Cultural Appropriation: Is It Bad?

From pop sensations Bruno Mars to Iggy Azalea to old school entertainers like Elsie Janis, musical cultural appropriation has always been and is still a problem to many people. Is music appropriation a bad thing? Here is some background to understanding why musical cultural appropriation is a problem.

Cultural Appropriation

First, before we get to it, we need to understand what “appropriation” means. According to TheFreeDictionary.com the definition of music appropriation is: “the use of borrowed elements (aspects or techniques) in the creation of a new piece,” (TheFreeDictionary.com).

Now, appropriation of music styles in itself is not bad. However, once those music styles are being re-interpreted by people who didn’t originally create that particular genre or song style, we start to find problems. This is called “Cultural Appropriation”. According to The Free Dictionary, “Cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of another culture.[1] Cultural appropriation may be perceived[2] as controversial, even harmful, notably when the cultural property of a minority group is used by members of the dominant culture without the consent of the members of the originating culture; this is seen as misappropriation and a violation of intellectual property rights” (TheFreeDictionary.com).

An example of cultural appropriation is when someone who is not Mexican throws on a Charro suit as a costume for Halloween.

Mexican Cultural Appropriation

It is completely misrepresenting its origins. Cultural appropriation in music has been an issue in the Western world, especially in the United States. The reason is most, if not, all music that is “American” is originally black music. Most jazz, blues, ragtime, hip-hop, country, spirituals, and other songs we have discussed in class have found their origins in African-American culture.

 

 

Today, artists such as Bruno Mars and Iggy Azalea are being criticized for creating music in genres that originated from black musicians. Even after Bruno acknowledged his influences at the 2018 Grammy’s for example,

[Bruno Mars Acknowledges His Influences in 2018 Grammys]

an article was written about his role as a racially ambiguous artist in today’s music industry. Even Seren Sensei posted a video on Twitter defending her argument that Bruno Mars is using his racial ambiguity to further his credit in creating black music.

[Seren Sensei]

However, this issue is a bit more complex than it seems. To understand why, we must allude back to the cultural music appropriation of black music by white artists in the early 20th century United States.

[Elsie Janis – Anti Rag-Time Girl (Audio)]

2nd: Elsie Bierbower, aka: “Elsie Janis” was a singer, songwriter, actress and screenwriter from Columbus, Ohio. She moved to Los Angeles to live her dreams in the entertainment industry, and travelled around the world performing for vaudeville, Broadway and Hollywood. She was immortalized by her nickname, “the sweetheart of the AEF” when she would entertain the troops during World War I.

Elsie Janis – Anti-Ragtime Girl Sheet Music

Elsie Janis could be described as a someone who made it in Hollywood. She was very famous in her time. However, as with everything that seems to good to be true, Elsie utilized ragtime, an African-American genre, to write her 1913 song “Anti-Ragtime Girl”. By 1913, Ragtime was in its prime as a popular American genre, similar to how hip-hop is dominant in mainstream culture today. It is clear that she uses ragtime to create this piece. Are her actions considered cultural appropriation? Yes and no. Yes, because she did not invent ragtime music, and it is clear that she is living lavishly for herself based off the income of her music’s success. Some may argue that it is not moral for one to use another’s culture to re-interpret in another perspective. It is still very complicated.

That leaves us with today. Eminem, Iggy Azalea, Bruno Mars, and Macklemore have all won Grammys for their success in performing music that is arguably black music. However, differences in opinion leaves us with an open-ended question: Where does the line between creating original art and committing cultural appropriation sit?

Sources:

Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged, 12th Edition 2014. S.v. “appropriation.” Retrieved March 19 2018 from https://www.thefreedictionary.com/appropriation

Harriot, Michael. “The Bruno Mars Controversy Proves People Don’t Understand Cultural Appropriation.” The Grapevine. Retrieved March 19 2018 from https://thegrapevine.theroot.com/the-bruno-mars-controversy-proves-people-don-t-understa-1823709412

Janis, Elsie. “Anti Rag-Time Girl.” Oregon Digital. Retrived March 19 2018 from https://oregondigital.org/catalog/oregondigital:w66343646#page/1/mode/1up

Sheet Music Singer. “Anti-Ragtime Girl (1913).” YouTube. Retrieved March 19 2018 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=anQzoJQZerk

Wikipedia.org. S.v. “Appropriation (music).” Retrieved March 19 2018 from https://encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com/Appropriation+(music)

 

Music is My Mistress

“It’s not unlawful to sing or play any kind of music in the United States of America, no matter how good or bad it sounds. Jazz is based on the sound of our native heritage. It is an American idiom with African roots-a trunk of soul with limbs reaching in every direction, to the frigid North, the exotic East, the miserable, swampy South, and the swinging Wild West.”[1]

IMG_1022

Left- Duke Ellington’s autobiography; Right- Mercer Ellington’s memoir of his father

This passage from Duke Ellington’s autobiography, Music is my Mistress, hints at his plain writing style and his lifetime success in jazz. Ellington wrote his biography for the celebration of his 70th birthday in 1973, but its intent is not entirely clear. While he has a few revelations on music, God, and his Sacred conventions, to share, most of the book is spent listing the unique experiences he had and the many people that he worked with or that influenced him, all of whom are described as “good guys.” As Eileen Southern said in her book review in The Black Perspective in Music, “a great deal of essential data is missing…nowhere in the book is a hint of the pain Ellington must have experienced.”[2]

In contrast, his son Mercer Ellington wrote a memoir of his father that painted a much different picture of his life. Perhaps tainted by his experience of not seeing much of his father, Mercer summarizes some of the moments when Ellington was sidelined because of his race, such as when Ellington wrote Black, Beige, and Tan as a parallel and critique to African American history and received a patronizing response from critics or the many moments that Ellington had to prove his bands’ worth in comparison and competition with white jazz bands.

Perhaps the fact that Ellington left out the more bleak and tough moments of his life shows his view on protesting racial issues. Mercer quotes his father, “’I think a statement of social protest in the theater should be made without saying it.’”[3] His piece, Black Beige and Tan, and his 1963 cover of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue have undertones of critique on white appropriation of jazz by the virtuosity, styles, and stories that he implements, but they have to be inferred. Arguably, these conflicting accounts also show Ellington contributing to the white narrative of jazz. Ellington’s success was not only because of his talent as a musician and bandleader, but he did not outwardly fight the racist structures controlling his profession. Since his autobiography was published at a time when Ellington was celebrated by white audiences as a successful American jazz musicians, it makes sense that he chose to leave his African American experience out.

 

[1] Edward Kennedy Ellington, Music is my Mistress, (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1973), 436.

[2] Eileen Southern, “Reviewed Work: Music is My Mistress,” The Black Perspective in Music, 2, no. 2 (1974): 211-212.

[3] Mercer Ellington, Duke Ellington in Person: An Intimate Memoir, (Boston: Hougton Mifflin Company, 1978), 94.

Biological Difference or Power Dynamic?: Conceptions of African American Musicians

Claims to justify the inferiority of the black race often sought evidence from science, as seen in the article below from The Musical Visitor in 1895. According to the short announcement, biological differences in black people prohibit their ability to sing European art music and sound like white people as well as their ability to play an instrument.

negro music

Article from The Musical Visitor [3]

In contrast, we know of a few African American concert singers during the 19th century who toured and had classical musical training.[1] 120 years later, here is Leontyne Price, just to help clear up that misconception as well. What scholars have suggested then, is that African American concert singers chose not to sing like a white person because they couldn’t make any money singing that way in the racist show business world, and furthermore people wanted to hear the African voice.

Perhaps the most appalling part of the article however explains that black people cannot help imitating the white man’s music and “the race instinct in the negro does not incline toward persistency of purpose” that it takes to play a musical instrument. 35 years prior to this, a young man named Thomas Bethune provides period proof against these scientific misconceptions. Blind Tom was born a blind slave, but by the age of four, showed great interest in the piano and great talent in imitating the sounds he heard, spending many hours a day learning the piano by ear. Tom’s master then paid the best musicians to come play for Tom so that he could imitate them, therefore gaining a fairly high musical education. Blind Tom’s case may be unique because of what his blind condition allowed him to achieve (namely, not doing slave labor), but there is no question that hard work and training went into Tom’s musical genius, not just talent. His international fame as a musical genius and his many compositions are evidence enough to debunk hypotheses such as the one in the above article, yet conceptions about the inferiority of black musicians persisted.

blind tom

 

To add another layer of complexity in this story, Tom’s master, General James Bethune, hired him out to tour all over the country, earning the Bethune family and his managers approximately $3,000 per month during his performance career. Even after the Emancipation Proclamation, Tom was a slave to his performance managers and master, not receiving a penny of the touring profits. Articles advertising his performance raved about his ability to improvise and play multiple tunes at once, but also portrayed him as an exhibit, often referring to him as “it” or “the idiot” and described with barbaric features.[2] In other words, Tom’s talent and hard work did not prove the musical potential and value of African Americans as humans, rather is evidence to show that white people became interested in black musicians and black music when they could make money from it and when they could control it.

[1] Sonja Gable-Wilson, “Let Freedom Sing! Four African-American Concert Singers in Nineteenth Century America.,” Doctorate Thesis, University of Florida, 2005.

[2] Geneva Handy Southall, Blind Tom, the Black Pianist-Composer Continually Enslaved, Lanham, Maryland: Scarcrow Press, Inc. 1999.

[3] “NEGRO MUSIC,” The Musical Visitor, a Magazine of Musical Literature and Music (1883-1897) 24, no. 7 (07, 1895): 179. http://search.proquest.com/docview/137505026?accountid=351.