Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Artworld Roundtable: Is Cultural Appropriation Ever Okay?



This edition of Artworld Roundtable appears in collaboration with Chris Richards, the pop music critic for the Washington Post. Over the next several weeks, we’ll present a series of roundtable discussions based on Richards’ “five hardest questions in pop music”: “cultural appropriation, problematic lyricism, selling out, the ethics of posthumous listening, and … separating the art from the artist.” AFB has rounded up several thinkers working in these areas to see what they have to say about each question. Richards has provided AFB with key examples to draw out the problems and complexities of each debate. Up first is cultural appropriation.

Nicki Minaj and Chun Li. Eminem and Iggy Azalea. What counts as cultural appropriation in music, and when is it bad? And is there such a thing as acceptable appropriation?

Cultural appropriation is the crux of the first of “the five hardest questions in pop music”, as described recently in the Washington Post by pop music critic Chris Richards. Below is the guiding question accompanied by a few examples that Richards finds particularly salient, followed by our contributors’ responses.

Question #1: Is cultural appropriation ever okay?

1) Why is Eminem, a white rapper from Detroit, so widely considered to be one of the greatest artists in the genre while Iggy Azalea, a woman from Australia, remains roundly dismissed as an appropriator? How much does background, nationality and gender factor into whether or not an artist’s music is seen as appropriation?

2) After winning album of the year at the 2018 Grammy Awards, Bruno Mars was accused of cultural appropriation by the writer and activist Seren Sensei Aishitemasu. “He is not black, at all, and he plays up his racial ambiguity to cross genres… because people have realized that they prefer their black music and their black culture from a non-black face,” she said in a YouTube clip that went viral. “We have artists now that are much more willing to step into black genres.” Mars’s defenders say that his syncretic music honors the R&B and funk of yesteryear. How does success factor into how we discern between syncretism and appropriation?

3) Often, when Paul Simon is accused of appropriating African pop music on his 1986 album, “Graceland,” the folk superstar’s fans are quick to cite the fact that the album significantly boosted the career of Simon’s studio collaborators, the South African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Should artists be excused for their appropriation when their music steers attention directly toward the sources it draws from?

Our contributors are:

Elizabeth Burns Coleman

I was prepared to dismiss the question of whether Iggy Azalea, a white woman from Australia, was criticized as a rapper while Eminem, a white man from Detroit, was lauded, as simple sexism. There is a lot of sexism about, especially directed at successful women, and even at women who are simply speaking in public. Yet it was not clear why this criticism should involve ‘appropriation’. Moreover, while watching Iggy perform, with her mimicking of an accent that is not Australian, and the visual codes of an African American environment, there is much to be commended in the interpretation of Brittney Cooper, who argues that what offensive about Iggy Azalea is her mimicry of the voice of Southern Black women in the USA, women who are not regularly given a chance in the music industry. So, if the criticism of Azalea is not sexism, is this sense of disquiet about appropriation a question of nationality or race? And, should we think of the appropriation in terms of offense, or a harm? In such cases it might be argued that while offensive, and prima facie wrong, cultural appropriation is not a matter for law. In contrast to such a position, I do think of cultural appropriation as question of law, and of what we can (rightfully) take.

The term ‘cultural appropriation’ is used so broadly that it covers a multitude of sins. As James O. Young (Young 2005 cited in Matthes 2018) points out the term generally applies to outsiders using the cultural products produced by cultural insiders. Cultural appropriation is not simply about white liberals being or feeling guilty about history, and it is naive to believe that a performance or recording will not be controversial in specific political and historical contexts. The music hall tradition of blackface, as a performance, is particularly offensive. The issue here is not so much of a legal right, or of taking, but of lack of respect. However, there is a long history of white recording artists appropriating the music of Black artists for their own composition “out of respect” or eclipsing the success of Black artists with the same song. The inequalities of such successes are probably related to the racist attitudes of the recording companies, distribution networks and audience. Yet an artist may be accused of appropriation when they have done no such thing.  Paul Simon’s album “Graceland” is a case in point. The issue is not that he disrespected the musicians or misappropriated their music as his own (all his collaborators were acknowledged, some paid above award rates, and others given royalties), but that he broke a United Nations cultural boycott in place to undermine the apartheid regime, and failed to gain approval for the collaboration from the African National Congress (ANC) Artists’ Against Apartheid movement.  For Simon, the collaboration was between him and the musicians, and he had the support of the black musicians’ union. The issue of permission did not concern rights to music, but to political strategy.

Rap reportedly emerged from African-American cultural traditions, with some commentators suggesting its origins extend beyond the Bronx in New York, to a West African ‘griot’ tradition of storytellers reciting oral history. For Azalea to have misappropriated this, this style must in some way be owned by African-American performers. Yet, as artists generally point out, they often borrow from one another to create new musical styles and works, in media-spheres and cultural flows that are increasingly rapid with the spread of cheap recording technology and the internet. It’s not clear that the music is owned collectively by a group of insiders, or that such claims accord with our intuitions about the appropriate relationship between race and what we might call cultural property.

When Australian Aboriginal people sing or dance in rap styles no one speaks of appropriation, though clearly it is. It’s just that we don’t think it a case of misappropriation. In such a case, neither race nor nationality appears to matter. But this is not simply because rap is associated with resistance to cultural oppression. There is no reason why an urban Aboriginal person would be more connected to a traditional Aboriginal culture than to rap culture. In fact, the idea that urban Aboriginal people should sing and dance in an “Aboriginal style” is funny. The assumption that an Aboriginal person would sing and dance in a specific cultural style is also lampooned by non-urban Aboriginal people, such as the delightful performance by Chooky Dancers in their ‘Zorba the Greek Yolngu Style’ on YouTube. Franca Tamisari (2010) suggests that the success of this dance, an amalgam of pop cultural references including disco dancing, rap, Greek line dancing, the stomping of Yolngu dances, skipping and pelvic thrusts lies “in staging the anachronistic absurdity of white audiences’ stereotypical representations: the expectations of an authentic ab-original culture, primitive traditions, awe-inspiring and timeless customs”.  At the same time the dance is part of an important cultural exchange, as it was created by the dancers in honor of a Greek woman, Liliane, who cared for the disabled sister of the lead dancer. First performed at the Ramingining Music Festival in Arnhem Land (Northern Territory) in 2007, and uploaded to YouTube by a member of the audience, it now takes its place as a distinctly indigenous contribution to videos of Greek-style flash-dancing to the sirtaki by Mikis Theodarakis, alongside ‘Zorba the Greek Tiwi Islands style’, and the tribute of the ‘Solomon Island Chooky Dancers’.  (YouTube commentary suggests that the Tiwi Islanders are actually young men from Gapuwiyak, East Arnhem Land). YouTube is full of videos of people with different nationalities dancing to Theodarakis’s sirtaki.

Illegal misappropriation may sometimes be celebrated. Such objects are now the prize possessions of museums. When the Wahgi, Papua New Guinean highlanders, appropriated the Phantom comic strip character for their shields (without irony) to give them special powers in battle, it was a clear case of the theft of copyright. (It was also quite ironic.)

However, copyright rewards the work of “original artists”, enabling what is considered traditional to be considered a commons from which everyone may draw inspiration. Indeed, it’s what justifies Black jazz artists, such as Herbie Hancock, appropriating so-called “Pygmy” music without consent. As Hancock explained to the ethnomusicologist Steven Feld:

“You’ve got to understand, this is a brothers kind of thing, you know, a thing for brothers to work out. I mean, I don’t actually need to go over there and talk to them, I could do it but I know that it’s OK ’cause it’s just a brothers kind of thing.” [Feld] then asked if musicians could side-step the music industry conventions to directly remunerate the sources of their inspiration. “Look,” he replied, “we’re the people who’ve lost the most, who’ve had from us. We know what it means to come up with, you know, a tune, then to have it copped and turned into a big hit or something that. We’ve been through all of that. But this isn’t like that. This thing, you see, brothers, we’re all making African music, that’s what I’m talking about.” (Hancock 1985 cited in Feld 1996)

I doubt that the Yolngu would be as generous as Hancock assumes Ba-Benzélé, the Central African creators of the hindewhu (whistle) solo he appropriated, would be. This is because Indigenous people have their own laws about property in music, and it is these laws that are run over roughshod by Western notions of copyright, or indeed, by notions of brotherhoods based on racial ancestry. Cultural appropriation is not something that should be condoned when the appropriator is from the less dominant culture, any more than when a dominant culture assumes that what is traditional cannot be owned by right. If we are to avoid trivializing the concept of cultural appropriation through thinking all cultural traditions are owned, or thinking that cultural forms cannot be owned because cultures are not bounded groups, we need to refer to the traditional legal rights of people.

We need to think beyond asymmetry in power with ‘musical right’ aligning with whoever owns the technology of appropriation, or who has the right color of skin, to consider different intellectual property regimes, and also, perhaps, to what respect for a cultural form means. When Ba-Benzélé or Ba-Mbuti people sing to the forest, they awaken it (Feld 1996). Similarly, the songs of Aboriginal people may infuse the world with consciousness.  It’s not dance music, a comic strip or a global ‘thing’ on YouTube. Music isn’t always just music. The peoples of Africa are not only waiting for their royalties, but for their names to be recognized – and maybe for someone to ask them what they think.

Shen-yi Liao

Is cultural appropriation ever okay? The answer depends not on identity, but power.

The real difference between Eminem and Iggy Azalea has little to do with who they are, but much to do with the world that they—and we—live in. Unlike Ben Westoff, I don’t think that the difference is that Eminem has somehow “nearly transcend[ed] race” while Iggy Azalea has not. But to explain the real difference, we need to first talk about the difference between race and racism.

It is misleading to speak interchangeably of race and racism because doing so obscures an important difference between two ways of thinking. As Brittney Cooper explains, while talks about race, gender, and class are fundamentally about identity categories, talks about racism, sexism, and classism are fundamentally about systems of power. These two types of discourses correspond to two ways to think about the world: the identity-first orientation starts with identity categories, and the power-first orientation starts with systems of power.

On the power-first orientation, the systems of power came first and made the identity categories. Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it pithily: “race is the child of racism, not the father.” Indeed, the early articulations of so-called “identity politics”—such as the Combahee River Collective Statement—are clearly not about identity categories themselves, but systems of power that made them.

Unfortunately, much of the cultural appropriation discourse has been identity-first rather than power-first. Popular debates are guided by identity-first questions such as can White people play Black music? or can settlers tell Indigenous stories? By contrast, power-first concepts, such as racism and colonialism, are rarely explicitly invoked. And so, when asked to articulate the difference between Eminem and Iggy Azalea, it is unsurprising for someone caught up in the identity-first orientation to say that she is problematic but he is not because she is White but he has nearly transcended race.

Look, Eminem is just as White as Iggy Azalea. No single person can transcend race or even come close. The difference between Eminem and Iggy Azalea has to do with the systems of power that operate in the world generally, and in the music industry specifically. Yes, there is a gender difference, but you only get partial credit for pointing that out. Indeed, you only get a few extra points for pointing out sexism as a significant system of power in the music industry. To get the full credit, you must point out—as the Combahee River Collective taught us—the simultaneous and mutually-reinforcing operations of racism and sexism. (Extra credit if you also remembered Combahee River Collective’s emphasis on capitalism as another system of power that is interlocking with racism and sexism.)

On Brittney Cooper’s diagnosis, Iggy Azalea’s cultural appropriation of sonic Southern Blackness is just another symptom of the interlocking systems of racism and sexism (and capitalism). The difference between Eminem and Iggy Azalea has little to do with who they are, but much to do with the different ways that the music industry treats Black men and Black women.

Iggy profits from the cultural performativity and forms of survival that Black women have perfected, without having to encounter and deal with the social problem that is the Black female body, with its perceived excesses, unruliness, loudness and lewdness. If she existed in hip hop at a moment when Black women could still get play, where it would take more than one hand to count all the mainstream Black women rap artists, I would have no problem.

The last quoted sentence of Cooper’s diagnosis is especially instructive. If we lived in a world without interlocking systems of racism and sexism in the music industry, Iggy Azalea could be just as White as she actually is and not be roundly dismissed as a cultural appropriator. In that world, there would not be much difference—at least along the appropriation dimension—between Eminem and Iggy Azalea. (As Erich Hatala Matthes wrote on this blog, “fix the power problem, fix the appropriation problem.”) Alas, the world we actually live in is quite different from that counterfactual world, and so Iggy Azalea is actually quite different from Eminem.

On Linda Martín Alcoff’s analysis of speaking-for, we should resist simplistic and absolutist rules like settlers can never tell Indigenous stories. Instead, whether it is responsible to speak for a group that is not one’s own depends on the particular context of one’s speaking-for and, ultimately, whether one’s speaking-for is allied with or against the relevant systems of power in the background. (To be clear, many existing instances of settlers telling Indigenous stories are, in fact, allied with colonialism.)

The same can be said about cultural appropriation, on the power-first orientation. Whether an action is problematic appropriation or unproblematic syncretism depends on the particular context of the action and, ultimately, whether the action is allied with or against the relevant systems of power in the background.

Despite this rather academic way of putting it, the basic idea can be found in the defense put forward for Paul Simon’s album “Graceland”. Simon’s defenders, I take it, are really trying to argue that the album is ultimately against the existing racism of the music industry because it promotes, and so materially benefits, Black South African singers. We need to look at the context closely to decide whether this defense is correct or not. However, we should at least commend this defense for gesturing toward a more productive discourse on cultural appropriation, based not on one’s identities, but one’s relations to systems of power.

Erich Hatala Matthes

The problem of cultural appropriation is rooted in imbalances of power. Whether a particular case is most saliently understood as one of silencing, exploitation, misrepresentation, or offense, what ultimately makes particular instances of cultural appropriation wrongful is the way in which they manifest and exacerbate inequality and marginalization. This is why cultural appropriation is deeply sensitive to context: the Kimono Wednesdays display played differently (at least to some audiences) at the MFA than it did in its original context of inception in Tokyo.

Because of these features, it is proper and important that discussion of cultural appropriation in the U.S. is tightly interwoven with issues of race, and in particular, with the acts of white people. No reasonable story about the history of the U.S. or the inequalities that persist in this country can ignore the role that white supremacy has played, most notably through settler colonialism, slavery, Jim Crow, and other mechanisms of racial and cultural domination. And yet despite the persistence of institutional racism in the U.S., the cultural achievements of people of color are often highly prized. In other words, the cultures of marginalized people have a power that the very people who cultivated those cultures are themselves denied. Those commentators keen to dismiss worries about cultural appropriation and its entanglement with racism seem insensitive to this fact.

That being said, we should be wary of conflating race and culture when we think about cultural appropriation. For one, there is a tremendous amount of cultural diversity within racialized groups that we risk erasing if we simply conflate race and culture. Additionally, there are many kinds of cultural groups and practices that cut across racialized categories, including cultural practices surrounding religion, disability, sexual orientation, and gender identity. A theory of wrongful cultural appropriation that is sensitive to racism need not, and ought not, criticize the use of cultural practices solely on the basis of the purported appropriator’s race.

The cases of Eminem, Iggy Azalea, and Paul Simon are helpful tools for pulling apart the threads of race, culture, and power at play in the cultural appropriation debate. If rap is properly understood as an African American cultural practice (flagging concerns about conflating race and culture mentioned above), then it would seem to follow that Eminem, a white rapper, is engaged in wrongful appropriation. Yet the fact that he is generally accepted in the rap community should give us pause in making such a claim. In contrast, Iggy Azalea, another white rapper, has been widely condemned for engaging in cultural appropriation. What accounts for the different judgments?

For one, Iggy Azalea seemed to be engaged not only in performing rap, but also in an appropriation of, as Brittney Cooper has put it, “the sonic Blackness of Southern Black women.” She was also performing in a context where, as Cooper also notes, Black women are underrepresented. Neither of these features appears to hold in the Eminem case. While Eminem adapts linguistic styles familiar to rap, he doesn’t seem to engage in the auditory blackface of Iggy, and he is performing in a context where Black men are the norm. Moreover, he consistently collaborates with Black rappers. We might note a similar feature in Paul Simon’s album “Graceland”. Simon doesn’t merely appropriate African musical styles, but collaborates with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. So, in contrast with Iggy, who has all the appearance of aiming to scoop a sound for financial gain, Eminem appears to be immersed in an artistic practice. Despite being white, Eminem seems to be a participant in, rather than an appropriator of, the artistic culture of the genre, whereas Iggy does not.

Assuming these observations are roughly accurate, they suggest why pointing to the race of the performer alone will not be sufficient for grounding claims about wrongful cultural appropriation. To the extent that Eminem (and Paul Simon) have a defense against such claims, it seems to be rooted in the way that they navigate the distribution of power in their respective artistic contexts. Their approach to music and culture suggests an effort to share power instead of seizing it. This does not obviate the role of race in thinking about cultural appropriation, but rather, points to special responsibilities borne by white artists who wish to engage in musical forms pioneered and cultivated by members of racialized groups who are systemically discriminated against in the U.S. If they wish to embrace the power of the culture, they should also support the power of the people.

Alexus McLeod

I think that cultural appropriation, as such, is always okay. This doesn’t mean, of course, that any use of what we might call “cultural goods” (for lack of a better phrase) is acceptable, but rather that the acceptability of their use is independent of features of the racial, cultural, ethnic, or other identity of those who use them. Cultural goods, as ideas and ways of acting, cannot be owned, just as one (whether an individual or group) cannot copyright ideas, mathematical equations, languages, or accents.

While I don’t have the space here to lay out my entire argument (but I’m writing a book on it at the moment!), one major problem I have with the idea of problematic appropriation is the notion of cultural ownership of cultural goods that it necessarily rests on. This involves two problematic ideas: 1) that cultural goods can be owned; and 2) that cultures can own things (or that an individual or group can claim ownership rights to something on the basis of cultural membership). Cultural goods are things such as specific styles, ways of acting, speaking, dressing, and other general human expressions. Accepting ownership rights over such things commits us to a suffocating expansion of the scope of intellectual property (which in my opinion is already problematic). While there are many other reasons to reject the view that cultural appropriation is morally problematic, these two reasons alone are enough.

Who counts as part of a culture to which a particular cultural good belongs? There is much current discussion in the U.S. of “Black music,” for example (a phrase I honestly find perplexing and even offensive). But how do we define the culture to which we attribute Black music? Does one’s skin color need to be a certain shade? Does one have to have a certain percentage of ancestry from the African continent within the last 500 years (but not more distant than 1000 years)? Does a person who was born in Mali, for example, have any right to the music created by Black Americans? Culture is complex, and its boundaries are vague and porous, yet we often treat it as if it’s clear and precise. The music of Thelonious Monk arose in a cultural context of mainly but not exclusively associated with Black Americans in New York City, using instruments from Europe. Should we then say that anyone who is not a Black New Yorker who plays an originally European instrument is outside of the culture that produced Monk’s music, and that if such a person uses jazz, it is cultural appropriation? The boundaries of culture always have to be in large part arbitrarily drawn.

If I am right about cultural appropriation, then it turns out that there is no difference between cultural appropriation and something like “cultural exchange,” which hardly anyone sees as problematic. Condemnations of cultural appropriation can be understood as a “catch-all” condemnation for wrongs involved in acts adjacent to cultural appropriation that themselves may be problematic. Such condemnation are often either moral or aesthetic, though it always masquerades as moral condemnation.

The case of the differential treatments of hip hop artists Eminem and Iggy Azalea is one example of this. While some people do see Eminem’s music as negative cultural appropriation (especially within certain communities), it does not seem to be a majority view among critics and commentators. Iggy Azalea, on the other hand, is much more broadly seen as appropriating in some negative way. I have to admit, I am somewhat confused about why we should draw such a distinction between these two. I think some of it has to do with perceived “authenticity” (perceived stereotype promotion may also play a role). Eminem has been largely successful in presenting himself as having had a difficult street life of poverty and crime, even living in a majority Black neighborhood during his youth, while Iggy Azalea clearly has not. But this reason for making a distinction between them is extremely problematic, and highlights one of the problems I raised above. Is hip hop “Black music”? Is it “poor people music”? Or both? Or is urban poverty close enough to what the popular imagination associates with Blackness that possessing such a background is seen as legitimizing? There is something deeply problematic in this. Hip hop, though it first formed in urban and often low-income neighborhoods in New York, was developed in its early years by mainly Black and Latino youth of a variety of income levels. Later in its (admittedly relatively short) history, it reached even further in its demographic scope. While poverty and “street life” is certainly a theme in some hip hop music, there is no special reason to link the musical form culturally with poverty, other than through a perceived link between being Black or Latino and urban poverty. Nor, I think, is there particularly good reason to link the musical form with race. Yet generally if a white person creates hip hop music, they are expected to have at least some other features associated with the perceived Blackness of the music, such as urban poverty. The fewer such features one has, the more likely one will be charged with negative cultural appropriation.

There are also aesthetic biases that can enter our evaluations of whether something is negative cultural appropriation. Eminem’s music is good (many think), while Iggy Azalea’s music is terrible. But this should not make a difference to the moral evaluation of whether it is problematic cultural appropriation. Gender, nationality, and other features of an artist can certainly play as much a role in this evaluation as anything else. When one white person raps and we like it, or they seem to have features matching the shared imagination of the adopted culture in question, it’s acceptable. When a different white person raps and we dislike it, or they appear not as close to accepted examples of hip hop artists within the relevant (mainly racially construed) culture, then it’s negative cultural appropriation. Charges of cultural appropriation are doing many things, but in part they have become ways to make more objective our aesthetic evaluations, and to focus our moral evaluations of other problematic elements the actions of artists (and others).

None of this is to say, of course, that there is nothing objectionable going on in some of the cases that people are inclined to call problematic appropriation (though I think many criticisms today, such as that of Bruno Mars, are completely ungrounded). Take, for example, a musician who wears garish Native American-looking headgear and dances around on stage making whooping noises like a stock villain from a bad Western movie and swinging a tomahawk. This is surely problematic, but not because of any appropriation of someone else’s culture. Rather, the act is wrong because it promotes a vicious stereotype. Indeed, such stereotype promotion would be problematic even if performed by a Native American. After all, racism and stereotype promotion do not become morally acceptable when a member of the targeted group endorses it or engages in it themselves. Indeed, it may be even more problematic, because it reinforces harmful stereotypes. In this, as in every case of cultural appropriation people are inclined to accept as problematic, the wrongs (if any) lie somewhere else. Cultural appropriation is never the problem. Indeed, I think cultural appropriation is the solution to many of our social problems. But that is a topic for another place.

Matthew Strohl

Many white rappers have seen widespread acceptance from the Black hip hop community, including Eminem, El-P, Aesop Rock and Mac Miller. These artists have had their share of detractors (well, maybe not El-P), but also a preponderance of defenders. Others have not fared as well, including Miley Cyrus, Macklemore, and Iggy Azalea. What explains the difference? It seems plainly obvious that differences in the way these artists have been received cannot be explained in terms of differences in their perceived harmfulness. No one thinks the primary problem with milquetoast Macklemore is the harm he causes (especially not compared to Eminem). I also have a hard time imagining that differences in the way white rappers are received could be explained in terms of differences in their impact on larger power structures. It might be true that some commentators critique some white rappers on the basis of ideas about power and oppression, but it’s hard to see how a theory along these lines could predict cases of acceptance accurately without ad hoc gerrymandering. Is there really a difference between the way that Macklemore on the one hand and Eminem on the other relate to overarching power structures? Even if there is, I’m skeptical that this difference could be what grounds the difference in the way these rappers have been received. Another possible explanation for the difference in reception is that Eminem has a legitimate authenticity narrative (he grew up in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Detroit) whereas Iggy Azalea does not (Atlanta accents aren’t common in Australia). I do think this consideration is relevant, but it cannot be the whole story, as very few white rappers have the biographical credentials that Eminem has. One might also think that gender has something to do with it, as white male rappers have not generally faced the sort of vitriol that Miley Cyrus and Iggy Azalea have faced. This too I think is relevant but only part of the story. Female rappers in general face harsher critical scrutiny and struggle to overcome widespread biases (how many female rappers falling between Lil’ Kim and Nicki Minaj can the casual fan name?). Gender bias surely spills over into the way white female rappers are evaluated, but—at least in 2018—white male rappers also face default suspicion (just google the name of any trendy white male rapper, such as Post Malone or G-Eazy, along with the word ‘appropriation’) .

It’s instructive to look at the particulars of how Iggy and Miley have alienated themselves from their few defenders. For a long time, Iggy’s mentor T.I. defended her vigorously. He eventually distanced himself from her over her wildly disrespectful twitter beef with rap legend Q-Tip, and Miley burned her rap bridges when she gave an infuriating interview disavowing her hip hop phase and making an open appeal to Trump supporters as she tried to pivot back to execrable pop country. Iggy and Miley have become such thoroughgoing rap pariahs because they have shown wanton disrespect to the very form they borrow from. But the case of Macklemore shows us that respect isn’t sufficient for acceptance. If anything, he’s nauseatingly obsequious. By all appearances, Macklemore’s main problem is that he sucks. Also, he has fallen under fire for trying to speak on behalf of Black hip hop culture in condemning other white rappers. His presumption in branding himself “one of the good ones” is another way of overstepping, akin to appropriation. Relatedly, Post Malone’s post-racial posturing has certainly not helped promote his acceptance. Eminem has taken a much different approach, calling attention to his whiteness and confronting the racial politics of his success head on, but without self-congratulation. Returning to the point above about power and oppression, it’s not that Eminem is less complicit in oppressive power structures than Macklemore, it’s that he acknowledges this in a more forthright, palatable way. This can’t be a necessary condition for acceptance, however, as other widely accepted white rappers don’t explicitly problematize their whiteness.

Talent, authenticity, respectfulness, gender, and forthrightness about racial politics are factors that help to explain why some white rappers are widely accepted while others are not. There is one more factor that I think is highly relevant. We can distinguish (non-exhaustively) between two modes of borrowing. The first mode is subtractive; in the case of rap it involves stripping away the Blackness of a traditionally Black musical form to make it more consumable for a white audience. The second mode is syncretic; it involves combining influence and innovation to make a new and worthwhile contribution to the cultural form one is borrowing from (possibly involving collaboration with in-group practitioners of that cultural form). Examples of syncretic borrowing may be taken to include works by David Bowie, Brian Eno, David Byrne, The Beastie Boys, and El-P. The Beastie Boys combined elements of rap with punk and hardcore, taking influence in equal parts from Grandmaster Flash and Bad Brains. El-P fused elements of avant-garde electronic music with hip hop, resulting in some of the most highly regarded and influential production work of the last 20 years. Whether one likes Eminem or not, it’s hard to deny that his virtuoso rap/shock rock style is innovative.

Miley Cyrus, Macklemore, and Iggy Azalea are not rap innovators. They borrow without bringing anything to the table. Moreover, their music feels tailored to the presumably enormous market of white “gateway” rap consumers: people who are interested in blasting a banger on their way to do some hipster thrift shopping or get crunk at a frat party, but who are averse—subconsciously or consciously—to the cultural and political content of manifestly Black rap music. Anecdotally, at least a half dozen white people have directly told me that they don’t like rap but they like Macklemore. These rappers can plausibly be seen as monetizing the racial aversions of their fans. This point again stops short of explaining the difference in reception of white rappers in terms of their impact on overarching power structures: it’s not that Macklemore or Iggy are taken to have some causal impact on such structures, it’s rather than their music is rendered distasteful by the background power dynamics that condition its success.

My answer to the descriptive question of why some white rappers are accepted while others are condemned is pluralistic: they are accepted or condemned according to how talented, respectful, and authentic they are, and whether they are seen as contributing to the development of the form or borrowing from it in an a subtractive manner. What about the normative question? Is it okay to be a white rapper?

My thinking about the normativity of cultural appropriation has been shaped by my collaborative work on the topic with Thi Nguyen. We have a coauthored paper (forthcoming in Philosophical Studies) where we argue that the permissibility of cultural appropriation depends to a large extent in many cases not on any objective general criteria, but rather on the stance of the group whose culture is being borrowed from. The difficulty this opens up is that cultural groups don’t tend to agree internally about these issues, and don’t generally have formal procedures for arriving at group decisions. This difficulty is too complex to do justice to here (consider this an advertisement for the full paper), but I would like to close by highlighting one lesson we can draw from it. In cases where there is widespread disagreement within a group about whether a case of cultural borrowing should be accepted or condemned, outsiders should avoid seeking to act as arbiters to intra-group disagreements. Collective judgments are fluid (I’ve heard confident predictions that Iggy’s single with Tyga will win a lot of haters over in the long run due to its popularity in exotic dancing venues), and internet pile-on culture threatens to stifle dynamic and vital discourse. In-group defenders of controversial figures like Iggy should not have their voices stamped out by busybody outsiders. T.I. eventually changed his mind about her, and his reversal was the result of engaged discourse within the hip hop community. Discourse of this sort should be attended to and amplified, and we should respect the complexity of these issues rather than reaching for an easy default response.

Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò


I can’t make heads or tails of the cultural appropriation conversation as it stands. But, as it stands, the conversation seems deeply hostile to artists (as a whole) and even art itself. First, folks seem to want the heritage story for a given style of music or musical aesthetic to be complicated and nuanced, when something isn’t to be ruled as cultural appropriation, lest our faves reveal themselves to be problematic – Bruno Mars’ mixed race ancestry almost certainly includes predecessors we would identify as Black, his defenders answer his detractors. Doesn’t that count for something? Eminem is white, but at least he’s from Detroit – a heavily Black city and musical scene – unlike Iggy Azalea, who hails from relatively alabaster Australia. But the musical heritage story is supposed to be simple and straightforward when it’s time for somebody to be humbled or canceled. It’s our music, the detractors answer, and never mind how or out of what “we” put it together.

As you can tell, I’m unsatisfied with this. So, how does the music we love get made, really, and is there any way to reconcile that with how cultural appropriation is discussed?

Take popular genres from the US as an example. As some folks in these debates are keen to point out, much of the important innovations that are now standard or normal in modern music came from Black people across the world, especially rhythmically speaking. This point, at least, is on the money in a deep way: though we seldom think about fundamental building blocks of modern music, these too come from certain cultural locations, and Black folk have punched above their weight class here. A rhythm-based style approach to music composition and production, where the various aspects of a song are organized around a relatively consistent rhythmic motif (or set of them) and tempo, is a natural successor to the “clave” or “guide pattern” philosophy that guided composition in much of West African music centuries ago.

After the slave trade displaced millions of Africans, this approach became the compositional basis of countless styles of music, with prominent “clave” patterns in Latin American styles of music like son and rumba, and subtler, more variable guide patterns in any Black American style based in a rhythmic “pocket” or a “groove”, including blues and jazz. The connection to African roots in some of these styles is pretty overt – since many of the drum patterns that inspired these styles come from African religious music, explicit references to Yoruba deities, often through new syncretic Black religious traditions like Santería and Candomblé, and locations like Angola often have survived the centuries and appear in the lyrics of classic tunes in these genres. Maybe (as a Yoruba person, for instance, or as a Black person more generally) there’s a sense in which my own culture has been appropriated by the trends in global popular music that derive from these genres, despite the fact that these aspects of African-derived techniques and approaches have been so dominant for so long that their use often doesn’t register as culturally loaded at all, much less appropriative.

On the other hand, the structure of the notes layered atop these rhythms and organized by this temporal philosophy – what pitches singers hit, what notes instrumentalists play – owe themselves to scales and melodic principles developed in what’s now Greece and Turkey. Even to this day, many of the scales and approaches musicians use bear the names of city states and ethnicities of ancient Greece (musicians may recognize terms like Lydian, Dorian, and Ionian). Similarly, the 7 note major scale as a basis for understanding melody and harmony – which, as recently as a century ago, might have sounded quite melodically exotic to much of the world (perhaps the way scales common to Mediterranean music sounds to those of us in the global North) arguably has reached a similar kind of cultural reach and ubiquity that African-derived philosophies of rhythm have, so much so that their use seems “normal” and not cultural. Maybe theirs, too, has been appropriated. Do the descendants of these peoples, or the Western Europeans who fashioned themselves as their heirs, get cultural ownership for the notes we sing and the chords we sing them on?

The actual history of music, of course, defies this kind of neat conceptual division. Take influential figures in Black music, for instance: Nina Simone’s early musical training was entirely in Western classical music; John Coltrane, a Black musician, took a giant step forward within jazz, an African diasporic form of music, after studying Russian composer Nicolas Slonimsky’s Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns to advance his play of an instrument invented by a German; similarly, Miles Davis’ and other’s innovations in jazz harmony borrowed from musical “modes” developed in Greece, not Namibia. (One of his earlier forays into this new and influential approach to jazz was a piece called “Flamenco Sketches”. I’m unaware of any Roma descent in Miles’ ancestry, but you never know).

Much of these points of cultural heritage, built into the building blocks of today’s popular music, are common among the popular genres. Then, we could always – on this basis at least – have a conversation about whether any artist of just about any contemporary popular genre is appropriating from somebody (except, maybe, musicians of mixed race Greek and West African ancestry). Yet we only have cultural appropriation conversations sometimes. What gives?

And all that’s only to talk of how and out of what our favorite songs were written. The story gets even tougher to attribute wholesale to any particular group (race, in this case) when we glance past which stars were given the hit songs to attach to their name and think about who wrote and performed those songs. It turns out that, even forgetting the melody complications for a moment, Black music wasn’t quite as uniformly Black as it sometimes seems that we think – or would need to, to justify the kind of ownership we’d want over. Yes, often times the songwriting geniuses behind Black hits looked like this, but a significant number of them looked like this, and our favorite stars made their claims to fame set to instrumental parts performed by eternally underappreciated session musician teams that often looked like this and this.

Now: maybe there’s some complicated and nuanced idea about which cultural transmissions are okay and which are not that explains when the nuances get wheeled in and when they’re unnecessary, that explains which parts of music history we decide are relevant and which we discard, which musicians’ contributions to songwriting and performance count towards their race or culture’s ownership of the product and which do not. Maybe that could explain our answers to the tricky questions: do I have a claim to perform kinds music, based on the contributions of my distant ancestors, that Burt Bacharach’s grandkids don’t even given the contribution of their nearby ones (you’d need to walk me through that one).

Perhaps, for instance, there’s a way of specifying the contribution that power dynamics make to complicating this issue that both explains which artists get called out and which don’t. This is a good start, but we’d also need to explain why the relevant power dynamics to pay attention to in any given situation are the ones that generate the conclusions we’re advocating for. Maybe there’s a principled answer to the questions of why we pay attention to primarily to race in these cases, or the complications of colonialism in those other ones; why gender today, why the race/gender intersection tomorrow, and why the nation/immigration status intersection next week; why we contextualize with the past circumstances and ancestry of this presently rich and famous artist but not that one. Maybe the principled answers to these complicated questions – or, at least, a sincere investment in having principled answers to these – is the sure footing we stand on when we object to some artists and not others.

But, also, maybe not.

Let’s give the “maybe not” option a shot. When lots of people are making a big deal about something we’re usually right to assume something is up – when there’s smoke, there’s usually fire somewhere. But the trends and tropes of the cultural appropriation discussion seem like they were set by people who relate to the music world in a certain set of ways. There’s a few different characters: the aspiring pop star who would rather work on their relationships with Instagram influencers than their scales or instruments; the activist or otherwise outspoken social justice minded person who views music as merely a slice of territory in the larger cultural war; the capitalist intermediary adopting the tried and true strategy of shoehorning themselves into the various social spaces between musician and audience and extracting rent by charging tolls for safe passage; and, not for nothing, the struggling artist enviously eyeing and hoping to personally or vicariously surpass the more successful artists in their medium. These folks are different from each other in many ways, but have one important common quality: for these people, the production of great music is at best a means to some non-artistic end, when relevant at all.

I don’t view any of these alternative motivations as inherently evil. But to continue the cultural appropriation discussion on terms that are organized around these interests is to participate, however unwittingly, in a conversation that converts the expression of even honest reservations about into artistically dangerous kind of doublespeak. It is to fail to talk about what we’re talking about. It is to design the basic infrastructure of the neighborhood of music around the guests of its Airbnbs, the visitors to its coffee shops, and the absentee owners of its real estate – rather than around the people that actually live there. It is bullshit.

Which kinds of people does it serve most to talk about cultural appropriation in the way we currently talk about it? Why focus the debate here on the sorts of artists that end up on the focus end of the camera lens, rather than on the full breadth of the enormous teams that are responsible for the music we listen to?

In the background of the cultural appropriation debate is a music industry premised on very contemporary, tangible, unhypothetical, and unsymbolic system of exploitation, undercompensation, and underecognition of musical talent. Again, even if identity orients our concerns, this should still be sobering given that much of this talent belongs to artists of color. But it’s today’s least visible laborers: ghost producers, ghost writers, session musicians, etc) – not their ancestors – who most stand to gain from a sober discussion about giving credit where credit is due. And only a very small and select group of these – the ones socially closest to money, power, and influence – are anywhere near the front of the line for whatever goodies we’re asking megastars to pass along or forego by respecting cultural territory.

The terms of discussion that rule cultural appropriation debates seem in subtle but important conflict with the sorts of cultural attitudes that facilitate good music. The perspective that leads us to claim the kinds of cultural closure that make sense of cultural ownership claims are tough to square with the kind of open perspective that could have produced this sort of creativity in the first place.

Justifications or want of them aside, I suspect the ideas for artists like these came in very ordinary kinds of ways. I can imagine Meshell Ndegeocello at a bar in Nashville, checking out a set of a style of music she didn’t yet play; Timbaland on a crowded New Delhi street hearing a drummer tap out a rhythm that sounded nice; or Miles Davis and Charlie Parker literally spending a night in Tunisia; or Eminem at The Shelter in Detroit hearing a clever punchline that made him think of a new angle on his own. That is, I can imagine all of these people just listening to stuff, liking it, and immediately coming to some thought like: “that’s dope, what could I do with that kind of thing?”, immediately and intuitively aware of their basic right as artists to “appropriate” from groups of people they were not in – “learn” is a better fit – in this way. That is, I can imagine them doing what every generation of musicians before them did when hearing something new and beautiful: doing was more than likely a fundamental aspect of the very kinds of music being performed in front of them, “new” relative to their own personal and cultural horizons, but likely old to the world. If there’s such a thing as musical progress, you’re looking at it right here.

Maybe somebody would happier in a world where everyone stays in their social identity determined lane, or swerves out of it only by performing the appropriate amount of symbolic and performative labor as tribute (as evaluated by whoever’s got the most juice on Twitter this week). I have to admit that something would be gained, from one perspective: artists from a particular background could be sure that the only their in-group would produce commercially successful musicians. More than that: everyone’s restraint might in the end turn out to be a meaningful way of expressing intergroup respect. But something would be lost too. I think that world has less great music in it than it otherwise would have, and I choose to live in a world where great music is the point. Whatever we decide, it should be based on what we really think about those two things: music and respect, and not some of the shadier ulterior motives.

James O. Young

When, in 2008, my book Cultural Appropriation and the Arts was published, I was reminded of Hegel’s aphorism: the owl of Minerva flies only at dusk. The battles over cultural appropriation that had raged through the ’90s and the early years of this century seemed to be dying down. My book seemed to be a flight, if not of Minerva’s owl, then of some more commonplace avian, that surveyed a debate that was on its last legs.

I could not have been more wrong. Cultural appropriation is back with a vengeance. Nevertheless, the arguments that, a decade ago, showed that most cultural appropriation is benign are still as convincing today as they were then.

Chris Richards is the latest in a long line of critics who are opposed to a good deal of cultural appropriation on moral grounds. He begins by recounting a story of a white rock band that was tempted to cover a Black singer’s album. The white rockers decided that covering the album would be “seen as cultural appropriation” and consequently wrong. Richards concurs.

That, however, can’t be the reason that cultural appropriation is wrong. For a start, something can be seen as p and not be p. For example, some people see Trump as a champion of democracy, but he is not: quite the contrary, he is a proto-fascist. If cultural appropriation is wrong, it must be wrong in itself, not because it is seen as wrong. We need an account of what makes cultural appropriation wrong.

Richards first suggests that cultural appropriation is wrong when it involves “taking” rather than “making.” When Justin Timberlake beatboxes or Taylor Swift raps, “it feels like taking.” When the Talking Heads borrow Afro-pop rhythms or Beyoncé does a country song “it feels more like making.” In taking, nothing is being invented; in making, the borrowed elements are used in some new genre.

The first point to make is that the distinction between making and taking tracks, if anything, an aesthetic difference. Works produced by taking are derivative. Works produced by making are original. (For the sake of argument, I take originality to be an aesthetic virtue and derivativeness to be an aesthetic vice, though I doubt that this is always true.) A distinction that tracks an aesthetic difference does not necessarily track a moral difference. Remember, at issue is whether some cultural appropriation is morally wrong, not whether it results in aesthetically disappointing works.

Richards’ claim, even construed as an aesthetic one, is implausible. I doubt that all taking results in bad music. Eric Clapton just produced good blues, not some original new amalgam of blues and something else. If you don’t believe me, listen to this:

And if you still don’t believe me, recall that Roy Eldridge once bet Leonard Feather that he (Eldridge) could reliably tell the difference between jazz recordings by Black musicians and jazz recordings by white musicians. Put to the test, Eldridge misidentified the cultural origins of musicians more than half of the time. Yes, there are lots of bad white rappers, but there is no guarantee that taking will result in bad music. And even if it does, this does not prove that taking is morally wrong.

If cultural appropriation is wrong, at least one of two conditions must be satisfied: (1) it must be harmful in a way that violates a right; or (2) it must be offensive in a gratuitous or deliberate manner. Richard hints that both of these conditions are satisfied.

For a start, Richards suggests that cultural appropriation is wrongly harmful: the appropriating artist benefits at the expense of artists from a marginalized culture. In order to make this case it is necessary to show that certain musical styles are the property of certain cultural groups and that appropriation of these styles violates property rights. It requires that Richards show that (1) a style is ownable and (2) that a style is somehow owed by a culture, many of whose members have had nothing to do with its development. These cases are difficult to make for several reasons, but one is that artists have always appropriated from each other. Black artists have appropriated as much as white artists. That is just what artists do and it makes talk of the ownership of a style well nigh incoherent.

Racist institutions and racist attitudes certainly make it easier for white musicians to flourish, and put obstacles in the way of Black musicians. Blame these racist institutions and attitudes. Don’t blame white musicians.

In blaming white musicians, people like Richards play into the hands of the right wing. Progressives are set against progressives. Consider, for example, the case of Dana Schutz’s painting of the coffin of Emmett Till. Her effort to express solidarity with African Americans was scorned and the incident allowed conservative commentators to have a field day mocking progressives. For an excellent article on this case see here.

I cannot forebear to note that the rapper Iggy Azalea is another female artist who is condemned for the thought crime of cultural appropriation when male artists like Eminem get a pass. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Finally, there is the question of the offensiveness of cultural appropriation. Ill-informed appropriation, sacrilegious appropriation, and appropriation that does not acknowledge its sources, can certainly be objectionably offensive. Comparatively few cases of appropriation fall into these categories. Certainly, appropriation by Eric Clapton and Dana Schultz does not. Or consider the case of Paul Simon’s appropriation from the music of South Africa’s townships. This appropriation acknowledged its sources and opened up new opportunities for South African musicians. No one was hurt or offended.

America and other countries, including mine (Canada), are plagued by racism. There is very little evidence that cultural appropriation contributes to this racism, and some evidence that it mitigates racism. Chris Richards is just the latest in a long line of white guys who feel guilty about racism and decide to take it out on artists when artists are not to blame.

Image credit: photo by Ronald Woan via Flickr
Edited by Alex King



  1. The lesson seems to be, to the extent it can be boiled down into a maxim: participate, don’t take over.

  2. Pingback: The problems with the concept of “cultural appropriation” – Aqua Rusa

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.