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Cultural appropriation doesn’t exist!—No wait—yes, yep it absolutely does and it’s one of the many micro-aggressions that minority people's have been faci—no wait a minute, that’s just a word used to imply victimhood for groups of people who—wait wait wait wait wait...
None of these black-and-white opinions of cultural appropriation make a whole lot of sense to me. How many people have rushed to both ends of the spectrum on this issue based on their stance on previous matters? I’d like to explain why I think the term cultural appropriation is often used in situations far more innocuous than the word “appropriation” implies, but why it’s still important to recognize cultural appropriation when it does happen (oh yeah, and why I do think it does actually exist). Let’s take three instances of alleged cultural appropriation and see what they can teach us.
Led Zeppelin was a notorious thief of country blues music from Black and often poor blues singers. While their plagiarism is another story completely, what I would like to mention is the way in which they adapted those blues song into rock and roll. Rock and roll itself, of course, comes from the blues and I’ve found that many “blues-esque” songs by rock bands are often somewhat shallow compared to the blues themselves (this is coming from someone who actually likes rock n’ roll). For instance, the term “baby,” which got into popular culture through the blues and rock is now used as a light-hearted romantic or sexual term for one’s lover. But in many Black spirituals and early blues music, the term literally referred to one’s child, usually in the context of losing the child, whether from illness brought on by squalid living conditions or even having one’s child torn from their arms as they were sold to another master; the meaning had horrible, dark roots that spoke to one of the darkest aspects of being Black in this country. This is often how I’ve interpreted Led Zeppelin’s music; even when it sounds good, the soul of it is hollow, the feelings are vapid, the sadness is superficial (if they think not getting laid is bad...) and if I think about their complete lack of understanding for their roots my blood starts to boil. For me, it’s not so much the theft of music that annoys me so much as the blatant misunderstanding of the culture and history from which it came. So yeah, I think cultural appropriation does exist and it can range from annoying to completely despicable.
Here’s another example: though I am no longer very religious, I was raised as an orthodox Jew and I still enjoy a lot of Jewish music. One very popular song I learned growing up is called “Ki Va Moed,” the lyrics of which are from the Book of Psalms and are often accompanied by a Shlomo Carlebach melody, a very famous 20th century Rabbi and composer. Maybe it’s because of this that I was somewhat shocked to see this song preformed by a New Orleans choir, mainly in English and in a melody I didn’t recognize. My reaction, I’m embarrassed to say, was anger: this song is Jewish! How dare Christians take it from us, from me, and change it to suit their own needs? I was immediately offended by this innocuous action and viewed it as “yet another” instance of Christian appropriation of Jewish culture. It annoyed me in the same way that moronic caricatures of Jews that display a complete lack of understanding of my heritage do. I’m sure you can guess the end of this anecdote: a while later I decided to sit down and watch the performance of the Baptist choir that sang it. You know what? It was pretty good, the lyrics were nothing particularly different than the Hebrew and the music was soulful and well-performed. This is where I imagine a good number of instances of “cultural appropriation” come from: a visceral reaction one feels when something they thought was hidden within the folds of one's culture is found out and changed by “outsiders.” Right or wrong, the feeling is natural, though not necessarily correct.
One last instance that I think is a clear misuse of the concept of cultural appropriation to the point of uselessness. Some background: I happen to be a great fan of belly dancing. I find that this art form when done well can be powerfully moving and beautiful beyond words. My favorite dancer happens to be White (and also male, I highly recommend giving him a chance if you are at all interested in the art: Bagoas Dances). Though I have seen beautiful belly dancers of many colors and genders, I recently read a scathing article bitterly accusing White belly dancers of cultural appropriation, going so far as to call it “brown-face.” Being of Palestinian descent, this writer grew up watching many Arab belly dancers (and presumable engaged in the form herself, as many cultures do not regard belly dancing as a performance dance exclusively and it is often tied to social settings). You can see a parallel between this woman and I already: how dare women, whose ancestors and contemporaries put hers through hell, mock her culture by using belly dancing as nothing more than a stunt to gain sexual attention? Now, while I agree that many Americans are completely ignorant about the historical context of belly dance and regard it as a kind of exotic stripping, the purpose of which being to turn on men (a belief being very far from the truth indeed), she must know that there are dancers of all colors who love and appreciate belly dance for the art that it is?
No; she insisted that all White belly dancers should be ashamed of themselves and quit the craft entirely, even those who have dedicated years and decades of hard practice and commitment to it. She even stated that Arabs who teach belly dancing to White people are shamelessly dishonoring their heritage for a quick buck.
This is an extreme on the opposite side of the spectrum from the first example. First of all, what she doesn’t seem to know is that belly dancing has only been a part of Arabic culture since the mid-1900’s. The original Ghawazi dancers, who brought their form of Raqs Sharqi to Egypt, were a sub-group of the Dom people, a migratory group that left India some centuries before the Romani people. They used their unique brand of dancing in the streets for money and became very popular because of their unique and hypnotizing style.
(The Dom people, like the Romani, have a very high standard of modesty that would forbid them from taking off their clothes in public. Rather than dancing for the sultan himself as is commonly believed in the Occident, they were often invited to dance for his harem, entertaining the women, not the men. Today in many countries such as Turkey, brides will touch the womb of the belly dancer for good luck because the strength of the midsection symbolizes fertility.)
In light of this, it seems rather ironic that an Arab would complain about the cultural appropriation of belly dancing when that is essentially what the Egyptian Arab people did to belly dancing themselves. I don’t say that with any sense of regret, by the way. My life has been enriched by this dance form and I very likely would never have been exposed to it had it not caught fire in the far more populous Arabian culture. I see nothing wrong with her connection to belly dancing, but her short-sighted understanding of history coupled with her arrogance and anger at those she sees as oppressors (rightly or wrongly) is what makes her love of it tainted. Why spoil your love of something with the selfish hatred of all those who long to share it with you?
Now, to elaborate on her story, she illustrates one piece of her argument by mentioning that her brother was denied entrance into the United States from Palestine, where his living situation was no doubt perilous daily. Even as a Jew with strong cultural ties towards Israel, and an American living in general comfort and security, I can understand that her anger comes not from petulance but from a place of deep pain and helplessness. I know I would feel that way if my own little brother lived in such danger and confinement and I was powerless to get him the hell out of that situation. And I got mad about black people singing a Judeo-Christian song, for Christ's sake! How myopic and callous and thick would I have to be not to see the tragedy of the situation and understand that no feeling person could approach the topic with Vulcan-esque logic?
So here is what it seems to come down to: none of this is logical. It is all about emotions, deep feelings of love and tribalism and fear - and that’s okay. The unthoughtful mimicking of another’s culture without compassion or understanding is bound to hurt others, and those that do it not only spit in the faces of those who they do not understand, they also insult their history and the residue of that history that may haunt them in the present. The members of Led Zeppelin will never understand the suffering of their musical predecessors, and it seems that they have no intention to try. That is wrong: hurtful, vapid, and narrow-minded and I think that we can recognize this as an negative instance of cultural appropriation. However, when others are desperately trying to understand that culture because they see something lovely in it that they desire to empathize with, and it is hoarded by those who feel hurt (and understandably so), the tables of justice tilt slightly more level. How can you expect the proper respect due your culture if you refuse to share its glories? And how can you expect to learn about a culture by disregarding the pain and fear and goals and passions of those that compose that culture?