Posted Aug 22nd, 2015 (12:38 pm) by Sean O'Leary
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Every day there's another article about new instances of cultural appropriation. But it's not a "new" trend - white people have been appropriating black culture for much longer than people realize.

In an article from a year or so ago, Noisey points out that, "like 'selfies,' it has always been around, there just wasn’t a ubiquitous term for it." The rest of the article is insufferably smug, but it does have a point - to understand this process, and avoid playing into it, we're gonna have to look back.

The history of modern music is unfortunately also a history of white people benefiting from black culture. Most of music as we know it comes from rock n' roll, which was pioneered by Elvis, who cited gospel and blues as influences. In the '60s, The Rolling Stones drew from Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters. In the '70s, rock groups like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Aerosmith were all formed by the blues tradition. They in turn formed the harder, more hairspray infused rock of the '80s, around the time when the Beastie Boys and the Aerosmith/Run-DMC collaboration started bringing hip-hop into the cultural consciousness. By the '90s, rappers like Eminem were gaining notoriety for their skill and rappers like Vanilla Ice were gaining notoriety for their lack of it. Rap was starting to crossover with rock, leading to the slew of '90s nu-metal/funk metal bands (though Living Colour had been rocking a funk metal sound since the '80s). The 2000's kept heading in this direction, with acts like Justin Timberlake, Robin Thicke (unfortunately) and Adele all offering different and white takes on a classic, and classically black, sound.

This history lesson is important for two reasons. The first, is that it shows that overall, being white is good for a musician’s career. Understanding this is important to not being a jerk. This doesn’t mean white musicians aren’t talented, and there are some exceptions (Chuck Berry is both black and good, Vanilla Ice is white and not good at all) - but overall, a white musician will do better and become more famous than their black counterparts or influences. We know Elvis but not his songwriters. We know the Stones but not Jimmy Reed. Rap only broke into the mainstream when the Beastie Boys and Aerosmith gave it a comfortable whiteness. All these acts are phenomenally talented, and their music wouldn't stand the test of time if they weren't. But when the A&R guys sat down to decide who they wanted to market to all those years ago, you can bet the fact that they were all white sure helped. Black musicians have the “cool” but white musicians have most of the “cool,” and they look like the target market.

The second reason that history lesson is important, is because it lets us draw a distinction between the respectful practice of an art form, and the dreaded label of "cultural appropriation." Elvis, despite assertions to the contrary, actually openly flaunted segregation laws and talked whenever he could about black artists who influenced him. The Stones did the same, Black Sabbath did the same (they started as a blues band), Aerosmith did the same. It crosses over into appropriation when it's mindless, and doesn't allow black performers into the same space. That is why everyone was furious about certain white rappers being suspiciously silent about the Black Lives Matter movement, or when Katy Perry wore cornrows in a music video, or Taylor Swift's “Shake It Off” video - cultural appropriation steals the cool, the good parts, and leaves the struggles and the trail of bodies. It's also what makes Janelle Monáe's, "she steals from us, we steal back" comment about Iggy Azalea so brutal - by "stealing back," Monáe and the Wondaland artists are forcing their way back into an arena (mainstream rap) that rappers like Iggy have forced them out of.

This may not be news to some people. Social issues have been all over the internet and social media, and if you're a follower of this website you've seen some on our own front page. But it's important to understand the why and the how of these issues. How almost all of modern music is derivative of music created by black people (we didn't even touch on how blues is rooted in jazz which is rooted in African drumming and European musical sensibilities). Why black acts don't get mainstream recognition even when white acts playing the same music lavish praise on them. How it's possible that we've spent so much time trying to understand issues of race as they relate to culture, and still misunderstand them. As fans of music, we're all reaping the benefits of the idea that "black is cool," it's just a question of whether we're respectfully and intelligently understanding, or mindlessly consuming a culture that we've stolen.

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