Cultural Appropriation’s Miseducation: How Culture Theft Limits Black Creativity

This summer, many articles have been written about the appropriation of black music culture. The most recent article that caught my attention focused on Katy Perry’s ignorance about the meaning of cultural appropriation. This article came just a week after I read an interview about Questlove and his statement dismissing Iggy Azalea’s role in cultural appropriation. After reading the Questlove and Katy Perry articles, I’m fed up with the treatment of cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation is not “appreciation” as Katy Perry puts it. Cultural appropriation occurs when one person from a race or culture borrows other racial or cultural tropes for personal gain. There are many examples in the present and the past of appropriation of black music culture by white people.

For instance, Iggy Azalea is appropriating when she raps, “how you love that?” in her song “Fancy” because she is imitating the way a Southern black female speaks. Katy Perry is appropriating in her most recent video for her song “This Is How We Do” because she is imitating black culture by wearing cornrows, using slang associated with black people, and eating watermelon.

In music, cultural appropriation also involves one person of a racial group covering songs or borrowing a melody from a person of another racial group without giving the originator credit. The most well-known example is Elvis Presley, who recorded Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right Mama” without giving Crudup royalties until the late 1960’s. 

I am not anti-white. I’ve got just as many white musicians on my iPod as I do black musicians. I love Pink and Janet Jackson, Joan Jett and Tamar-Kali, to name some.  However, as a black woman, I can’t help but become protective of black musicians when their identities are threatened.

Yet, the only thing more upsetting to me than cultural appropriation is when the people who are being appropriated give people permission to do so. Questlove is not the only black musician who doesn’t understand the seriousness of cultural appropriation. He joins people like Lil’ Kim and Pharrell Williams, both of whom complimented Miley Cyrus on her appropriation of hip-hop culture.

Cultural appropriation is a way of keeping black people in their place by telling them when they can and can’t be seen. When a Forbes article proclaimed that Iggy Azalea “runs hip-hop”, it ignored emerging black women rappers.  When Variety magazine published an article proclaiming how Elvis Presley invented rock n’ roll, they ignored Chuck Berry and other black pioneers.

Some black and white people don’t care about cultural appropriation because they are profiting from it. Others don’t care about cultural appropriation because they don’t know what it is or how disrespectful it is. Either way, cultural appropriation is a miseducation of race, culture, and a person’s potential.

Thanks to cultural appropriation and the perpetuation of stereotypes, some black people have been taught that the only way to be seen is to either conform to stereotypes or help other races steal aspects of their own racial identity. Participating in this makes them new slaves. They allow themselves to be chained by stereotypes for recognition and money.

In addition, these new slaves can become faux masters of other blacks by enforcing what they think qualifies as blackness, not realizing their perceptions have been shaped by these stereotypes. Although rock music was pioneered by black musicians, the historic exclusion of blacks has made it a white male-dominated genre. 

Since rock music today is a white male-dominated genre and black people today are known for hip-hop and R&B, black people today with an interest in rock are considered strange by some blacks and whites. The only way a black musician can make it in rock today is by being an independent musician.

For black music writer Laina Dawes, it is being considered strange for liking heavy metal and finding other black metalheads that inspired her to write her book, What Are You Doing Here?: A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal. In an excerpt of the book, she discusses her experiences with being called “white” by white people and asked “Who do you think you are?” by black people.

Cultural appropriation is disrespectful. It treats marginalized races and cultures as things to be used and tossed aside when you are tired of them. It is part of a vicious cycle of appropriation, perpetuation, and elimination of a person’s true potential. It is not appreciation. It is degradation.

Tonya Pennington is a student at Clayton State University. She also blogs about books, music, and movies on artsandyouthlove using the pen name Serena Zola.

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