues wave of the sixties blues artists like Eric Clapton also brought legendary blues performers like Muddy Waters on tour with him so Muddy could get a little taste of Clapton’s financial success. Second, the appropriation must not denigrate, belittle or stereotype the culture from which it is taken. Whites in blackface or wearing sombreros I’m talking about you. I have seen such “celebrations” in South Africa and the Netherlands too. Such appropriations are an abuse of power and a naked display of white privilege. Just don’t do it. If you really thought about it you would ask how does it make people of that culture or ethnicity feel? Finally, does the appropriation exalt the culture or simply copy it? Having just returned from Mexico I have tasted the difference between a street taco made fresh and expensive restaurants offering “fancified” versions of Mexican cuisine. Some street tacos were cheap, simple, delicious, and way better than some restaurants that offered expensive “copies.” A few restaurants however offered interesting twists on the taco formula that raised the bar for my appreciation of Mexican food. Here I offer the same critique I do of artists covering songs. If you can’t add something of your own that makes it different and your own, brings out something we didn’t know was there, or makes it good in a new way, then you shouldn’t do it unless it is an homage to the original.