Cultural Discourse vs. Cultural Appropriation

I’m a troublemaker, at least in my own mind. Musically, I enjoy crossing boundaries, even while I think it is important to learn, honor and preserve distinct musical traditions. Music, like all cultural creations, reflects the dreams, beliefs and conflicts of a society. Nowhere is this more evident than in the United States. The legacy of colonialism, slavery, class struggle has shaped our economy. The struggles of all the groups and individuals living in this land, pushing back against oppression and exploitation, are expressed partly through their music. The music is passed on down through the generations. We pick up the tune, add our voice, and hopefully hand it on to those who come after us, putting a little of our unique selves into it on the way.

But it’s not a simple warm and fuzzy celebration of specialness. Culture, especially in a heterogeneous society with many different ethnicities, belief systems and lifestyles, is full of what social historian Kenan Malik calls “messy interaction.” Cultural appropriation, he acknowledges, is considered to be cultural thievery by many. The lingering power imbalance of European colonialism means that control over cultural artifacts and practices is still contested.

For artists this can play out on a very personal level. You create your art, using the tools, images, and practices passed down by previous generations. But are you engaging in cultural discourse, adding your unique voice and perspective to a shared cultural reservoir, or are you perpetuating a historical power imbalance, ripping off the oppressed on behalf of the oppressor, and in the process getting a little of the filthy lucre for yourself? Not a simple question.

For myself, after slogging through the mud of the music business for 40 years, I believe you have to try, rather than hesitate. Better to act, make mistakes, learn from them, keep your eyes, heart and mind open, than to talk yourself into inaction for fear of doing the wrong thing. But I do believe you can do this while hearing criticism, learning from those who disagree with you. Of course it is easier when you don’t have power, when you’re not attached to a particular political/economic faction that is competing against others for control of resources. But none of us operate in a social vacuum; we either appropriate or get appropriated. Is it possible to engage in mutual cultural appropriation in a mutually beneficial way? I’d like to think so. More on that in the next exciting episode!