Black Music Matters: How Cultural Appropriation Has Left Legends In The Shadows
With recent civil unrest in America, more and more people are taking issue with the Black Lives Matter movement, and many of them without realizing the effect black lives have had on the music they know and love.
Cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of another culture. Everybody does it – one culture borrows from another, and the dissemination and propagation of ideas, beliefs, and opinions begins, usually bringing about a greater understanding between cultures. It’s the idea that we have that the United States is a great “melting pot” of sorts, where we all mix in together under one big umbrella of common interests and experiences. #Murica
The problem with appropriation and even the very idea of a “melting pot” is that the very fact of the matter is that people are actually not all experiencing the same life events as a result of being citizens of the USA, so some of the elements being appropriated are misunderstood by the adoptive culture. One of the biggest examples: music.
As a fusion of European folksong and African folksong and musical technique, the Blues – a style of music derived from the Mississippi delta – is traditionally written and sung by black Americans who, for obvious reasons in the historic Deep South, had the blues. One could hear the emotion and pain of victimization for being of African descent in the notes and lyrics of the songs. You would be remiss not to include legendary singers like Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and Howlin’ Wolf in the conversation about the inception of the Blues…but fast forward a couple decades and some lighter faces show up. People like Janis Joplin, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, and Elvis Presley enter the conversation, and instead of being a descent of black music legends, they are considered the founders, or credited with whole new genres of music: psychedelic rock, rockabilly, or folk.
Therein lies the problem that arises with cultural appropriation: When mixed with cultural dominance, the spread of ideas and use of elements from one culture becomes the complete engulfing of one culture by another. It’s no longer a symbiotic relationship; it’s a matter of parasitism, in which one culture is forgotten and its elements are given a new name and a new face.
“Presley is country music, white music. Jazz is black music – it was invented by the blacks in New Orleans. And I’m really a jazz singer. I was impressed with Elvis – he was the handsomest guy I ever met in my life, and a very nice person, too. But the music doesn’t impress me.”
– Tony Bennett
In the case of rock ‘n’ roll, the appropriation is so deep that predecessors like Fats Domino, Little Richard, and most notably, Chuck Berry, have almost been removed from the conversation by common consumers. Elvis Presley has oddly been named the “King of Rock and Roll,” and people think of him, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones instead of the black pioneers who those bands are emulating. There is no doubt that those artists are great, but most of them would admittedly study black musicians to appeal to audiences who would have otherwise never seen that kind of performance.
“It’s not about: did I copy this (dance) move of his, or that one. It was the whole of his performance and his attitude to the audience, the way he draws them in, relates to them. The audience are part of the show, not just paid customers. That’s what I took from him, and from Little Richard, a somewhat similar performer. They come from the same town (Augusta, Georgia) and the same tradition: it’s to do with church, but it’s also very sexy, all about appealing to the girls.”
– Mick Jagger
The list of genres persists today in hip hop, jazz, soul, gospel, and many other genres. Most recently, Bruno Mars sent out a tweet about the BLM movement, wondering how anyone could ignore it with how much black people have contributed to American music.
Getting lost in the mix has become a secondary trait of musical innovation when it comes to black musical artists in America, although much of our music comes from the cultural experiences unique to black Americans. Performing songs instead of really writing them, singing them, feeling them, is often what we find in watered down versions of music written about explicitly black topics.
No one is angry about the appropriation we’ve seen in American music. We have gotten some legendary artists and genres out of remixes, alterations, and tweaks in historically black genres. In the words of Steven Van Zandt, “Half of the modern world goes back as far as Pearl Jam. The real historians go back to U2. But they need to go back further. They have to go back to the ’50s and ’60s, where things started. That’s how you get to be your own personality, by studying the masters. Rock and roll was white kids trying to make black music and failing, gloriously!” Watching Mick Jagger change his performance technique from standing stoicly on stage to his current, more colorful gyrations and dance moves dates back to the Rolling Stones’ being booked to perform right after James Brown and the Famous Flames at the 1694 Teenage Awards Music International show.
Black people respect the new waves of music and appreciate those who are not stealing, but rather paying homage to black music. It is an honor for any artist to “cross over.” However, our message to American music is such: “Don’t forget where you came from.”