InDebate: Cultural Appropriation or Cultural Dialog?

newphoto Michael Thomas

Michael L. Thomas

Back in August, many Americans distracted themselves with an extended conversation about whether San Francisco Quarterback Colin Kapernick’s refusal to stand during the national anthem before NFL games was an „appropriate“ form of protest against police brutality or, somehow, disrespectful to members of the US military. This discussion diverted attention from the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, which gave rise to the protest, while simultaneously ducking away from actual dialog about patterns of racism in America. As we now know, Americans’ inability to directly confront issues of race in this context was an ominous portent of things to come. The election of Donald Trump and subsequent explosion of racial violence have brought racism bubbling up to the surface of everyday life, thus beginning a the new low point in the cyclical narrative of racial inequality in the US.  There is no singular pathway out of this cycle. However, as I’ve argued in a previous article, one starting point is to acknowledge that race is integrated into our everyday experience, defining how racialized peoples see themselves and are seen by others.  This difference in perspective leads members of different groups to simply not see the same world when it comes to racial issues. Having not experienced racism, how could someone really be empathetic with those who have? Thus, it’s crucial that we make strides to cross this gap in experience so that outsiders can understand the experience of minorities without acting as though they’ve lived in their skin and seen through their eyes.

The music industry provides us with aesthetic examples of this process through the appearance of artists radicalized as white in genres of traditionally „black“ music. The typical response to these artists is that the „predominantly black“ culture around the genres accepts and incorporates the „good“ artists into the fold, excluding the bad as instances of „cultural appropriation.“ Our question is what separates cultural integration versus cultural appropriation besides the fact that a piece of music is good or bad? What one sees is that the difference between the good and the bad has everything to do with how one engages with the culture as a member of the outgroup. Thus, aesthetic acceptance provides a model for examining successful interracial dialog.

As a first example, let’s look at „Fancy“ by Iggy Azalea.

Though she’s all but disappeared now, Iggy Azalea became notorious over the past few years as a symbol for the cultural appropriation of African American music. Although she begins her song with the lyric „First thing’s first, I’m the realist.“ Her performances show that she is anything but. Azalea is an Australian woman who dreamt of pop stardom and found herself signed to a rap label owned by T.I., the „King“ of Southern Rap. As we see in the video, Iggy adopts Southern African American speech in her performance and hits all the clichés of popular rap (money, jewelry, cars, excellence). She’s saying the right things, in the right way. She dresses the part, so why did so many people detest her music? More importantly, why does it actually fail as „good“ rap?

In her article „The Cultural Crimes of Iggy Azalea,“ Amy Zimmerman provides a clear summation of the problematic nature of Azalea’s use of African American Culture. Being „real“ or „the realist“ is an essential element of Rap music, and hip-hop more generally. The audience expects its artists to give and represent something of themselves in their performance and themes. However, as Zimmerman argues,

„What Azalea does best is mimicry. She might have adopted mentor T.I.’s sound, but she, unlike him, can’t trace her flow to the place she grew up or the specific culture she grew up within. Iggy’s influences hail from the South, and Iggy does not. Azalea’s performance is quite an achievement; after all, good drag is hard work, pretending takes a lot of practice, and the quest for “realness” is a lifelong journey. Whether or not you think that Azalea is a good rapper, you have to admit that she’s among the best at what she does; Brittney Cooper writes, “This Australian born-and-raised white girl almost convincingly mimics the sonic register of a downhome Atlanta girl.”

Azalea’s music fails precisely because she’s an imitator of the form and not an innovator. She can dress and sound the part, but lacks a deep connection with Rap culture and Hip-Hop culture more broadly that would make her music resonate with listeners. Zimmerman goes on to point out that her popularity on radio and in sales is another moment in the history of African American music being repackaged by artists radicalized as white for the pop music audience. Thus, the host of African American female rappers are left in the dust in the pursuit of profit. Azalea attempts to „pass“ as African American by taking on the trappings of culture, pushing her self-presentation almost to stereotype. This form of appropriation places Iggy, as a member of the out-group, at odds with the in-group, precisely because she brings nothing of herself to the table. By staying on the superficial label she participates in the exploitation of artistic „blackness“ which fails precisely because it doesn’t reach the level of art. There’s no understanding on the cultural or aesthetic level that gives it a place in the community as a whole.

As a second example, we have „Gold“ by Kiiara.

Kiiara, (real name Kiara Sanders), wrote this song while working as a clerk in a hardware store in Wilmington, Illinois (not exactly the home of hip-hop and R&B). While not a rap song, the music and video for „Gold“ borrows heavily from hip-hop tropes and sonically occupies the space in popular R&B populated by artists such as Rhianna and others. Our question is how Kiiara seems to be able to successfully occupy this space.

Like Iggy, Kiiara begins by invoking hip hop imagery. The repetition of „Gold up in my/Gold up in my teeth“ replicates the scratched repetition of hip hop lyricism and evokes an image of Kiiara wearing a gold „grill,“ which are well known in rap fashion. Notice, however, the inversion she gives in the following line: „No matter what you say to me/I’mma bit your feelings out.“ Rather than go immediately to stereotype of wealth, she transforms the image of the grill into a set of vampire teeth, which she’ll use to tear away at the feelings of her selfish lover. Through this poetic turn, the image of the teeth is brought into her own persona, transposing the traditional symbolism to something closer to her own experience. This move is indicative of the way in which Kiiara takes a fairly standard theme of pop music, but moves that narrative beyond the cliché to a rich, visual situation. Thus, while borrowing (literally -appropriating) elements of another musical culture, the way she incorporates them avoids the charge of mimicry.

In the second place, she actually innovates on the form. The upward turning melodies that end each line of the pre chorus (starting with „Say you love me, love me, but you never let me know…) all borrow more from country and bluegrass rather than traditional R&B. This is not to say that Kiiara, a girl from the Midwest, is being more „authentic“ by incorporating a style of music we associate with the region. Rather, the ideal is that she’s producing a novel mixture of forms that extends to the mélange of imagery in the video. Gold painted statuesque men, punk rock jackets, gothic furniture and scenery, all set the scene for the visual version of the song allowing us to see the confluence of influences Kiiara brings to her music. This incorporation of her own experiences and the innovations found in her music are what separate Kiiara from an artist like Iggy Azalea and give us a means of differentiating cultural appropriation versus cultural communication.

We should be careful when talking about cultural appropriation, since it seems to be an inevitable outcome of being exposed to elements of cultures outside of our particular in-group. What Iggy Azalea shows us is that when we speak of „problematic“ forms of cultural appropriation, we mean taking on elements of a certain culture in a way that mimics, pantomimes, or simply replicates stereotypical behavior (even if the display is meant positively). These displays reek of a disconnection between the actions of the artist and their experience or personality that communicate as fake, contrived, and (most importantly) ignorant of the culture they’re referencing. This is why, for example, members of the hip-hop community begin to publicly question Iggy Azalea’s knowledge of hip-hop. It seems to us that she has none.

Cultural communication (or positive appropriation) means being able to speak in terms of another culture and communicate one’s own experience through it. What stands out about Kiiara’s music is that it still evokes the courage and toughness we would associate with African American artists like Rhianna and Beyonce, without feeling inauthentic. Kiiara doesn’t lose herself in the artistic forms she uses, the content is always seemingly, authentically her. Thus, my point is that she’s found a way of creating music that can speak to African-Americans without speaking as an African-American. In doing so, there’s a connection forged on the level of „meaning“ underneath the representation that comes across as a deeper, soulful, connection to culture as medium.

If we turn back to politics, this brings us to the question of creating inter-cultural dialog that actually advances the march towards justice. In a certain way, the contrast between Iggy Azalea and Kiiara shows how to communicate well with others requires doing justice to the elements of their experience. Azalea commits a form of epistemic violence[link?] though simply taking on African American inflections and repeating them for her own self-advancement. Kiiara, on the other hand, manages to come across as actually „soulful“ and powerful in a way that might resonate with „blackness“ without abandoning her own experience.

This distinction is essential when discussing the role of non-African American allies to the cause of social justice. One of the big debates from the Black Panthers to Black Lives Matters is the role of sympathizers who are not radicalized as black. The current popular wisdom states that those who aren’t African Americans and lack that experience should simply be silent and listen. While I agree in principle that it is absolutely necessary to listen to the experience of the affected group, this doesn’t help us with regard to forming bonds. The out-group on this analysis remains the out-group and the gap can never be bridged. What we learn from music is that inter-group communication is possible when individuals learn to relate to one another on the level of shared values and feelings. When approaching an experience or form of expression that is not one’s own, an individual can incorporate aspects of it and use these aspects to communicate their own experience, adding their voice to the collective cry of those reaching out for justice while knowing when they should simply keep silent. Learning this skill or capacity is a process of learning to „speak the same language“ as it were, beyond words to the level of personal expression so that the in-group expands through the addition of true allies and avoids tourists who simply stand in support for their own personal self-aggrandizement.

© Michael L. Thomas

Michael L. Thomas is a Lecturer in Structured Liberal Education (SLE) at Stanford University and a former fellow at the FIPH.

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