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Black Music Matters: How Cultural Appropriation Has Left Legends In The Shadows

Black Music Matters

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.”

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8 Comments

  • Reply
    groovimus
    December 8, 2016 at 6:16 pm

    Notice my screen name is a cultural appropriation of an ancient Roman name. I have zero patience with complaints of cultural appropriation. I could accuse blacks of cultural appropriation very easily. It would go like this: blacks appropriated the even-tempered musical scale with A4 @ 440 Hz. and they appropriated all of the modern musical instruments for the creation of their music, all of which came out of Europe. But you know what? I hate the accusations on cultural appropriation, they are so bogus and boring.

    • Reply
      Hope Carter
      December 9, 2016 at 5:43 pm

      Hi there!
      While claims of cultural appropriation may be “boring,” they are anything but bogus. Given the definition of “cultural appropriation” as cultural elements being taken from a dominant culture and not credited to the minority culture, minorities cannot reasonably appropriate, but they rather assimiliate to dominating cultures once brought into those cultures’ regions. Sharing is great when people are credited with their original ideas, but as we have seen with black music, white artists have historically re-recorded songs line for line, note for note, and given no credit – verbally or monetarily – for the ideas of black artists. I am sure it has happened in other cultures, but my article happens to be about black music. Given all of the hard, factual, historical evidence of artists like Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys, and other white artists of that time, calling claims of appropriation “bogus” seems a little ridiculous, does it not?
      Thank you for reading and commenting!

  • Reply
    groovimus
    December 12, 2016 at 10:33 pm

    Whoa let’s back up. The copyright laws are there to remunerate all those people. You need to give examples of this large scale covering of songs without remuneration or credit, otherwise it’s just an old wives tale. You are saying the legal framework does not work here. And BTW as we have seen with white music, black artists have re-recorded their songs line for line, note for note (to re-formulate your sentence). Example: “This Masquerade”. Example: “Georgia On My Mind”. Examples: all the songs out of Tin Pan Alley. And I’m sorry honey but the Beach Boys were influenced by The Ventures and Bill Haley more than anyone, don’t for a minute claim surf music is black music stolen. The term ‘rock and roll’ was coined by Alan Freed, a white guy. This is why the whole cultural appropriation meme is so boring, because it is bogus. You can’t tell me whites had no influence on black music. Whites invented the even-tempered scale, music theory, and the instruments. And why are blacks recording songs written by whites? Why are you writing this piece? I could write a piece about higher education being invented by Europeans to advance science and mathematics. And so that all non-whites attending university need to appreciate Europeans and Euro-Americans big time and so I complain that they don’t. The only stupid reason to write a boring piece like that would be to somehow make myself feel good if I were stupid. The reason why cultural appropriation discussions are bogus is that they have to have an antagonist and that the antagonist has to have the wrong color skin. So that puts you in the position of complaining about someone’s skin color. If that’s what you really want to do.

    • Reply
      Hope Carter
      December 13, 2016 at 6:49 pm

      Well, “honey” (what a patronizing term, amirite? LOL), your comments, as a whole, make me wonder if you bothered to read the article at all, or if you read the title and immediately became irritated by what you assumed I was going to say. For example, I mentioned that blues was a fusion of European folksong AS WELL AS African folksong. So yes, I have even said that Black people have been influenced by European styles. I added, however, that by appropriating, we miss out on the heart behind the song, because those songs created in the Mississippi delta and the like were about the black experience. As far as your “point” about the Beach Boys, if you’ve ever listened to Chuck Berry, surf music takes an EXTREME amount of influence from his style. (Compare “Surfin U.S.A.” and “Sweet Little Sixteen, for example). To your “point” about a white man inventing the term “rock ‘n’ roll,” a white man (Marc Jacobs) invented the term “twisted mini-buns” as well – they just happen to actually be called Bantu knots, named after the way black women have been styling their hair for years, named after the way Bantu women in Africa wear their hair. That’s how cultural appropriation works – people slap a new name on an old idea and say they came up with it. As far as copyright laws go, history – not my article – has proven time and time again that black artists have gone unpaid and unlisted as composers because they were not well-represented. Money rules everything. Denying history by calling it “stupid” or “boring” or insinuating that people who write about historical facts are “stupid” is, in no way, helpful to a dialogue about it. If you were to write about Europeans inventing things, well, now that would just be redundant lol. I’m not sure what you mean by calling cultural appropriation a meme…it’s not just an idea or something that people make their children believe. There is proof that it happens all the time. My article is about black music. I wonder if you would be this upset if we were talking about Americans wearing Native American styles? Or American-born blacks wearing African prints? Would you still consider that “complaining about someone’s skin color?”

      Finally, why are you reading this piece if you are so bored? The last part of it mentions that no one is actually angry (expect maybe you) about appropriation, there are just better ways to appreciate or pay homage to cultures than ignoring them completely. If someone creates a more popular version of a song (like Ray Charles did with “Georgia On My Mind”) good for them! The original person or culture should still be credited with its inception. And like I said since, by your comments, you missed it the first time – appropriation happens when a DOMINANT culture takes an idea. It would be difficult to find a dominant minority. Thus, re-recordings by blacks, blacks using musical elements or instruments invented by whites…sounds like assimilation to the country they live in, does it not? But like I said, ain’t nobody mad about it. Just try not to love someone’s culture but hate the person. Black lives clearly matter since black music matters so much. (Also the point of my article that you missed.)

      Thank you for reading and commenting! Be blessed!

  • Reply
    Fletch Wiley
    December 13, 2016 at 7:08 pm

    While all of us who live and work in the music genre borrow/steal from artists that we admire (copying is how we learn to play), there ARE egregious examples of copyright theft. Here are some more popular examples:
    https://www.rawstory.com/2015/01/8-hit-songs-white-singers-ripped-off-from-black-musicians/

    Ms. Carter is one bright lady. Thanks girl!!!

    • Reply
      Hope Carter
      December 13, 2016 at 8:11 pm

      Thank you so much! 🙂

  • Reply
    Melissa Bautista
    December 14, 2016 at 7:19 am

    I thoroughly enjoyed this thread. Hope Carter, you’re so smart.

    • Reply
      Hope Carter
      December 16, 2016 at 11:12 pm

      Thank you!

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