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Thursday, March 04, 2004  

Cultural appropriation: Who's music is it anyway?

Entertainment blogger Marty Dodge asked the question: Is the music biz racist? His reason for doing so was a report by the Black Music Congress which accused the music industry of favoring white performers of material from black cultures over black performers.

The music industry was charged with institutional racism at the Black Music Congress' debate, entitled 'Are white artists like Eminem, Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera appropriating black music?' held at City University London on January 31.

The perception was that the industry was keen to promote white artists performing black music, but reluctant to invest commensurate resources in black artists performing black music or specific types of black music. Although participants felt that white artists could participate within black music genres, so long as they acknowledged their sources and influences, there was however a view that there was a deliberate "political" and "racist" policy to sell black music styles with proven commercial potential using "safe" white faces.

Jazz musician Jamie Callum and soul singer Joss Stone were pointed out as examples - the former, a recipient of a reputed 1m pound record deal and huge marketing by the same company that didn't offer the same opportunities to the more innovative black jazz musician Courtney Pine, and the latter is currently receiving a major push performing a style that most black artists would not be allowed to perform because the gate-keepers of the industry view it as non-commercial and old-fashioned.

I've been giving some thought to the issue of 'cultural appropriation' in regard to literature and music. Let's consider music first. For the last few weeks I have been listening to The Soul Sessions, Joss Stone's virgin release. Stone, who was criticized by the Black Music Congress, a British group that monitors the music industry there, burst onto the contemporary music scene after winning a contest in her native England. She is now 16 and her second album will soon be released.

The Soul Sessions occurred when Stone met rhythm and blues musicians she had longed idolized in Florida and Philadelphia. Her intended debut material was set aside and she recorded several R&B gems under the tutelage of soul legend Betty Wright. The songs are impeccable. With a voice that can range from husky to ethereal, Stone covers material that is anything from delicate to gut bucket. I first heard her best known song, "Super Duper Love" over the sound system at a Starbucks. I was incapable of leaving until I had learned who the artist was by hassling one of the baristas. The number is that striking. Stone does equal justice to "The Chokin' Kind" and "Dirty Man." She blazes new territory with a wonderful reinterpretation of the White Stripes' "Fell in Love With a Boy."

Tom Moon, at Black Voices, caught up with Wright and asked her what she thought about her protege.

Do you have to be Black to possess that elusive quality known as "soul"?

R&B veteran Betty Wright, of "Clean Up Woman" fame, doesn't think so.

"I never looked at a person and said `that's a soul singer' judging by the color of their skin," says the 49-year-old artist, who is African-American. "I used to get so ticked by that thinking, you know, `if she's Black she sings soul and if she's White she sings pop.'"

Wright doesn't need to argue the point these days. All she has to do is put on "The Soul Sessions" (S-curve, 3 stars), the just-issued debut CD by Joss Stone that she helped produce.

Stone is a White 16-year-old from the English village of Devon. But when she sings Aretha Franklin or Carla Thomas, she sounds like one of those semi-anonymous background singers who, after serving up attitude on countless recordings from Detroit or Memphis, has emerged from the shadows with a few scores to settle. She has the natural voice, the crazy ad-lib skills, and an ability to project wisdom that is well beyond her years.

Should the blonde teenager, who knows very little about the culture from which the music she sings so well comes, be barred from performing it? I don't see how anyone who considers creativity a valuable contribution to all cultures can answer that question 'Yes.'

Duane, a commenter at Blogcritics, expressed an opinion I am tempted to reiterate.

I agree that it's important for musicians to recognize and acknowledge the origins of the music from which they benefit. On the other hand, I don't agree that race is all that relevant here. Once a musical form is created, it diffuses geographically and culturally. It gets diluted, augmented, twisted, parodied, improved, ruined, hybridized, merged...you name it. It has always been the case. For example, Franz Liszt "stole" Hungarian gypsy music and turned it into the Hungarian Rhapsodies (1840) with great success. You can't keep music in a bottle.

But, when one accepts such a rose colored glasses view of reality, it requires looking past the fact that most cultural appropriation has been one-sided -- the white and powerful taking from the colored and powerless. Furthermore, the appropriators have sometimes expressed scorn for the people whose culture they were taking their art from, such as Irishman Elvis Costello's infamous remarks years ago.

While touring the US in support of his Armed Forces album, Costello made the headlines after having an argument with Stephen Stills and Bonnie Bramlett where he stated that Ray Charles was "a blind, ignorant, nigger." Costello later recanted his racist remark and kept a low profile for the remainder of the seventies.

Maybe it is just me, but I don't find Costello's description of James Brown, "a jive ass nigger," heartwarming either.

The contempt in which many white people have held people of color, and many still do, doesn't just disappear because someone chooses to borrow from gypsy, African-American, Hispanic or some other culture. The sneering and the imitation can coexist. For that reason, I believe that cultural appropriation bears watching. An aspect of it that the well-meaning can do something about is making sure opportunities are equally available to artists of color. If there is a brown, red, yellow or black teenager who performs some musical form as well as Joss Stone, that performer is equally entitled to the support she has received. Only when equality in treatment occurs will cultural appropriation no longer be an issue.

10:00 AM