Popular music is much more than mere entertainment—it helps us make sense of who we are or who we hope to be. Although music is but one of pop culture’s media outlets, our tendency to embody and take ownership of sound—whether through our headphones, MP3 downloads, dancing, or singing—often makes it difficult to separate our personal connection to popular music from the cultural context in which it was created. But if we listen carefully to its reverberation throughout the nation, we might better understand how the subconscious of our society is shaped by what gets recorded and distributed to the masses. Our sonic diets might be more detrimental to our well being than we might think; especially if we consume popular music without attention to its ingredients.
One of the key ingredients of today’s popular music—cultural appropriation—is a hot-button issue. It’s been the subject of a recent and rather unprecedented court dispute (Marvin Gaye’s estate vs. Robin Thicke and “Blurred Lines”), as well as in heavy rotation on social and other popular media in response to the recent popularity of hip-hop-signifying white performers, such as Mackelmore & Ryan Lewis, Kreayshawn, Miley Cyrus, and Iggy Azalea. Katy Perry, among others, suggests that without the “blending” that results from cultural appropriation, popular music in the United States might only be about “hot dogs and baseball.” Yet, the blending, mixing, and hybridizing of culture into popular music are not without consequences. The “diversity” of popular sound in the United States is often in conflict with the lack of diversity and prejudices embedded into its societal structures. However, the performative scripts that are derived from the margins of culture and limited by discriminatory systems—racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia, etc.—are often what drive the appeal of popular media, music, and images in our capitalist culture. Cultural appropriation in contemporary pop music is defined by this paradox, but as the old saying goes, “ain’t nothing new under the sun.”
“When the relay starts I’m a runaway slave-master
Shittin’ on the past gotta spit like a pastor”
When the Australian-born Iggy Azalea—in her distinctly choreographed, somewhat caricatured “black”-sounding, southern-influenced rap voice—spit this culturally offensive lyric in her 2012 song, “D.R.U.G.S.,” she unknowingly connected her impending success to America’s often unspoken, yet fairly recent and real troubled past. With her vocal and lyrical stylings, Azalea indirectly invokes America’s history of the commodification of black people and tropes of blackness through slavery and blackface minstrelsy. Created during enslavement and persisting through Emancipation, Jim Crow, and Civil Rights, blackface minstrelsy gained widespread popularity and became the first and most ubiquitous form of popular entertainment native to the United States. In blackface makeup, white men performed their imagined, stereotyped tropes of black(male)ness (angular posture, broken dialect, dumb, overtly sexual, violent, machismo, lewd movement, etc.) for mostly white audiences throughout the country.
The music that developed from these wildly popular performances (think on the level of American Idol or The Voice) was a combination of what was drawn or “appropriated” from real and imagined African American performance practices, as well as from their own white cultures, particularly of Anglo, Irish, and Jewish heritage. On the one end, what resulted from blackface minstrelsy were popular, everyday reinforcements of racial stereotypes and prejudices against African Americans that have persisted in society’s popular imagination since enslavement. On the other, what developed was a new, lucrative form of popular music—created by white performers’ select appropriation of black signifiers—that established the structural and aesthetic development of the mass music and entertainment industry. When we consider appropriation in the context of America’s cultural and musical past, we might continue to think more about who stands to gain the least/lose the most and gain the most/lose the least by appropriating black signifiers in popular music and society, why that might be, and why we (or our ears) should care.
In his 2003 book of the same title, music and cultural critic Greg Tate defines the “burden” of being black in America as a “systematic denial of human and constitutional rights and equal economic opportunity.” Fast-forward to over a decade later, and we now find ourselves in a time where our President is black, “post-racial” is a buzz word, and hip hop performance signifiers are all-the-rage in the “pop” music of many of the top-selling, record-breaking, non-black (well, mostly white) performers—even Taylor Swift has shed her country-pop roots for more urban (i.e., black) ones as she proclaims the “haters gonna hate” in her recent album’s lead hit, “Shake it Off.”
Iggy Azalea’s hip hop pop has also broken records; she is currently the female rapper with the longest running number one single on the Billboard Hot 100, received four huge Grammy nominations, as well as won awards for best hip hop album at the People’s Choice, Kid’s Choice, and American Music Awards. Although a contemporary female rap artist like Nikki Minaj has had a significant artistic/aesthetic impact upon contemporary pop and hip hop, and creative rap artists like Azealia Banks (a huge critic of Iggy Azalea) have significant underground followings, (black) women have not gained such popular acclaim as Iggy in hip hop since Lauryn Hill’s genre-defying and genre-defining 1998 album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
While the crossover appeal of white artists employing black tropes might gain mass popularity and signal racial progress to some, the many recent cases of police injustice and brutality, the black and brown base of mass incarceration, and the economic, health, and educational disparities faced by African Americans and other communities of color require us to interrogate the extent of this “progress” in society.
“To live so completely impervious to one’s own impact on others is a fragile privilege,
which over time relies not simply on the willingness but the inability of others…
to make their displeasure heard.”
— Patricia J. Williams
Given the privileged history of white performers’ and consumers’ ability to commodify and delimit idea(l)s of blackness through slavery and blackface minstrelsy, to appropriate signifiers and/or stereotypes of blackness for personal, economic, or aesthetic benefits as performer or consumer of contemporary popular music—without the experience or “burden” of being black or interrogating the systematic privilege of whiteness, maleness, as well as heterosexual and class privilege—is to remain complicit in the history of covert and overt acts of racial and other forms of structural oppression.
If we, as artists, industry executives and producers, critics, and consumers don’t take the time to critically interrogate our own fears, desires, and points of privilege in the production of the music that we help make popular, then the possibility for politically generative, cross-cultural works of popular art that are economically, socially, and morally beneficial for all parties involved (and just not those with structural access and privilege) simply become another form of inappropriate and often damaging cultural appropriation. If we take the time to interrogate and not just consume America’s sonic “melting pot,” we might better hear how the abuse of cultural appropriation in popular music is a key ingredient to how cultural retrogress persists under the guise of societal progress.
Headline image credit: Color Concert. By Eduardo Merille. CC BY SA 2.0 via flickr.