The ever-present threat of cultural appropriation
It’s dreaded X Factor season again. Despite my determination not to involve myself in this strange cycle of churning out average pop stars who will either fall into anonymity or a sustain very short-lived career, here I am writing about The X Factor. The joke act that’s got everyone’s attention this year is Honey G, who introduces herself as a “genuine urban artist”.
What has caught the attention of some is Honey G’s “modern-day blackface”, as The Guardian’s Lola Okolosie has termed it, criticising her act as “a caricature of blackness as stupid and illicit”. It’s not difficult to see how Okolosie has made this connection. The first thing we hear when Honey G opens her mouth is her ridiculous and forced slang, before she takes good hip hop songs, raps them very badly and manages to shovel her stage name in every now and then.
This character speaks of the blackface that we’ve seen before – watch 1915 film Birth of a Nation and you’ll find the most disgusting portrayals of black people as rapists and criminals. This kind of racism was so normalized that even the president at the time had a screening of the film at the White House. It may be subtler in the form of Honey G, but compare the two and it feels like we’ve gone full circle.
But this is nothing new – we can’t seem to acknowledge just how much has been adapted (and sometimes plainly stolen) from other cultures, especially black culture. This is a system that’s been ingrained into modern music for decades, if not more.
Jazz, a highly respected form of music today, originated from African Americans in New Orleans in the early 1900s, combining the expression and rhythm of African music with the European instruments that were available in the US. However, jazz was more marketable when played by white musicians like Dave Brubeck. The movement of reggae and ska was, of course, conceived in Jamaica, but look to the present, and we’ve got UB40 and Madness, white bands that are now some of the biggest names in this area of music.
Hip hop originated in some of the poorest areas of the US, the ghettos of New York City and LA, where not only were there massive problems with drugs and poverty, but black people were being victimized by the law and politics. Hip hop became an experimentation with loops from old records, including a lot of jazz, in some ways celebrating the musical heritage of black musicians. From its origins running through to today, hip hop has acted as a form of expression for the oppression and experiences of African Americans.
So now we come back to present day, where a white 35-year-old recruitment consultant is butchering Tupac on national television and everyone finds it hilarious. The worst part about this is that while white musicians make features of black culture and music a fashion statement, black artists celebrating their own culture are consistently criticized.
At this year’s halftime Super Bowl show, Beyoncé was accompanied by an army of black female dancers as she sang the politically-charged ‘Formation’, a song celebrating the power of black people, especially women. She then faced an enormous amount of backlash resulting in a police union calling for a boycott of her world tour, simply for referencing the Black Lives Matter movement and drawing connections with the civil rights movement.
Meanwhile, Miley Cyrus places twerking black women in her music videos to make her look cool. In the most astoundingly clear example of cultural appropriation in music today, we see Miley wearing dreadlocks while Nicki Minaj calls her out on her dismisaal of comments concerning the struggles of black women in the music industry.
2016 has been a year where we have seen and heard a wide variety of representations of black experience, from Frank Ocean’s green hair on the cover of his album Blonde appearing like a failed bleaching attempt, to Solange’s revolutionary album A Seat at the Table through which she asserts, “Don’t feel bad if you can’t sing along / Just be glad you got the whole wide world… Some shit you can’t touch” in ‘F.U.B.U.’. And in the spirit of Black History Month, it is time to appreciate the provocative art put before us by talented black musicians, instead of commodifying and trivializing black culture.
(Image: The Mirror)