The Road to Cultural Appropriation

Road to Singapore. 1939. Retrieved from the Digital Public Library of America, http://cdm16786.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/ref/collection/sayre/id/17768. Dorothy Lamour, Bing Crosby, and Bob Hope (left to right) in The Road to Singapore. Lamour performs ‘womanly’ tasks while the men relax.

Bing Crosby and Bob Hope made many films together, the most well-known being their Road pictures, of which the duo made seven between 1940 and 1947.1 It isn’t much of a series, as the characters’ names are different in every movie, but their characters and friendship are always the same types–one conniving yet charming businessman (Crosby) and one sucker (Hope). They’re always fighting over the same type of girl, played by Dorothy Lamour, and she always ends up with Crosby’s character. The only differences among these films are the locations. The first picture they made was The Road to Singapore (Schertzinger, 1940), and a still from the film is featured above. These movies are hilarious and remain classics because of the duo’s constant banter, sarcasm, breaking of the fourth wall, self-mockery, and all-around ridiculous shenanigans. However, what Singapore and the others that followed are guilty of is cultural appropriation.

Kenan Malik describes cultural appropriation as “not theft but messy interaction.”2 These films interact with several different cultures in problematic ways. Just watching the trailers illustrates some of the manners with which Hollywood has engaged with and represented other cultures.

All the films exoticize the ‘Other,’ especially the women. The Road pictures depict foreign locations as paradises of simplistic living, where women are either sex objects or homemakers. Singapore features a quite misogynistic view of Lamour’s native-Singaporean character and some quasi-blackface; Zanzibar depicts a typically-stereotyped, cannibalistic, superstitious, unintelligent African tribe; Morocco plays on stereotypes of the Middle East and pokes fun at the mentally disabled; the list goes on, I’m afraid.

I don’t believe these films intended to be super sexist and racist. It was another time, after all. Also, they don’t exactly ask to be taken seriously. I think it’s pretty obvious they aren’t attempting to give an accurate portrayal of other cultures. They are just trying to entertain audiences with some escapism from war time. The focus isn’t really on educating viewers; it’s more about the snappy dialogue between Hope and Crosby. The exotic locations only provided a ridiculous backdrop. Granted, the films added to stereotypes of the day and didn’t necessarily help matters, but they could have been worse.

As long as people know not to take these films seriously, Hope and Crosby are a classic duo and are worth a watch.

2 Malik, Kenan. “In Defense of Cultural Appropriation.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/14/opinion/in-defense-of-cultural-appropriation.html?smid=pl-share&_r=0.

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)

 

Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Kay Starr, and the Relentless Rain (reign) of Systemic Racism

Let’s Save Negro Music1, written by John Henry in the Freedom periodical in New York, is interesting to me and relevant to our class discussion for a number of reasons. Primarily, it contains an interesting contemporary perspective on 1950s cultural appropriation. I can’t speak for my classmates, but it was news to me that cultural appropriation was discussed at all in that time. So, though the term ‘cultural appropriation’ itself may be a more recent invention, it is simultaneously refreshing and disheartening to know that it was discussed so long ago, relatively speaking. In the article itself, John Henry goes into detail on how white artists were capitalizing on America’s fascination with African American music, especially the Blues, and making significant capital in the process. One example that he uses is that of the popular singers Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Kay Starr. Henry says:

“[T]he country’s musical taste, shaped as it is by the hucksters, calls for denuding this music of its social meaning born in the struggles and hopes of Negro people. . . Hence you get Kay Starr’s best-selling “Didn’t it Rain.” But who remembers Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s great rendition of this exciting Biblical story? Get the two records and see which “moves” you more. That is, if you can find Sister Tharpe’s.”

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Henry’s striking assessment of the situation is both refreshing and depressing. To elaborate, on the one hand it is good to know that the issue of cultural appropriation is not some passing millennial fad, (not that I thought it was in the first place) but has been talked about extensively before now, and is rightfully reaching a boiling point at last. However, on the other hand, it is disheartening that such an issue has been discussed for so long and still not have reached any sort of conclusion. Whether that is due simply to it’s complexity, or to society’s stubborn insistence to turn the other cheek, I cannot say, though I would hypothesize that it is some combination of the two. Regardless, for what it is worth, when looking for recordings of the aforementioned “Didn’t it Rain”, I made an encouraging discovery. Not only was Rosetta Tharpe’s rendition2 easy to find, but there were many different recordings of her singing it. As for Kay Starr’s? Even though I searched multiple databases, it was nowhere to be found.

The Misrepresentation of Native American Culture in Mass Media

In the modern day of 2017, so much of our lives are spent online. We as people have the universe at our fingertips – with so much information out there, what all can be considered trustworthy? An issue with the concept of Mass Media is that anything and everything can be found somewhere online. Anyone who is able to access the internet is able to contribute their information and knowledge. Like moths to a flame, we are instantly bound to the first bit of information we see and accept it as fact. This leads to many issues spanning across many topics. In the past few years, the concept of “Cultural Appropriation” has exploded across everywhere and everything. To be correct when describing, defining, or demonstration any form of culture is so incredibly vital that issues arise when someone does this incorrectly. With it being so easy to misappropriate a culture in Media, what are we able to trust and how does the mass media change our perception of different cultures through their ideas of appropriation?

Native American culture is found in the roots of this country’s foundation. Often, when considering American history we forget that America was populated BEFORE 18th century colonization. The culture of Native Americans is one that has been appropriated for hundreds of years, through music, art, dance, etc. Because of this, our concept of this culture has been warped by pop culture and media as demonstrated in this cartoon…

This cartoon presents the problem of misappropriation. This boy only identifies “Indians” as the overly stereotypical form displayed in movies, sports teams, or cartoons. To him, this girl who looks “normal” doesn’t fit that stereotype and thus he questions her cultural authenticity.

Another example of this kind of appropriation occurs in cartoons. One example in particular is in Seth Macfarlane’s TV cartoon comedy “Family Guy”. In the episode The Life of Brian the episode begins with Stewie and Brian running from a band of Indians in a modern day city. They explore and make racist remarks about their ways of transportation, medicine, clothing, and music.

These two clips, both from the same episode, demonstrate the racist humor that Macfarlane is demonstrating. Examples like having the doctor at the hospital stand in a bunch of poses to try to cure disease, using smoke signals instead of phones, and having their most popular song be mono-tonal unison chanting are prime examples of Native American Appropriation. This kind of appropriation Macfarlane uses can even be found in other forms of music, such as Dvorak Symphony No 9 movement 2, largo. In this movement he references Native American tribal melodies. Of course, what he notates is only a small, itemized fraction of what the actual melody would have been and what it was to represent. Was Dvorak trying specifically to be incorrect, probably not, but still – some find this use of melody an unfair representation of the true culture. 

In 2017, being able to rid our minds of ignorance and to be able to fully understand and be aware of the sensitivities of other cultures is imperative. The massed media and pop culture has shaped our minds around what being a Native American or an “Indian” means. These stereotypes are preventing us as a nation from knowing the rich and long history of Native Americans and their culture. As Russell Means says in this video: “A nation that does not know its history, has no future”

Sources

Kanke, Marie. “The Harm of Native Stereotyping.” Blue Corn Comics — The Harm of Native Stereotyping:  Facts and Evidence. August 08, 2006. Accessed September 25, 2017. http://www.bluecorncomics.com/stharm.htm.

TheUlleberg. “Family guy – Native American/Indian Radio.” YouTube. March 07, 2014. Accessed September 25, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=octtLcjJshw.

Jinpaul11. “Family Guy – Native Americans.” YouTube. May 07, 2017. Accessed September 25, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PGcW3kjcFSU.

Diesillamusicae. “Dvořák: Symphony №9, “From The New World” – II – Largo.” YouTube. September 02, 2011. Accessed September 26, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ASlch7R1Zvo.

Framesinmotion2007. “How Hollywood stereotyped the Native Americans.” YouTube. October 31, 2007. Accessed September 25, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_hJFi7SRH7Q.

Hip-Hop: It’s Not What You Do, It’s How You Do It.

On any given day, you can catch me jammin’ out to songs off the radio whether it is pop, hip-hop, rap, techno but not country (sorry!). I listen to these songs on the radio for a couple of reasons…

1. If they have a good beat and I can dance to it… then I have no problem with it the song.

2. If it is Beyoncè, I am all set.

In reality, these not the best reasons for listening to songs. But, people listen to songs for different reasons. It may be the lyrics, the artist, the genre or the emotional connections that one may have with a specific song/artist. In our society, social media plays a big part in the promotion of artists and their music. Genres such as Pop, Hip-Hop or Rap are widley listened too and are valued by the younger generations.

Pop and Hip-Hop do not have the same implications now as they did before. Hip-Hop developed out of Bronx, New York around 1970s, as minorities suffered forms of inequality and injustice. The music that they created reflected that and served as a way of expressing reality. If you were to listen to songs such as “Rapper’s Delight” (1979) or “The Message” (1982), they provide truths while also portraying black culture through song.

Fast forwarding to the 2000s, Hip-Hop continued to remain popular. But, the lyrics have become more sexualized and more and more artists have taken up this genre and have made it their own. Yes, Hip-Hop originated through the black culture but that did not mean that others could not perform this genre.

Recently, I watched a video that was created by Amandla Stenberg called “Don’t Cash Drop My Cornrows.” After watching this video, I was speechless because she addressed the complications that come between black and white rappers. She gives a good definition of both cultural appropriation and cultural exchange in terms of black culture and the rise of white rappers using black culture as part of their music. She talks about a good variety of rappers and gives examples of how their music utilizes black culture.

Here is the video:

Take the time to watch this video. As music evolves overtime, it is important that artist continue to recognize the cultural significance in which a specific genre derived from. It is not a matter of authenticity for some but it is a matter of credibility. It is okay to acknowledge how different aspects of specific cultures have influenced thier music but an artist cannot ‘claim’ another culture as their own.