The complexities of PoC artists coming under fire for cultural appropriation
Last month Washington DC musician Meshell Ndegeocelloone – one of black music’s longest-reigning virtuoso-sister groovemakers – kept it all the way funky when pricked about Bruno Mars sweeping up the Grammys big awards. “It’s karaoke,” she quipped, “With [the song] Finesse, in particular I think he was simply copying Bell Biv DeVoe.” Mars – a Hawaii-born artist whose mother is Filipina and father is Puerto Rican and Jewish – must be used to terms like ‘theft’ and ‘appropriation’ being tossed around when discussing his music.
Bruno Mars’ double-platinum album 24K Magic was released in late 2016 and it continued to envelop 2017 in his weightless rendering of 90s-era hip-hop and RnB. Some liken the sounds to Teddy Riley or, as Ndegeocello points out, the party music that made Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis household acts. Ndegeocello’s comments were followed by a video of writer and activist Seren Sensei arguing that Mars “plays up his racial ambiguity to cross genres” going viral, sparking one of the biggest debates about cultural appropriation in recent memory, with the likes of Charlie Wilson and Stevie Wonder coming to Mars’ defence.
If every conversation about cultural appropriation begins with an individual artist or group, then it must end with the socialised oppressive power dynamics permitting artistic theft in the form of non-accreditation, non-compensation, and erasure within the music industry.
After a promo trip to India to promote his new Adidas line, Hu Holi, Pharrell and the brand recently came under fire for capitalising on the Holi festivals traditions without proper accreditation. The shoes contain leather – which, as President of the Universal Society of Hinduism Rajan Zed pointed out – directly contradicts Hindu belief in the sanctity of the animal. Adidas stood pat on the shoes design and perspective, claiming that the footwear promotes a global platform to advocate for change. Tossing out buzzwords like “diversity,” “inclusion,” and “humanity” seems to be the reaction du jour to claims of appropriation. And there are very real voids when it comes to sufficient representation in the music and fashion industries, but to make Pharrell the harbinger for a larger conversation on Hinduism requires a baffling amount of gall.
The complex discussions that arise when PoC are accused of appropriation have followed Drake – who began his pop takeover by swiping the sounds of southern rappers, who magically learned patois for his occasional excursions into dancehall and who probably calls his homies “bruv” after linking with Giggs and Skepta. If we’re honest, it’s his proximity to blackness – Drake is a half-black, half-white Jew from Canada – that so often lets him off the hook.
Bruno Mars is just going to have to grin and bear the questions about cultural appropriation because they will not stop. Even if I disagree on our usage of the term to describe 24K Magic – black artists got paid and he routinely mentions his influences, who were also compensated – the visceral reaction of hearing a non-black voice performing black music warrants discussion. Because Mars does occupy a fun, loose, sexy space that black male RnB performers haven’t been allowed in quite some time. When it comes to men crooning these days, it’s a lot more pelvic thrust than cheeky choreography; more put-ons than prenatural charm. It’s that theft, the removal of the space for diverging forms of black male sexy, that hurts the most.