Music

From Elvis to Iggy: Cultural appropriation should not be used for personal gain

Lately, the term “cultural appropriation” — when members of a certain culture adopt parts of another culture — has been thrown around in the media. The act is mainly perceived as controversial when dominant culture uses the cultural property of minority groups.

Examples include when people outside of the Rastafarian and black community wear dreadlocks, or the redesign and distribution of traditional Japanese kimonos in the fashion industry. One of the biggest problems with cultural appropriation is not only the blatant ignorance associated with it, but also how it separates groups of people who are seen using, wearing or doing the same thing. It’s an abstract concept, but the issues attached to it have been around for centuries, especially within the music industry.

We are currently living in a politically charged time, full of protests and calls for social justice. The music industry should portray the societal progression the world desperately calls for, not extort people’s cultures for personal gain.

Cultural appropriation in music goes as far back as the creation of jazz and blues in late 19th-century America. The genre has deep AfricanAmerican roots. What music history can fail to acknowledge is that the genre was originally created by black musicians to help them express their pain and struggle post-slavery. Elvis Presley, a white artist, took the blues, added some catchy lyrics and sultry dance moves and was crowned “The King” without ever recognizing the black musicians who created it in the first place. The worst part was that the significance of jazz and blues has disappeared throughout the years and most people don’t even know its historic origins.

The music industry’s relationship with cultural appropriation hasn’t changed much since. In 2004, Gwen Stefani split from No Doubt to have a solo career and created the Harajuku Girls. Harajuku is a neighborhood in Tokyo that is known for its over-the-top fashion and quirky residents. Stefani used these four female Japanese backup dancers dressed in traditional schoolgirl uniforms to add some originality and edge to her career. It worked, almost too well, and she ended up creating a clothing line and perfume. To make matters even worse, she named each of her dancers — Love, Angel, Music and Baby — like they were her pets. Though she has tried to explain that she admires the Harajuku culture, her continuous use and profit off of the Harajuku Girls clearly shows that she’s using this entire culture as a prop.

Indian culture has been specifically appropriated in recent years. In 2013, Iggy Azalea dressed in a sari and danced in a Bollywood-style for her music video, “Bounce.” Azalea inserted herself into various settings in India, stereotyping the Indian culture as some exotic place that would make her video seem unique. That same year, Selena Gomez performed her hit “Come and Get It” with a bindi — a traditional religious mark worn in the middle of the forehead — and was slammed by Hindu leaders. The single in itself uses traditional Indian vocals, and the performance was used to exotify herself and the song.

A few years later, Beyoncé and Coldplay’s music video for “Hymn for the Weekend” was under fire when Beyonce was seen in a sari, henna tattoos and traditional Indian jewelry. Colorful powder, like the one used during the Holi festival, is also thrown throughout the video. All of these examples in the music industry show how these artists are trying to profit themselves by using a different culture but what they fail to do are show the true meanings behind these cultural artifacts.

There’s a difference between admiration and appropriation. It is OK to appreciate and learn about various cultures. However, taking part of a culture for personal benefit is unacceptable. When Korean pop stars wear cornrows, they do not recognize the deeper societal meaning that this hairstyle has on the black community. Musicians and other people in the spotlight need to learn that selling a part of one’s culture is intolerable, especially since they often serve as role models to many young people.

Christine Chung is a senior communication and rhetorical studies major. Her column appears weekly in Pulp. She can be reached at chchun02@syr.edu.

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