Cultural Appropriation in Music. Is it problematic?

“Cultural Appropriation”, two words that make people feel something. You have people in different camps when it comes to exploring culture. There are some who are very open to people outside a culture exploring other cultures. There are others who are quite closed off and wish for people to approach it with caution and consciousness. And there are many people who take nuanced approaches in between. I err on the more open side to things. Being of Venezuelan descent, people forget that Venezuela exists so when I see people who have an interest in the country, I’m surprised and happy.

In this blog post, I’ll be focusing on the “appropriation” (really just cultural exchange) of music genres invented by Black Americans and Caribbean people like R&B, Soul, Reggae, and Ska. There are many more cultures that classic rock has borrowed from, but these will be the main focus for this blog post.

You might have seen artists such as Bruno Mars and Ariana Grande being accused of appropriating “traditionally black music”. Can you appropriate a music genre? Can an ethnicity own music genres? Let’s explore. 

What is Cultural Appropriation?

What is cultural appropriation anyway? Isn’t that one of those terms that people on Tumblr invented? No. It is a real term that academics use. I found a basic definition from the blog post on SonicBids:

“In short, cultural appropriation is taking historically and emotionally significant elements from often marginalised cultures without the understanding of these elements.”

Is music historically and emotionally significant? Yes, pop culture is a big part of history and music evokes memories of happy or sad times. Are black people marginalised? Yes, in many parts of the world. Do musicians not have an understanding or an appreciation of the roots/ancestors of rock and roll: blues, jazz, gospel, and spirituals? Some do and some don’t. As time goes on, people feel more disconnected with eras of the past.

Rock and roll has evolved and changed over the years. I like to think of it like building blocks or playing tennis. The foundation of rock and roll is Black American and many people from all ethnicities and all parts of the world built upon it, creating new styles, taking it to new places, adapting it and mixing it with their own unique experiences and cultures. So many people made rock and roll what we know it as now. Music shouldn’t be static, it would be boring. I think of it like tennis because the ball bounces back and forth and it’s an exchange between people inside and outside the culture rock and roll came from.

Is it really that important to have an understanding of the history of music? I think if you’re a musician, it’s very important, especially so you can give credit to those who inspired you. On the listener side of things, at the end of the day, most people like music, but they’re not aficionados or connoisseurs. People just want to listen to something that fits the mood and entertains them: whether they’re happy, sad, want to party, or looking for stuff to play in the background.

As someone who runs a classic rock blog that looks at it through a lens of diversity of people and sound, I think you get even more of an appreciation for the music, when you know the background. We also need to talk about the important musicians of yesteryear because they shouldn’t be forgotten. Some musicians of the past are still remembered, but it’s only a sliver of the music that was released. You’re missing out if you only listen to the biggest hits. A lot of deeper cuts are worth the listen. This is why I say classic rock is more than meets the eye and ear.

Why is Cultural Appropriation a problem?

You might ask, “Does this mean my favourite musicians are racist?” The simple answer is no, not because they like music from other cultures. I remember seeing on Tumblr someone calling John Lennon problematic because he apparently “stole music from artists of colour”* and “appropriated Indian culture”.

*Note: The term people of colour kind of bothers me because it isn’t specific. Say black musicians if you only mean black musicians

That’s not the only ignorance I’ve seen about the issue of “cultural appropriation” in music. Don’t listen to random people on Tumblr. They don’t know what they’re talking about and they push reasonable people into the opposite direction. When you have a nuanced discussion like T1J or Contrapoints have on the subject, reasonable people can come to an understanding. Both of their videos are excellent and thought provoking.

Straight away, I can tell this person knows nothing about The Beatles. Firstly, because The Beatles always acknowledged their influences and gave credit (unlike Led Zeppelin, sorry not sorry) to artists like Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Larry Williams, Fats Domino, and many black girl groups.

John Lennon released an album in 1974 called Rock ’n’ Roll, full of covers of songs that influenced his sound. Paul McCartney said in an interview in 1968 that Chuck Berry was an influence on “Back in the USSR” and Jamaican reggae music inspired “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da”. In this 1968 interview, George Harrison talked about his admiration of Little Richard, saying that he’d love to work with him.

From when they first arrived in America and skyrocketed to global fame, they’ve acknowledged the part American rock and roll from both black and white musicians played on their sound. They never claimed to have invented rock and roll. Some fans act like The Beatles invented rock, but remember not to attribute stupid stuff fans say about the musicians to the musicians.

Q: “Have you been influenced by any one American artist?”

GEORGE: ‘In the early days it was Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Buddy Holly. But there’s no one we tried to copy.’”

Any real Beatles fan would know it was George who was the one really into Indian culture. Ravi Shankar taught him to play sitar. George converted to Hinduism. That was not John Lennon.

Reading articles on the issue of cultural appropriation, they all seem to come to the same conclusion of what the problem with it is. The dominant, majority culture marginalises a minority culture, but is perfectly happy to take whatever things they want from their culture. Sometimes even taking credit for it.

People sometimes see it as mockery, people being performative about their love of another culture, people treating culture like a costume, trivialising it and creating double standards – like “everyone wants to be black, until it’s time to be black”.

There’s also an understandable anger over bands like Led Zeppelin, who ripped off a bunch of old blues songs and put their names as songwriting credits. Did they ever cite black American blues musicians as influences? Publicly, they’ve admitted stealing these songs. Of course, the original musicians deserve credit and should make money off of these influential pieces.

This doesn’t mean that Led Zeppelin are “literally Hitler.” We should acknowledge that they were wrong to rip off these blues songs by Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf. I still love their spin on the blues and how they shaped early metal. There’s nothing wrong with covering old songs, just give proper credit. Plenty of other bands did. Can’t deny that they had a lot of influence though. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Led Zeppelin got a lot of people into the blues, possibly being a lot of people’s earliest exposures to it. Naturally, peoples’ curiosity is piqued and some people want to learn more.

Is there another way of seeing this? Are we misdirecting our anger? Sometimes musicians don’t get much of a say in what they do. I don’t think it’s a random white person’s fault that dreadlocks or cornrows are seen as unprofessional, but rather it’s the racist employers’ faults. I also think we need to treat everyone as an individual and find out what their perspectives really are.

One book called Neo-slave Narratives: Studies in the Social Logic of a Literary Form said this:

“Alice Walker drew a portrait of an anguished white musician who achieved fame and fortune as a singer of a black songs that haunted him because he could never fully understand them. In the nonfictional world, LeRoi Jones called this form of appropriation ‘Stealing music… stealing energy (lives)’ and transforming it into ‘White Music.’ The Rolling Stones and Beatles, for instance, ‘steals’ and ‘minstrelises’ because black music is the only soulful music in the Western world. Their material success notwithstanding, Jones believes they have failed to achieve authenticity.”

I think there is some validity in this quote, but I wouldn’t call The Rolling Stones or The Beatles minstrels. They were just singing the music they loved, taking inspiration, and taking rock and roll to new levels, inspiring the next generation of rockers. If you cover a song and give credit, that’s not stealing. Without The Beatles and The Stones, rock and roll wouldn’t be the same. Black musicians covered songs from white rock musicians and put a different spin on the songs and that’s how it all works. Cultural exchange, it’s beautiful!

Who might have been accused of it back in the day?

So we ended the last section talking about how The Beatles and Stones were being called minstrels in this one book. Who else would have been accused of cultural appropriation back in the day? Did people even care much about cultural appropriation back then? I surmise that there were more pressing issues at hand like segregation, discrimination, equal rights, so there wasn’t time to be concerned about more trivial things like music. I also have a feeling that generally speaking, younger generations and diaspora think differently from older generations and first generation immigrants when it comes to cultural appropriation.

I think that maybe the whole sitar and raga rock trend of the late 60s psychedelic era might have been considered cultural appropriation. Or white musicians borrowing reggae and ska sound and incorporating it into rock. Or rock stars trying their hands at hip hop and disco.

But I really think what would be seen as the most serious cultural appropriation would have been the “Blue Eyed Soul” scene in the 60s. Blue Eyed Soul is a term used for R&B and soul music performed by white musicians. For example, musicians like Dusty Springfield, Eric Burdon, Janis Joplin, Steve Winwood, Steve Marriott, Van Morrison, Felix Cavaliere, David Bowie (Thin White Duke era), Average White Band, and Kevin Rowland of Dexys Midnight Runners.

Recently, Australian rapper Iggy Azalea was under fire for her rapping voice, called a “blaccent”.

What is a black accent though? Jamaican accents, Haitian accents, Dominican accents, West African accents, and Southern American accents all sound different. Black people have all kinds of accents. Accents are based on where you’re raised. Race doesn’t really have a role in your accent, but upbringing and first language do.

Hip hop is in the mainstream now so you can expect people from all over the world to listen to it, emulate it, and put their own spin on it. Personally, I’m not offended by Iggy Azalea’s voice, but I think that her image seems pretty manufactured. When you have a manufactured image, it looks more silly if anything.

I don’t think that the blue eyed soul musicians are anything like Iggy Azalea. I think they’re much more authentic with their sound and aren’t afraid to be real about who influenced them and their sound. They don’t make any secret of it and they’re not going to pretend to be something else. They’re not cultural appropriators. It’s cultural exchange and I’ll show you a few examples.

The Spencer Davis Group with Steve Winwood on lead vocals, covered ska musician Jackie Edwards’ “Keep On Running” and “Somebody Help Me”, “Every Little Bit Hurts” (originally sung by Brenda Holloway), and “Georgia On My Mind” (made famous by Ray Charles, who Steve Winwood was always compared to and acknowledges as an influence). Their most famous song, “Gimme Some Lovin’” was an original composition written by Steve Winwood, Muff Winwood, and Spencer Davis. That song isn’t appropriation. It’s a blend of British Invasion and R&B.

Dusty Springfield tried her hand at blue eyed soul when she recorded Dusty in Memphis. You can really hear the influence R&B had on her sound in the hit “Son of a Preacher Man”, where she sings with a bit of a southern twang. R&B girl group The Sweet Inspirations contributed backing vocals on this album. They worked with a lot of famous musicians like Van Morrison, Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, Wilson Pickett, and more. Instrumental band Memphis Cats also contributed. They previously worked with Wilson Pickett, King Curtis, and Elvis.

Eric Burdon was born in Newcastle, in the north of England to a working class family. He got into blues music when he saw Louis Armstrong performing on TV. In 1962, he joined the Alan Price Rhythm & Blues Combo, which later changed their name to The Animals. Their sound combined American rock sounds with electric blues and they rose to fame being one of the biggest British Invasion acts. Like a lot of British Invasion acts, they’d do covers of blues and American folk songs. You definitely know their version of “The House of the Rising Sun”. Some blues covers they did include: “Boom Boom” (John Lee Hooker cover), “Dimples” (John Lee Hooker cover), “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” (Nina Simone cover), and “Bring it on Home to Me” (Sam Cooke cover). Burdon later joined the funk band War, recording the albums Eric Burdon Declares “War” and The Black Man’s Burdon. The band had a multiracial lineup and played music that was a mix of their favourite genres: funk, soul, rock, Latin music, and jazz.

Examples of Cultural Exchange in the Classic Rock Era

Now, let’s go into some more examples of cultural exchange in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. There’s another common misconception, that Motown didn’t sign any white musicians. Yes, Motown is a black owned and founded record label who signed many important black musicians, but to say that only black musicians were signed to Motown and that white people singing R&B is offensive is incorrect. Keep in mind that Motown are a business and their goal is to make money, and they don’t care what race people are.

Motown signed some white R&B musicians like R. Dean Taylor, Chris Clark, and Debbie Dean. Motown also had a record label called Rare Earth Records that released rock music. Rare Earth released albums by the band Rare Earth (who they were named after), XIT, Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons, and The Pretty Things.

Soul music spoke to everyone. It’s music after all. Not all soul musicians and songs made it big in the US, but there were some who got a cult following thanks to the Northern Soul scene in England in the 70s and 80s. Teenagers and young adults in the north of England would dance in clubs like the Wigan Casino, Blackpool Mecca, The Torch in Stoke-on-Trent, and the Twisted Wheel in Manchester. The scene had so much impact that these songs would make the charts in the UK years after their original release. Soul musicians embraced this revival in popularity and toured in the UK. What would have been amazing to see, a missed opportunity for sure, was Soul Train to travel over to England to check out the Northern Soul scene there: dance battles, live performances from Northern Soul favourite musicians. That would have been amazing to see. There was a short-lived Soul Train UK edition in the 80s, but it didn’t really go anywhere.

Staying in England, you have the 2 tone ska scene in the 80s. The sound of 2 tone was a marriage between ska and punk, and a precursor of 90s ska punk. Many of these bands were mutliracial, with both black and white members. However, this wasn’t the first time that there were multiracial bands in England. In the 60s, The Equals and The Foundations had some success. Examples of multiracial 80s ska bands include: The Specials, The Selecter, The Beat, and The Bodysnatchers. The Two Tone scene united people of all backgrounds. Who are you to say what music someone can play and listen to? It’s just music. Have fun!

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