Ethnically, I'm an Ashkenazi Jew. I'm non-practicing, but my ethnic heritage is incredibly important to me. Just because I don't go to Temple on the Shabbat doesn't mean the history of my people isn't important to me. And if I saw a Gentile walking down the street in a yarmulke just because he thought it was fashionable, I would find that offensive. It's cultural appropriation. Someone is taking a fundamental aspect of my culture and using it without acknowledgement of its cultural origins or any understanding of its social context. And, right now, few cultural issues are causing as much strife in modern music as charges of cultural appropriation.
What do Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, Elvis Presley, and Arcade Fire all have in common? They've been accused of cultural appropriation. And to varying degrees, they're all guilty of it. But like any issue of this complexity, there are varying degrees of appropriation, and if handled properly, appropriation isn't always a bad thing. The problems arise when cultural appropriation is handled with the subtlety of the racism of the Ferguson, MO police department.
We live in a global, information age. I can stream a Korean movie at the drop of a hat on Netflix, listen to Icelandic death metal on Spotify five seconds later, and read the newest book from Japanese author Haruki Murakami on my Nook before I go to bed. Cultural osmosis is bound to happen. And the breakdown of traditional genre boundaries and fandoms has been one of the most exciting elements of the modern musical era. But there's a difference between James Blake refashioning R&B into a minimalist dubstep hybrid and someone like Macklemore taking much of the aesthetic of hip-hop without giving anything back.
First things first, if a person of color or any other minority group is accusing you of cultural appropriation, you should shut up and listen to them. Even if your intention wasn't to do something offensive, it honestly doesn't matter what your intentions were. For many marginalized groups in society, cultural identity is one of the few positive ways they can define themselves in our increasingly complex social organization. They set the tone of those identities. It isn't foisted upon them by whatever social group holds power (which, generally, means white people like me).
And that's important because this entire post was inspired by the internet furor surrounding Taylor Swift's controversial video for her new single "Shake It Off." In the video, Taylor occasionally dresses in attire associated with hip-hop acts, and at one point, she's accompanied by a large line of African-American women vigorously twerking. I also don't remotely think Taylor even realized she was engaging in cultural appropriation. I know what the video is about. She's satirizing her fellow pop-stars. There's a Gaga reference; there's a Pharrell reference; there's a Miley reference; and there's even a Kanye name-drop. Tay-Tay was making fun of her competition. She wasn't trying to shift her identity, but at the end of the day, that's not what's important.
In all honestly, the fact that I legitimately believe that Taylor had no idea why what she was doing would be taken the wrong way is the worst part of all of this. Much of the problem with cultural appropriation is when culture is taken without any understanding of that culture's context. I love Phoenix, but the intro to "Entertainment" steals a stereotypically Asian melody just because it sounds cool and without placing it in a larger context (that said, they right that course before the song is over). Colt Ford had a #1 selling record on the Billboard Country chart with a genre known as "Hick-Hop" which is a feat of cognitive dissonance that is positively stunning.
For what it's worth, I don't think Taylor's intention was to claim these aesthetic images for herself. She isn't Elvis Presley ripping off the blues and then giving little to no credit to the blues artists he stole from. She's not white kids in the suburbs that think they've stepped off the set of a mid-90s Bone Thugz N Harmony video even though they'd shit their pants if they ever stepped foot in an actual project and don't understand for a second what it means to be poor and marginalized. She's not Macklemore taking the EVERY DAY struggle of LGBT Americans to score some progressive street cred with "Same Love." But Taylor still takes these images, and she fails to give anything meaningful or new back in return.
And at the end of the day, "acknowledgement" and "reciprocation" are the keys to engaging with other cultures in a meaningful and positive way. Aesop Rock is a white rapper, but not only is it clear that Aesop Rock is inspired by (and possibly surpasses) the best lyrical & social content of hip-hop, he fuses that lyrical form with industrial electronica (think Nine Inch Nails meets early Gorillaz) to create something all his own. He gives back to hip-hop.
It's the same with The Rolling Stones. I can't think of a better way to explicitly acknowledge your cultural inspirations than to name your band after them, and the Stones got their name from a Muddy Waters song. Every time you listen to them and you see their name, they force you to be reminded of their cultural lineage. But, even then, they still make sure that they contributed something new. Yes, the Stones are heavily inspired by the blues, but they also had elements of American country & western music. And tracks like "Beast of Burdern" redefined the possibilities of music for everyone.
And, there's a list of white artists that goes on a mile long that found ways to work outside of their cultural comfort zones. Stevie Ray Vaughan was one of the greatest blues artists to ever live. Despite the fact that he's sold out like you could not believe at this juncture in his career, Eminem's rapping is his own style and he understands the social aspects of hip-hop better than any of his other white contemporaries. I think the hate towards Arcade Fire in this regard is misguided because a lot of people seem to forget that Regine Chassagne is Haitian. Damon Albarn is a Brit Pop god, but he also masterminded Gorillaz by working with De La Soul. It all comes down to tone, respect, and consistent acknowledgement of your forebears.
And I can already hear the questions coming. Why is it alright for Nicki Minaj to make a video like "Anaconda" which is essentially "Baby Got Back" times 1000 as a joke but it's not okay for Taylor Swift to make her "Shake It Off" video which is also meant to be satirical? Isn't that racist to call one artist out but not the other? No, it isn't. I think "Anaconda" the song is awful, and I think "Anaconda" the video might somehow be even worse, but Nicki Minaj, as a black woman, has every right to do that. The tropes she's lampooning are part of her culture. They aren't part of Taylor Swift's.
Nicki Minaj has made a career off of being a hypsersexualized human Barbie Doll (which is unfortunate because her verse on Kanye West's "Monster" is one of the best female hip-hop verses ever), and the video for "Anaconda" is a hyperbolic exaggeration of that image of her career. It's all ass, every second. That's not a joke. It's just a fact of the video. And it's almost clever. Nicki Minaj is reclaiming the sexuality inherent in many hip-hop videos back for women. It's a feminist statement to a strange extent. There's no statement from Taylor Swift.
Like I said earlier though, I'm not calling Taylor Swift a malicious bigot. It couldn't be further from the case. Sadly, like most of white America, she doesn't seem to be cognizant of the position of social privilege that she comes from. And Taylor shouldn't even necessarily have to take the video down or anything nearly as drastic as that. She should just recognize and acknowledge that there are uncomfortable lines that she crossed, and that she will work better in the future to be sensitive to other people's cultural identities. That's all we ask for. Sensitivity, empathy, and respect.