Columns: Appropriation is about recognizing inequity, not stifling inspiration


Appropriation is about recognizing inequity, not stifling inspiration


If you’re in the public eye, there are few things you fear more than being accused of cultural appropriation. In recent years, numerous corporations, celebrity chefs, fashion designers, musicians and runway models have all bitten the dust of appropriation. Upon sweeping the 2018 Grammy Awards and winning the coveted Album of the Year honour, Bruno Mars’s funk and his soul-inspired album became the latest artist to be scrutinized for cultural theft. The ballooning cost of streetwear and urban clothing brands that were once considered cheap is also frequently included in conversations about cultural appropriation.

Critics of appropriation argue that it stifles inspiration and knowledge exchange by making people, often white, fearful of producing work that is not culturally European. However, cultural appropriation is not about the work that is produced. The issue with cultural appropriation is when the art, cuisine, fashion or traditions of racialized peoples is used in ways that don’t build capacity or increase acceptance of the group whose culture is being “vultured”.

A great example of cultural appropriation is the growing adoption of Black hairstyles, such as high-top fades, braids with extensions, dreadlocks, as well as the use of colourfully patterned headwraps. This was epitomized at Marc Jacobs’ September 2016 fashion show, where white models donning his Spring 2017 line had dreadlocks. Since then, the debate over hair appropriation has persisted due to increasing popularity of dreadlocks and other “Black” hairstyles among non-Blacks, despite cases in which Black people have been shunned for their hair.

Indeed, just days after Marc Jacobs’ fashion show, a US federal court ruled Blacks could be fired for having dreadlocks, due to the hairstyle not being an immutable racial characteristic, but a choice. While I don’t have the energy or time to care what people do with their hair, I find it concerning that Black children and adults who have those hairstyles are being sent home from schools and disciplined in workplaces. It’s no coincidence that most cultural appropriation tends to impact groups like Blacks and Indigenous peoples, who are severely racialized in European and North American contexts.

Perhaps the best example of appropriation today is the evolution of streetwear from something associated with criminality into an emblem of luxury. More than two decades ago, N.W.A. made an appearance on the Arsenio Hall Show. Addressing their still-controversial song “Fuck tha Police”, more than two years after its initial release, group member MC Ren talked about how being Black in the US means being arbitrarily stopped because of how you dress. “In the ghetto or a Black community, you get harassed by the police just because of what you wear and nine times out of 10, you can’t help what you got on because that’s all your family can afford for you to wear. But they just stereotype you as a gang member.”

Only half of what Ren expressed a generation ago remains true today. Unfortunately, it’s the fact that urban clothing, such as baseball caps, jerseys, sweatshirts and pants that aren’t trousers, are still associated with criminality and a lack of class when worn by young Black males.

In the wake of police executions of Black males that have rocked Canada and the US over the past five years, there have been numerous stories about Black men wearing suits as a means of avoiding police scrutiny and keeping themselves alive. Again, the problem with cultural appropriation and streetwear is not that economically and racially-privileged groups are attracted to colourful bucket hats, classic sneakers, joggers and vintage sweatshirts. It’s when things as innocuous as clothing, cuisine, hairstyles and music instantly become positive and trendy because groups associated with beauty, cultural capital and wealth embrace what racialized peoples are stigmatized for.

As for Bruno Mars, music’s latest artist to be charged with cultural theft, I don’t believe his album and career has been one of appropriation. Firstly, he is doing the exact opposite of what most streetwear companies have done, or what a Brooklyn museum did last month by hiring two white curators of African art. Mars, who is heavily inspired by Black R&B and soul from the second-half of the 20th Century, has an all-Black band. Many of the producers and songwriters that joined him on stage when he accepted the Grammy for Album of the Year were Black. There is nothing wrong with knowledge exchange. Just be willing to pay and work with the people who inspire you.

As an artist, Mars has devoted himself to building-capacity and empowering people from the community that created the culture his work carries forward. That’s more than most restaurants serving artisanal fried chicken or boutiques selling pricey streetwear can say.

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