Skip to main content
A Magazine for
Sound

Cultural Appropriation in Music.

There's the long-lasting 'debate about aura', writes Louise Gray in the brief but insightful No Nonsense Guide to World Music: 'Each sound, each idea, they all have porous boundaries... Insist[ing] on the very existence of the authentic experience becomes an exercise in pursuit of a dubious purity'. In reference to the search for authenticity Gray cites ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax's recordings of bluesmen in the deep south. Including interviews with the likes of Woodie Guthrie, Jelly Roll Morton and Muddy Waters, Lomax's work was characterised by many during the civil rights movement as adopting a romanticised and patronising approach to non-white music. Despite some naive and reasonably offensive notes in his writings - trying to capture southern, black dialect on paper when you yourself aren't black is a BIG no-no apparently - Lomax's intention wasn't to stuff the musicians and put them on display in a museum, but to document and promote the recordings of these formerly unheard musicians. What can possibly be wrong with that? Exposure for an otherwise obscure type of music is one thing, but blindly cashing in on cultural trends and selling exoticism is another. Which brings me onto our modern day answer to Alan Lomax - Diplo. To some, Diplo is at the forefront of the world dance music onslaught, but to others he's a villainous thief. Would you know about Baltimore bounce, Baile funk and Kuduro unless it was put into a slightly more accessible and relatable format? I'm going go out on a limb and say no. I probably wouldn't have heard about a vast selection of 'world dance music' if I hadn't initially heard anything by Diplo or MIA. Latino DJ Iceberg Venus X had started a Twitter battle after catching Diplo filming one of her sets, which instigated a number of articles taking issue with Diplo's use and disposal of certain artists on his Mad Decent label. Maluca and Iceberg Venus X can't afford to pay their rent while he rakes in the dollars, and as a result Diplo Columbus has been accused of giving his proteges a leg up but not helping them over the other side of the wall. I'm not fanatically precious about who plays what sort of music, but there exists an instinct to avoid artists that might be obvious musical colonisers and a desire to preserve what makes some scenes unique. Should every musician that has ever played or taken elements of music that they don't have a cultural or racial affinity with be worried about being accused of exploitation? Probably not. As long as they show some sort of appreciation for musical sources then the issue of entitlement shouldn't really be a big deal. Damon Albarn's DRC music project for Oxfam is one such good egg. Mr Blur took a selection of producers to the Democratic Republic of Congo (including Actress, Jneiro Jarel, Dan the Automator and Kwes) and spent ten days recording an album with Congolese musicians to encourage collaboration between western and non-western music that doesn't leave the cheesy aftertaste of most charity singles. I went to a Critical Beats talk on globalisation and localisation in dance music last month which had all of the ingredients of an engaging insight into the geography of start-up scenes. But, like most cultural ramblings (yes, I include myself in this), it turned out to be a bit confused and pretty redundant. The panel included Soul Jazz Records founder Stuart Baker, music critic/producer/Rinse FM DJ Martin 'Blackdown' Clark and George Mahood, editor of Big Daddy magazine. Recorded versions of the discussion should be available to watch online soon enough. I can't avoid pointing out the elephant in the room. It was essentially three well-spoken white men (and an elephant) sitting at a table talking about the roots of house, dancehall, hip hop and dubstep. I'm not questioning their individual contributions to promoting the scenes they're associated with, but the panel quietly skirted around the issue of race and socio-economics. I was a bit confused as to how they managed to avoid these topics when they seem to be big factors in determining why and where certain music scenes erupt. Particularly big factors are the places that the scenes discussed originated: Detroit, the Bronx, Jamaica and Croydon. Although the panel didn't reach any groundbreaking conclusions, Clark made a good point when everyone's favourite public enemy #1 Skrillex slithered into conversation. Unexpectedly for someone who seems so dedicated to the origins of dubstep and would use any opportunity to namedrop or slip in a DMZ anecdote, Clark said it wasn't the responsibility of Skrillex fans to look into the past and seek out the origins of the genre. There was no obligation for American teenybopper converts to dig for original pirate radio tapes showcasing the nation's beloved wobbly folk music tradition. There is also the well-worn argument over the impact on the 'indigenous' scenes afterwards, the output of which might not be the same. Like most relativist angles, the idea of putting any cultural practice on a pedestal and stunting its growth can seem patronising. Should these 'indigenous' scenes stay the same or evolve as is generally expected of our own culture? One of the most extraordinary things about British music is that we don't have anything that truly defines our output. A bit like our cuisine, it's a mish mash of everything, mainly down to the fact that we're the ones stealing from other cultures. Sticking to what might be considered traditionally British would be so bland that taking elements from other cultures and embedding them into our culture is a necessary evil. Anyone who has had a look at the now defunct BNP online shop can probably attest to that. There are many who aren't fortunate enough to have been brought up in a diverse environment with exposure to original, undiluted material. Most folks will gradually look into these in more depth, but it's also an unfortunate truth that many won't, and will continue to live a hollow existence without knowing that the hummings on Peter Gabriel's finest work were sampled from the traditional mating ritual of a tribe in Papau New Guinea. Curses on those who continue to feed the belly of the slave master. More rants about cultural imperialism and Diplo bashing can be found here. )

Next article in issue 46

Collect / Lau / The Lemonheads / The Bootleg Beatles

10th December. DLS. Reviewer - Clare Whitty. Collect has come a long way in the last two years. From free house parties in a small studio ne…

10th December.
DLS.
Reviewer - Clare Whitty.
Collect has come a long way in the last two years. From free house parties in a small studio ne

More Music

Compassion Through Algorithms Vol. II

Charity compilation featuring 65daysofstatic and Leafcutter John is raising money for Young Minds Together, a music and performance community group for Black girls in Rotherham.

More Music