Appreciation vs Appropriation

I love gospel music. I love hip hop. I love soul music.  I’ve been writing and performing hiphop/soul/RnB for the better part of 15 years.

However, I feel that it is important to acknowledge that I am not indigenous to the cultures that birthed these beautiful and poignant art forms.

I’m learning to walk this tension and express sensitivity to my brothers and sisters. While I don’t have this all figured out, I believe that the line between appreciation and appropriation involves the following truth:

If I am not willing to be in solidarity w/ the originators in the service of equality, equity, justice and liberation, then I am nothing but a colonist, a settler staking a claim on something that does not belong to me.  If I “love rap” but can’t unequivocally say “Black Lives Matter,” then I am a thief not a participant. 

As the expression goes, it’s like being a vegan that eats steak, it’s nonsensical.

Pop music is filled with the musical equivalents of the proverbial “white moderate” in Dr. King’s famed letter, people happy to enjoy the fruits of black culture while being silent on matters of injustice. (I’m looking at you Miley & Justin).  As Preston Mitchum writes so eloquently:

“White artists like Cyrus treat hip-hop and black artistry like an item of clothing, something to shed once it’s been worn too much. She and other performers like Justin Timberlake, Taylor Swift and Katy Perry make enough money off the backs of black people, then attempt to evolve into more peaceful, serene and tranquil versions of themselves.”

I would add that these artists have been completely comfortable to put on blackness until they are asked to stand with black people.

[for a complete analysis, I’d recommend reading Mitchum’s article in The Root as well as Ann-Derick Gaillot’s article for the Outline: “JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE IS REBRANDING AS A WHITE MAN”]

I agree with Gaillot that “there’s nothing wrong with a white artist expressing black influences in his music.”  However, I think those of us who are white artists inspired by cultures we are not born into need to tread very carefully.  If we are willing to take from the culture but not stand in solidarity with those who created it, we are engaging in acts of cultural violence and we need to repent.

Readers, I’d welcome your input as I confess that I’m certainly still grappling with this stuff so feel free to drop a comment or two 🙂

[side note: I’d also recommend checking out Jarrod McKenna’s excellent sermon “The White Elephant in the room”]

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6 thoughts on “Appreciation vs Appropriation”

  1. Forgive me as I wrote this after reading your FB post so this is a reply kind of to this article but also kind of to FB. Hopefully it’s not too confusing.

    Where do you draw the line? How many BLM marches do you need to attend? How many tweets about racial injustice to you have to make? Do white people who make “white” music not have to do as much because they make a different kind of music? If I sing country and never attend a BLM march or tweet about racial inequality I’m fine, but if I sing RnB I’m appropriating?

    For me, cultural appropriation is all about intent. Are you showing respect or are you making fun of it/using it in a negative way towards the culture it came from?

    The author of the article is offended that JT is “inspired” by Jesse Williams’ BET Awards speech. Here we have JT literally acknowledging and applauding the speech about black rights and he takes issue with that? That to me is not JT ‘culturally appropriating’. That is the author having a chip on his shoulder, that even when JT tweets in solidarity the message of Williams’ it’s: “oh no, you can’t do that ‘cuz you’re white”.

    Not only that, but it does a discredit to every single black artist (and there are lots!) who have worked and continue to work with JT. It does a discredit to every single black person (and there are millions) who enjoy JT’s music and pay to see him live. It says “you are too stupid to realize he’s stealing from you and your culture”. It’s offensive to every black person who has worked/works with Justin and every black person who enjoys his music.

    Bruno Mars has borrowed/stolen/whatever you want to call it from the likes of MJ just as much as JT has but somehow he’s exempt from the same standard that the author holds JT too. If JT were to do some kind of action that excludes black people or black culture from him music, or if he were to say things that go AGAINST black culture, I could totally understand the authors’ point, but for me he doesn’t have one. He mentioned countless times about JT appropriating culture but never actually tells the readers how he’s done that except for the fact that he sings RnB music.

    To me, appropriation is about intent and although no one is perfect, I see JT as more of an ally to black culture than an enemy. Perhaps I am wrong, perhaps I’ve missed a bunch of stuff and I’m completely uninformed. For now though, that is honestly how I see it.

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    1. Hi Brian,
      I’d invite you to read my blog post as I do answer some of these questions. I’d like to speak to two things:
      1- These things are complex and nuanced. You can enjoy someone’s music while also identifying them as deeply problematic. Music is filled with figures like that. In no way is anybody being condescended to or called “stupid.”
      2- JT just released a whole song (Say Something) that is basically an ode to his own white fragility for being called out for his problematic history (there are many excellent articles to be read about this). There’s nothing wrong with being inspired by black music (again, I mention this in the blog). However, I strongly believe that those artists who have profited off that culture need to be strong advocates for the originators of the aforementioned culture. In the light of Ferguson, Black Lives Matter etc., it is incumbent upon those artists with a platform to “say something” 😉
      There are a couple of great articles by some peeps who’ve spent more time hashing this than I have that I link to in the above blog. I would highly recommend checking them out if you want more info on this discussion.

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      1. I’ve gotta say, I’ve read all the links you’ve provided and I still can’t see how JT (mis)appropriates black culture. The Say Something song is a perfect example of how even when he tries to ally with black culture he’s criticized for it.

        In regards to your first point – that answers for the black people who listen to his music. What about the many black artists that work with JT (including those who worked on Say Something)? Are they unaware that they’re supporting this person who is stealing from their culture and misappropriating it?

        In regards to point two – I feel like “JT just released a whole song (Say Something) that is basically an ode to his own white fragility for being called out for his problematic history” is very disingenuous. The man tweeted solidarity with a black man and his moving speech about racial equality, then someone took a shot at him because he makes “black music” but is white. JT replied dismissively and was (correctly) criticized for it, after which he apologized and wrote a song about how “Sometimes the greatest the way to say something is to say nothing at all.” I don’t see how this is a “an ode to his own white fragility”.

        My question to you would be, what exactly does JT need to do to cross the line from “appropriating” to “appreciating”?

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      2. Hi Brian, this will be my last response as I have a ton of homework to get to 🙂 While this issue is a lot bigger than JT, I think a good start would be as follows: In the song “Say Something”, he makes a choice to center his own hurt feelings regarding being “misunderstood” rather than stepping back and trying to understand why people of colour might have legitimate grievances. This lack of self-critical introspection is a big part of this. Moving past individualized defensiveness (which Say Something reeks of) is a crucial element of this process.

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  2. Singers are allowed to write a song about whatever they want. If JT is upset that he was misunderstood and wrote a song about it, so what? If I were super famous (thank God I’m not) and said something trying to support my black brothers and sisters , was called out on it because I’m ‘not allowed’ to make a certain type of music, I’d get pretty upset that people misunderstood me too.

    Nobody is perfect. I’m not claiming that JT is the best civil rights activist in the history of the world. When we accuse people of misappropriating someone’s culture however, the burden of proof is on us to show that he has, not on others to show that he hasn’t. As you’ve said yourself, you appreciate and make music of black origin yourself, as do I. Do you try to be an ally or an enemy of black people and black culture? I personally think you try to (and do a good job of) being an ally not an enemy. I would hope others say the same about me.

    As I said in my original comment, perhaps I’m out of the loop because I don’t follow celebrity news at all, but from what I’ve read, seen, and heard, I would say the same for JT. I am more than open to changing my mind if anyone can show me otherwise. Just saying that as of yet, I haven’t seen anything that convinces me otherwise.

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    1. I appreciate the kind words homey 🙂 I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on JT but I think the conversation about appropriation is a difficult one without a lot of clear boundaries. However, I think it’s important to continue to be introspective as guests in art forms that we are not indigenous to.

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