On culture appropriation, Bruno Mars and all that funky stuff….
Let’s get this out of the way, cultural appropriation is wrong. Why? Because it robs the members of the ‘robbed’ culture of their much deserved credit. Black music suffers the most from this phenomenon with many feeling aggrieved by what appears to be a system that loves black culture a lot more than it loves black people. However, the question posed in this piece is whether it is fair to dismiss every non-black act making black music as a culture appropriator?
So there’s been much debate in recent weeks about Bruno Mars and his 24K Magic album. His accusers make the case that he’s simply stolen from 80s and 90s R&B music without even bothering to add anything new – for what it’s worth, this writer thinks it is a great album. When musicians rip off other musicians/styles, their lack of authenticity cuts right through to the trained ear but in the case of 24K magic, I honestly have to say it sounds like the genuine article. But why shouldn’t it? Bruno himself aside, the team behind it are all black. Cultural appropriation is defined as the adoption of certain elements from another culture without the consent of the people who belong to that culture. Seeing as the production team in this case are black, one could argue that consent was obtained, rightt? Furthermore in receiving his Grammy award for the album, Mr Mars gave credit to and dedicated the award to Messrs Babyface, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis and Teddy Riley. What more can the man do? For the record, I think Mint Condition should have been thanked as well but that’s another matter, Jam & Lewis would do, same camp.
Do we ignore the fact that the vast majority of these ‘appropriators’ are invariably produced by black producers (who in many cases also write the songs)? So at least one black guy is still getting paid off the music. Not in any way saying that it’s okay as long as a black guy is making money, just making the point that it’s almost always black guys making the music anyway. Non-black musicians making black music opens up the music to larger audiences which can only be good for Black musicians and producers. Are Timbaland and Pharrell Williams supposed to turn down production jobs with Justin Timberlake? Should black musicians only make black music and others make other music?
The pertinent question is why it seems the market will not buy a Black artiste, yet would buy a similar album in droves from a non-black (typically white) artiste. That’s what we need to get to the root of. I don’t pretend to have the answer but I think a lot of it lays at the doors of the industry gatekeepers, i.e., the record labels and mainstream radio stations who determine what the people get to hear. Perhaps they know the market and society at large better than most, afterall they’ve been successful at catering to the people for decades. It’s always been my belief that the people buy what they hear. The psychology behind that, i.e., the groove, the melody, the hook, the moment, the memories, etc. could form a thesis all on its own.
It seems that the industry loves black music but would love it more if it came from a white artist. The truth is that the industry prioritises white music and so, if the so-called appropriators weren’t making black music, they’d probably still be hogging the airwaves anyway. Case in point, Ed Sheeran being named the Most Important Act In Black And Urban Music by the BBC in 2017. I mean, come on, never mind the appropriators, the man’s not even making black music yet he is deemed deserving of that award? All you need do is watch the TV talent shows to see the black singer get slated for sounding too black whilst the white singer with less soul is lauded for sounding oh so soulful. Maybe it’s the novelty, who knows? Maybe it’s time for black artistes to foray into rock and heavy metal, afterall, in a world of freedom and choice, there’s bound to be black musicians out there who would be into that type of music? If they exist they certainly are not big players in that market as I cannot name one.
Now, in defence of some of these so-called appropriators – not all of them, just the true ones – music is a universal language. If you grow up listening to a style of music, it becomes a part of you and when you start making music, it’s bound to come out in your ‘sound’. Bruno Mars revealed that at the age of 15, he was performing Babyface, Teddy Riley and Jam & Lewis songs on stage so is it any surprise that their influence comes out so strong in his music? If an artiste is into a certain style of music, he/she will try to create it and if he/she cannot create it (or create it well enough), he/she will find the people who can. Lest we forget though, the greatest selling R&B/Pop album of all time, Michael Jackson’s Thriller had many songs written by a white Mr Rod Temperton.
Which brings me onto the next point which is: what are we then supposed to do about the non-black artistes, songwriters and producers that have blessed us with some of the greatest R&B songs over the years? I’m talking the likes of Rod Temperton, Teena Marie, Jon B, Justin Timberlake, Average White Band, Rufus, Scott Storch, Eminem, Bobby Caldwell, Nick Martinelli (Loose Ends) and Steve Jolley & Tony Swain (Imagination). There is a phrase in the music business that goes, ‘music that cannot be denied’. The ability to make any style of music should not just be the preserve of a particular race, it surely comes down to its creator’s influences and musical talent. Musicians should be able to make whatever type of music they are inspired to make without fear of condemnation. If they’re not honest, the people will see right through them and they will pay the price. In my opinion, if non-black artistes were to stop making black music today, i’m not convinced the record buying public will suddenly start buying black. The problem is with society and it goes beyond the music.
Summarily, those that are guilty of of culture appropriation are known and I will not mention names here but it would be unfair to assert that every non-black musician that’s successful at making black music falls into that category. 24K Magic is a great piece of work, let’s cut the man some slack as this is no Elvis Presley scenario. Good music is good music, whoever made it. If the music is good, it cannot and it must not be denied. One love. Peace.Share: