Cultural… appropriation vs appreciation
A couple of days ago, singer Adele experienced kind of a mini-shit storm when she posted a picture of herself on Instagram at the Notting Hill Carnival in London. On it, the British singer wears a bikini top printed with a Jamaican flag, among other things. She has knotted her hair into Bantu Knots, a hairstyle that has its origins in the Black community. The accusation to which she then found herself exposed: cultural appropriation.
As a white British woman, it was not her place to braid her hair into Bantu Knots, since she was not Black and this type of hairstyle was part of the culture of the Black community. And as a carnival gag this was even worse, period.
That's the whole point, right? If it were that simple, it would be damn bad news for all of us. As well as for our ancestors and for the development of human culture in general.
Gone the days when we in Central and Northern Europe would sip a cappuccino or eat pizza. Both always been central elements of the Italian way of life. All jeans will have to leave the European and Asian closets, since these - originally miner's pants - are a brand essence of US-American clothing customs. And if there's one thing you can't do at a party in New York, London or Sao Paolo, it's karaoke, of course, an Asian pop cultural asset reserved for celebrants in Tokyo and Seoul exclusively.
Awful, how all of us are constantly committing cultural robbery.
But our ancestors were not any better. Shame on the Prussian grandmother and her canapé, which she had culturally tried to wrest from the French - in fact, the Prussians' dearest enemy. Disgrace at the Goths and Alemanni, who simply snatched Oriental Christianity for themselves. In their defense, one could argue that it was not always entirely voluntary. But at the end of the day that is true for at least half of all karaoke singers as well.
And, of course, one must not forget language. More than half of our supposedly German vocabulary was acquired by our Germanic ancestors from the Romans, who in turn shamelessly plundered the Hellenistic cultural heritage centuries before, and so on.
So everything completely normal?
Not at all. Because, as so often: it is complicated. Once again.
For it makes quite a difference whether a visual artist like Paul Gaugin is inspired by the expressions of indigenous artisans in the South Pacific, or whether a commercial football team is calling themselves "Washington Redskins" and misusing the Native American population as a clichéd logo for marketing purposes, thereby not only instrumentalizing stereotypes - in this case those of the noble and aggressive savage - but also further solidifying and trivializing them.
Got it. Commerce is bad, sure, we thought so anyway. F*** capitalism! Then it's not so complicated after all. Is it?
So what about Eminem, for example? The man has made more than a fortune with rap music, an undoubtedly Black music style. It couldn't be more commercial. Or is that inspiration a'la Gaugin again? After all, the French painter died in utter poverty. You can't exactly accuse him of commercialism.
"Appreciation" instead of "Appropriation"?
Which brings us back to Adele and her latest costume. The 15-fold Grammy winner can hardly be accused of using Bantu Knots to make (even more) profit from the culture of the Black community. So one can probably take it from her that it is more a matter of an acknowledging bow to culture. "Appreciation" instead of "Appropriation"? On the other hand, she has sold her 100 million records as a soul, jazz and R&B singer. Ain't that appropriation out of material greed after all?
You may have heard of Rachel Dolezal. The U.S. activist and instructor who is committed to cultural balance and who has led colleagues and friends to believe that she is a light-skinned black woman for most of her professional life, gave a simple and effective tip in her fascinating biography "In full Color" on how to avoid "cultural appropriation". One should, she writes, simply ask the respective cultural community from which one wants to borrow for permission.
Now it's pretty unlikely that Adele or Elvis Presley, Bill Haley or Amy Winehouse will have asked for permission from any African-American organization to use the blues and originally Black jazz as the basis for their world-successful musical styles. That's because, of course, such an institution does not exist, in the first place.
But one can safely assume that many of the early bands that gave birth to the first white Rock'n'Roll, R&B, later hip hop and rap stars etc. had numerous Black and Colored musicians on board who inspired their white colleagues, even taught and showed them a lot. And at the latest when Dewey Philipps on WHBQ Radio - a station that played Black music in the segregated Memphis of the 50s for a Black and white mixed community - gave Rock'n'Roll a kick-start, one can probably speak of the "accolade" with which the black community acknowledged this new, cultural mélange.
In Rachel Dolezal's book, it's a Black friend who helps her braid her long, straight hair ultimately making her look a lot like a Women of Color. By doing this, the girlfriend also gave her OK.
Who says that Adele doesn't have a friend like that who helped her with her "costume"?
As mentioned, it is complicated. There are no instructions for use, no clear set of rules. Just a few guidelines, at best. You need, as always when it comes to relationships between people: tact and sensitivity. And that‘s certainly true when criticizing.