It has been four years since I first wrote about cultural appropriation – and four years since I swore I would never bother again. The conversation is a draining one, with genuine concerns regarding credit and what cultures are valued reduced to “so, what, I can’t eat curry now?” by the wilfully obtuse in comment sections.
Between then and now, a lot has happened. Katy Perry’s cornrow’s in the This Is How We Do video. Lucy Hale's slicked down baby hairs. Vanessa Anne Hudgens’ various bindis and quite literally countless white men with dreads. There have been more insensitive kids costumes chastised than I can count. Catwalks have raided global wardrobes for “the next big thing” that’s already existed for hundreds of years, on some sort of high-fashion colonial heist. They “discovered” native American headdresses, sikh turbans and Dutch wax cloth, and left behind brown people as potential models for their “new” wares. Rachel Dolezal was a thing. The Kardashian’s continued (they’ve done it all, from doobie wraps to bantu knots to braids, and are, at this point, a slicked baby hair's breadth away from donning actual blackface). Iggy Azalea eventually fell and was resurrected in the form of tween rapper, Bhad Bhabie. Nothing much has really changed – except the definition of what the issue actually is.
I’ve watched from the sidelines as the meaning of cultural appropriation has morphed into something that is more about knee-jerk reactions than a critical analysis of power dynamics. The goalposts have shifted so far from the original conversation about what cultural appropriation is that we’re at a point where we risk diluting its meaning entirely and putting an end to any meaningful conversation around it.
In a recent episode of The Grapevine, an online panel-style series that explores issues among black millennials, musician Bruno Mars found himself in the firing line under a new definition that has ruled him a culture vulture. A clip of the episode went viral, courtesy of writer Seren Sensei, who was passionately discussing her disdain for the artist.
"Bruno Mars 100 per cent is a cultural appropriator,” she says in the video. “He is not black, at all, and he plays up his racial ambiguity to cross genres. What Bruno Mars does is he takes pre-existing work and he just completely, word-for-word recreates it, extrapolates it. He does not create it, he does not improve upon it, he does not make it better. He's a karaoke singer, he's a wedding singer, he's the person you hire to do Michael Jackson and Prince covers. Yet Bruno Mars has an Album of the Year Grammy and Prince never won an Album of the Year Grammy.”
Incorrectly calling out Mars for cultural appropriation because he is a successful, respectful, non-black funk singer misses the worrying, wider point
Sensei’s points aren’t entirely incorrect. It’s true that it remains a travesty that Prince never won an Album of the Year Grammy. It’s true that Bruno Mars’ racial ambiguity is a large part of his popularity. But the fallacies in her argument far outweigh the sense. What she is talking about isn’t cultural appropriation – it’s the meeting of privilege and anti-blackness. The Cambridge dictionary defines cultural appropriation as "the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture” – and this simply isn’t what is happening in his case. And the misappropriation of the term is causing serious damage to the cause.
Unlike Katy Perry, the Kardashians and the numerous cases I’ve listed above, Mars continually pays homage to the black artists that paved the way, shouting out the likes of Teddy Riley, Babyface and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis during his Grammys acceptance speech.
"When you say ‘black music’, understand that you are talking about rock, jazz, R&B, reggae, funk, doo-wop, hip-hop and Motown," Mars said in his cover story in Latina magazine.
"Black people created it all. Being Puerto Rican, even salsa music stems back to the Motherland [Africa]. So, in my world, black music means everything. It’s what gives America its swag.”
Mars is under no illusion; he knows he isn’t a funk pioneer and never claims to be. He gives credit where it’s due. It’s not he who “plays up to his racial ambiguity” – it’s a society that wants black art from non-black artists. And, while that is dreadful, it’s not the fault of Bruno Mars.
Benefitting from relative privilege and enjoying aspects of other cultures doesn’t immediately make you guilty of cultural appropriation. Mars isn’t Miley Cyrus, who dropped her caricature of blackness like a hot potato when it stopped shifting records. Or Post Malone, who gives interviews to bemoan being a white man making rap, despite his meteoric rise within the genre. The problem is not and has never been simply being influenced by other cultures. It’s the denigration of other cultures, until they’re co-opted by someone else with a closer proximity to whiteness. It’s cloning with no acknowledgement of origin, or the privilege of being lauded the originator of what people have already been doing for years, simply because of the colour of your skin. It’s latching on to cultures for a quick “come up” and an attempt to add “edge”. It’s turning a blind eye to the luxury of being able to wear braids/bindis/hijabs/dreads without the negative repercussions ethnic minorities face for wearing the very same thing. It’s worsened when the media go on to accredit those appropriating as the genesis of these things.
So, incorrectly calling out Mars for cultural appropriation because he is a successful, respectful, non-black funk singer misses the worrying, wider point. Which is, why do we live in a society where the kind of music he makes is preferred to those it originated from?