“I think I know you would be black revolutionaries all too well / Standing on a box on the corner talking about blowing the white boy away…” – Gil Scott-Heron, “Brother.”
In 2014, cultural appropriation was all the rage. It manifested itself in the form of Taylor Swift crawling through a galley of voluptuous, black women’s thighs in her “Shake It Off” video, Miley Cyrus gyrating with an exaggerated, brown posterior affixed to her, and yes, one Amethyst Amelia Kelly (better known as her rapper alias Iggy Azalea) putting on her best affected Southern accent to announce, “She’s the realest.” Whether Lord Jamar is calling white Hip Hop participants “guests in the house of Hip Hop,” Dame Dash is name checking “culture vultures,” or Azealia Banks is pointing out Amerikkka’s sordid history of “cultural smudging,” the very real issue of what differentiates participating in a non-dominant culture versus gentrifying that culture is here to stay. I’ll spare you another think piece on the matter, because there are already dozens of them. And regardless of what you think about black music and culture being repurposed for mainstream consumption, the practice isn’t new and won’t stop happening anytime soon.
When non-black artists profit from repurposing historically black music to a mainstream audience and are subsequently viewed as torchbearers for that music, what is the recourse? That’s what many were asking this summer when Forbes.com ran an Iggy Azalea article with the headline “Hip Hop Is Run By A White, Blonde, Australian Woman.” Just over a month later, the New York Daily News fawned over Iggy, G-Eazy, and Macklemore in an article originally titled, “Hip Hop Is Getting White Hot.” For many, an ideal world would consist of the white performers profiting from repurposing black music for mass consumption offering some gesture to the genre’s founding fathers. Presumably, that gesture would rank somewhere between Eminem telling Anderson Cooper, “I am white and you know this is predominantly black music,” and the sort of borderline handwringing Macklemore does when he talks about white privilege or shares his post-GRAMMY text message to Kendrick Lamar on Instagram. While I’d like to see it happen, I’m not arguing this is some requirement. But there is some consensus that this is what Dash, Azealia Banks and Lord Jamar mean when they talk about black culture being co-opted. At the very least, it would be nice for both performers and media contributors to connect the obvious dots between artists like Pat Boone figuratively and literally stealing elements of black culture and the link between white privilege and commerce. Yes, that would be nice. It would also be nice if a few Victoria’s Secret models offered to serve as my personal harem and pay off my student loans. There’s probably a more likely chance of seeing the latter happen.
“While silly niggas argue over who gone snatch the crown / Look around my nigga, white people have snatched the sound / This year I’ll probably go to the awards dapper down / Watch Iggy win the Grammy as I try to crack a smile…” – J. Cole, “Fire Squad.”
If there’s a historical precedent of co-opting elements of black culture that precedes Elvis Presley and Pat Boone, it’s foolish to think it will magically stop. I think it’s constructive to point out this systematic behavior of discrediting black musicians so we don’t end up raising a generation that thinks Elvis “discovered” Rock the way Christopher Columbus “discovered” America. Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) advised as much on the song “Rock N Roll.” But, if you’re truly a fan of black music, I think it’s more constructive to spend some of that time and energy celebrating its rich history. When Jay Z, Steve Stoute, J. Cole, or Azealia Banks boycott the GRAMMY Awards or complain about the GRAMMY committee awarding Macklemore over Kendrick Lamar (or Killer Mike and El-P for that matter), I think it reeks of faux civil disobedience. Yes, popular outlets like the New York Daily News and Forbes giving their mainstream audiences misleading opinions about Hip Hop is problematic even if it’s unintentional. And that issue is compounded when the same Hip Hop artists who thumb their nose at press opportunities for “urban” (read: black) publications break their neck for coverage in Forbes. But who made such outlets authorities in Hip Hop? Why are we still worried about what some anonymous outsiders disconnected from the culture think about Hip Hop?
Ours is a music and culture of inclusion, and anyone who feels moved enough to participate at any level should be encouraged to do so within the spirit of the five pillars. After 40-plus years, no one has made strides to create an internal governing body within Hip Hop that honors its own instead of pouting about recognition from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the GRAMMY Academy, or other outside institutions. When KRS-One attempted to provide an alternative with The Temple of Hip Hop, people treated him like some kind of fanatic. In 2015, we’ll approach the 20-year anniversary of the second annual Source Awards. For all the good The Source did, that 1995 ceremony will go down in infamy for the Death Row/Bad Boy confrontations. There’s also the media created “East Coast versus West Coast” feud and similarly violent outbursts at the BET Hip Hop Awards, Ozone Awards and Vibe Awards. Bring that to the present day, and how many of your favorite Hip Hop sites survive without trading in gossip, illegally leaking music, or whoring for clickbait? Collectively, I think we as participants in Hip Hop need to close ranks and do a much better job of celebrating our culture instead of complaining about not being recognized by the same external machine that regurgitates watered down bits of our culture for mass consumption. Show me the media outlets founded or owned by Hip Hop contributors that also honor our culture’s rich history.
I would advise people with a vested interest in the notion of cultural appropriation to also pay attention to the sources of said criticism. Regardless of what I think of their respective approaches, I do think Lord Jamar and Q-Tip have impeccable track records when it comes to creating works that encourage celebrating both Hip Hop and black culture. And while I may not be the biggest J. Cole fan, he got my $9.99 just for going to Ferguson, Missouri with what seemed like pure intentions. I don’t want to discredit their very valid points about cultural appropriation, but I think it’s fair to point out that I personally haven’t seen either Dame Dash or Azealia Banks do a whole lot to celebrate black culture in the past. I could be entirely wrong, and I’m not saying I want to see either of them on 125th Street in a dashiki. I’ll concede that Dame has gone to great lengths to apologize for his Cristal-dousing ways of the ‘90s, and Azealia’s Hot 97 interview showed the same type of respect for Dominican culture she was hoping to see from Iggy Azalea. But asking “Igloo Australia” to advocate for black culture in the wake of Eric Garner’s killing is like waiting for a real life Santa Claus or Easter Bunny. I think a good litmus test for any self-appointed pundit crying about cultural appropriation is how they treat the culture when police aren’t regularly killing unarmed black men. How do they talk about preserving black culture when an Australian white woman in Hip Hop isn’t showing a glaring lack of self-awareness or historical context?
For what it’s worth, I’m going to heed my own advice and pull a quote from a man widely recognized as one of Hip Hop’s earlier influencers, Gil Scott-Heron:
“All we need to do is see you shut up and be black.”