On Cultural Appropriation

At lunch I was reading a little opinion piece in a Honolulu rag about people giving Meaghan Trainor (whoever that is) a hard time for using traditional R&B stylings in one of her songs (I think it’s called “No”.) Then Justin Timberlake said something on Twitter (whatever that is) about us all being one people and got a whole bunch of shit for that. There was a mention of people giving partygoers at raves a hard time for wearing Native American dream catchers as decorations in their hair.

It seems like we all like to give one another a hard time.

The point of the author was whether or not it was fair for a privileged (white) person to use lyrics and music that were born out of the experiences of an oppressed culture, esp. when the one being borrowed was oppressed by the other borrowing. And that got me wondering, since I’m in Hawaii, and have borrowed certain Polynesian concepts like “Mana” (and Norse concepts like “Odin” and Finnish concepts like “Sisu” and the epic poem the Kalevala) for my novel, because I think they’re cool, is that really cool or not? Do I have the right?

I don’t think the author of the piece had an answer. I think my answer would lie somewhere along the lines of “All things under Heaven are one,” but it did seem a little unfair when I heard Paul Simon borrowed a lot of the rhythms for Graceland from African tribal peoples without acknowledging or paying for them. Yes it’s a great album. Yes it did help bring American consciousness around to the evil of Apartheid. Yes it did increase Paul Simon’s bank account significantly. Bob Dylan takes a lot of heat for this too, and I don’t think it makes him any less of a genius. I do think that the affront which is sensationalized may be proportional to the amount of cash earned, and that is not intrinsically a fair reason for argument, even if it does matter.

I would like to point out another musically inspired story. It was 1965. The show was Shindig. The presenter said . . . “I would like to present Mr. Howling . . .” and a couple of kids named Mick and Keith smiled because they had just introduced the blues to popular America. That’s how it should be done, sharing your idols and inspirations with others, so that they can learn from them. That’s how we got this thing called rock and roll.

So maybe there’s two sides to this story. Maybe Ms. Trainor should do a little more to explain where she got her ideas. And maybe other little rich white kids shouldn’t throw so many stones.


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