The term, cultural appropriation, has been tossed around in academic and activist circles for decades now, a complaint leveled against someone, usually white, who is creating something that supposedly derives from the products of a culture that the creator is not a part of. The latest to be accused of doing this is Bruno Mars, a singer whose genres, or so I gather, lie in the domains of modern popular music.
Mars might be accused of being an expression of appropriation, since his birth name is Peter Gene Hernandez, and his ancestors are Jewish, Puerto Rican, and Filipino, among other groups. But since he sings tunes that are classified as “funk, soul, R&B, reggae and hip-hop,” types of music that originated with African-Americans, he has been charged by YouTuber, Seren Sensei, of having taken “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.”
I must leave the music criticism to others, since his genres are not ones that I am particularly interested in, but the general concept of cultural appropriation is something that I wish to address. If one culture comes up with something, does that make the creation forever the intellectual property of members of that culture?
My answer is no. This does not come from a reactionary defensiveness. It is, instead, a recognition that culture is a complex subject, one that cannot be treated like personal property.
In a sense, for example, we are all appropriating culture. Written language was invented independently three times: in Sumeria, in China, and in Mesoamerica. In each of these cases, the systems of writing were borrowed by other cultures and expanded and refined into the means of passing culture on without the need for immediate contact. Unless the people making accusations of appropriation belong to one of those three cultures, they are committing the same wrong they see in others.
Now as I was told often as a child, two wrongs do not make a right, but my point here is to say that culture must be appropriated if it is to continue. Consider a fourth example of an independent writing system, the one created on Easter Island.
It uses an attractive script of what are assumed to be hieroglyphics, though to date, no one has been able to figure out what is meant. And that is what I am getting at. The culture of Easter Island fell due to causes that are beyond the scope of this essay, but the isolation imposed by being on a speck of land a long way from any other group of people made the indigenous writing system a dead end. It was not copied, and it is now silent and will remain so unless someone can interpret the texts.
One power of culture is its plasticity, its ability to be copied, adapted, and reinterpreted. Walling off a culture risks causing it to stagnate or go extinct. But this also reveals an assumption that culture is akin to property, something that a person can claim exclusive title to.
Is this a reasonable stance to take? As a writer, I appreciate protection of intellectual property, while at the same time understanding — and employing — the exceptions and nuances created by the doctrine of fair use, the protection of parody, criticism, reporting, and scholarship of someone else’s work. More broadly, to borrow an idea from the literary critic, Harold Bloom, each generation receives culture from their forebears and feels the anxiety of wanting to measure up to and exceed the achievements of the past. This drives a misreading — a reinterpretation and a rewriting — of the culture as we today make it our own.
As someone once said, and the idea has been used so often that the original source is hard to determine, good artists borrow, while great artists steal. This raises the question of who owns culture. A physical object — a painting, a piece of jewelry, a plot of land — can belong to one of us or to a group of us. What about ideas?
In a world of file sharing and remixing, claims about ownership of expression sounds so twentieth century, though saying that things have moved on does not make the direction a good one. the work that one person does to produce a creative act is something that all artists in any medium will sympathize with, as we will with claims of ownership, even if we have come to accept that the tide is flowing against us. But what could it mean to say that a whole culture does that work?
Works of art — using “art” in the broad sense to include music, writing, paintings, and so forth — can show participation in a culture. Art expresses the experiences, hopes, and criticisms of the creators who made it, and those people are a part of some larger group. If that group has been the target of bigotry and oppression, the works of art will at times reflect that history. And herein lies the heart of the complaints against what is perceived as cultural appropriation. Has Bruno Mars gone through the same experience that African Americans have in the United States? Since he is not black, literally speaking, no, he has not. It could be argued that as someone of Puerto Rican, Filipino, and Jewish descent, he has his own stories of ancestry to tell, but make things as congenial to the argument as possible. Pretend that he had been born one Burton Marshall — or Marshall Bruce Mathers or Robert Matthew Van Winkle. By any name, would any culture rightly have a claim against him for stealing their intellectual property?
I answered the question already, and I will add here that the question is itself misguided. If culture has a value, a purpose that goes beyond busywork, it is in distilling the experiences and learning of its participants to pass those on to the future. A possible valid criticism of Mars would be to say that he has not learned the lessons being taught by the music of African Americans or that he is using their cultural products to disparage them, if those apply. Singing songs in the genres of another group, by contrast, is an acknowledgment of that group’s work, and if done well, it a celebration of the same. This is especially the case today — unlike the 1950s when music producers used white performers to copy the styles of black musicians — since the cultural roots of a work of art are easy to identify, given the speed at which information — and culture itself — spreads across the globe.
Unlike genes that lead to speciation when enough changes have been introduced, memes — in the original sense of the word — and more generally cultures can be shared with others, no matter how much diversification occurs. And they continue to speak meaningfully to each other. This is a beauty of culture, one that should not be hidden under a bushel.