For Black people, cultural theft and appropriation are but only a small percentage of what we have to endure as far as insults, infractions, and indignities are concerned. Yet, it is as insidious and damaging a practice as any other, one whose purpose is to systematically suppress the contributions and culture of a people, and eventually erase their presence from society altogether.
One need only look to current arts and entertainment to witness how prevalent the eradication has been, particularly in this time of racial upheaval. The Oscars and the Grammys have promised to reform their voting process and nominee qualifications in order to exhibit more diversity in their nominations; The Bachelor cast their first eligible Black male lead; actresses like Nicole Beharie, Samantha Ware, and Vanessa Morgan have spoken out about the dismissive and downright exclusionary attitude taken by their white colleagues on Sleepy Hollow, Glee, and Riverdale respectively; and Jenny Slate and Kristen Bell recently stepped down from their roles voicing Black female characters on Big Mouth and Central Park. The fact that all of this is occurring is more than enough evidence of the prolonged existence of these issues, despite arguments to the contrary.
Many non-Black individuals will claim that what celebrities like Ariana Grande and Kim Kardashian are doing is admiration at best and modification at worst. However, when it is done to the detriment of the preservation of Black culture, that presents a problem. People like Grande and Kardashian have benefited from the popularity of Black culture by wrapping it in a white package, making it more palatable to the masses. But now that they have made their fortunes many times over, do they owe anything to the Black community for becoming famous from wearing their ethnicity like a new weave and worse — supporting industries that are more than happy to push more deserving Black entertainers to the background or simply remove them completely? Or does benefiting off the back of another culture require no atonement?
Musical appropriation has endured since the early days of Elvis when the artist deftly snatched songs and sonic harmonies from Big Mama Thornton and Black churches. Elvis is considered a music icon and his legacy has largely remained untarnished, though some have questioned how much was owed to Black culture for his success.
Retrofitting Black music by adding white faces to appeal to the white masses was very common in the ’50s and ’60s. In that sense, it would be easy for some to just write off the practice, dismissing it as a relic of a less enlightened time. However, one look at the music charts disproves that thinking immediately. How many Black R&B artists are on the Billboard Hot 100? How many Black pop artists? Other than rappers, Black singers of other genres are largely absent from the list. If your name isn’t Beyonce or Rihanna, you basically have no chance in the pop realm. Yet white singers like Tori Kelly have enjoyed success on mainstream radio with their bluesy, R&B-influenced voices.
Then there’s Ariana Grande. She has (unnaturally) dark tan skin, speaks and sings in AAVE (African American Vernacular English), and many of her hit songs are written by Black artist Victoria Monet. In the ’90s and early 2000s, there was a diverse, active, chart-topping pool of Black female singers, many of whom clearly inspired and encapsulated Grande’s whole persona. But in an era where Hip-hop is king and streaming is paramount, industry executives appear to have given up on recruiting similar artists in favor of a “white is right” mentality that they no doubt find easier and more profitable.
It’s a similar modus operandi with Kim Kardashian. The Kardashians have submerged themselves in Black culture, with the braids, the butts, and the Black boyfriends. They, too, have not only profited through appropriation and theft but have done so with a blatant disregard for the people they have benefited from.
That is where a lot of my consternation lies. It’s bad enough to do it in the first place, but the complete absence of appreciation or respect for those you siphoned off of is completely galling.
Paul Mooney said it best: “Everybody wanna be a n—, but nobody wanna be a n—.” It’s fun and easy to invoke the artistry and mannerisms of Black people without all of the shootings, discrimination, and systematic poverty that comes along with it. It’s easy to not give credit because of indifference or prejudice.
There is a difference between appropriation and appreciation. Appreciation is making use of another’s culture in a positive way, without any mocking or mangling of its intrinsic elements. It’s showing respect for the people, the life they lead, and how that influences their craft, and it is acknowledging their role in creating and evolving the entertainment that you love. I believe that most people would not have a problem with some of these appropriators if they would just pay tribute to the people that have influenced them and acknowledge that their white privilege enabled their success.
In light of the current racial climate, some have been forced to seemingly reevaluate their beliefs and the role they play in influencing race relations in their everyday life. Justin Bieber wrote an Instagram post that addressed his career’s ties to Black Culture. He said,
“I am inspired by Black culture. I have benefited off of Black culture… I am committed to using my platform from this day forward to learn, to speak up about racial injustice and systematic oppression, and to identify ways to be part of much-needed change.”
It’s a little late, but at least he wrote it. And I find it an encouraging step forward — if it’s sincere.
Similarly, Lady Gaga made a Twitter post that proclaimed, “All music is Black music.”
Again, nice talk, but action is also needed. They need to recognize their privilege and work to bring more diversity into the music industry. They need to use their fame and status to help other people of color get opportunities where they could. We are owed recognition, equality, and opportunity. And we are finally making our voices heard and demanding what we deserve.
Some people appear to be listening and are having their own personal revelations about racial discrimination. But in the end, the only thing that matters is putting words to action and working within your circumstances to make things better.