Cultural (mis)appropriation

As usual, @Humbabella says some things better than I could:

¡Ask a Mexican! tackles BurritoGate


I’m trying not to be flip here, but that’s a dangerously naive conception of the history of white appropriation of black music. Made more money? Like, for real? So they got two pennies instead of one, Elvis is the king of rock n roll, not Chuck Berry.

Whites made an overwhelming share of the wealth generated by black musicians and black music.


I’ve heard a lot of stories about cultural appropriation recently and they generally seem to paint it as a very frivolous issue. But cultural appropriation is a real problem that we should really be concerned about, even if this isn’t an example of it.

I was watching a kids show on Netflix with my daughter called Tinga Tinga Tales that related traditional stories about things like why the elephant has a long nose or why a porcupine has quills. It’s named Tinga Tinga tales because its art style is based on tingatinga art from Tanzania. The show is produced in Kenya in cooperation with the BBC and works with tingatinga artists.

So it’s a TV show about African folk tales made for a British audience, but it’s made by people who grew up with those folk tales and using art of artists who are also from the same region.

When I was a kid, if you watched a TV show about indigenous folklore in Canada, you could place a pretty hefty bet that it was made by a bunch of white dudes who heard the story once and thought it was cool but were presenting it without consulting (let alone hiring) people from the culture that produced the story.

Folklore and traditional music often have context that goes beyond what a visitor will hear on their first listen. By presenting them without looping back to the people who know them, you may be effectively defacing them. Also, doing so for profit without sharing that profit with the people you owe your knowledge to is sleazy colonial bullshit.

So I’m not worried about Starbucks serving matcha lattes, but I’d be pretty concerned if they started advertising traditional Japanese tea ceremonies. (Are they working with people who can teach the significance of the ceremony and it’s parts? Are employees really going to be trained to do it right in a way that respects the culture? Even if they are, isn’t the net result just a bunch of people gawking at an objectification of Japanese culture rather than appreciating it?) So it can happen with food too, it’s just that the food has to have a cultural significance, rather than just being what people put in their mouths to stay alive in a region (no one worries about culturally appropriating rice or wheat).

I care about cultural appropriation, and I hope that we can recognize that it’s a bad thing even while we agree that selling Burritos in Portland isn’t a problem.


The tea ceremony was originally developed as zen tool for truly appreciating the wondrous nature of mundane actions like boiling water and seeping tea leaves. It’s transformation into a highly ritualized performance is arguably an error and deviation in itself. So why is it necessary to involve someone explaining the cultural significance and context of the bastardized version?

And thus we come back to the question of: “what authenticity?”


I sometimes think that Cultural Appropriation was something created by either people looking to make the left look bad or people who just wanted something to gripe about.

It is where cultures clash and are remixed where interesting things happen, both in food and in music. That is not a bad thing. There are people who get off on complaining about some Moral Outrage (or Poutrage), yet still eat in Chinese restaurants staffed by Mexicans in the kitchen.

Now I will go back to listening to Japanese Klesmer music.


So, the two choices are completely ignore black music, or appropriate it?

There were many white musicians who did neither.

Ahaha less money than what? They were treated like shit.

No they wouldn’t. Are white people accused of racism for ignoring the various rich traditions in Asian music?

Paul Whiteman’s music wasn’t really jazz, but orchestral jazz,* sanitized for white people’s consumption. It didn’t damage black culture, per se, but created a watered down substitute that was used in its stead. Black culture continued regardless, but not like its watered down substitute.

*no disrespect intended toward Third Stream


Almost any argument for the existence of appropriation is based on incomplete knowledge of the history of the subject. There is just too much cultural exchange over too long a period to simplify things this way.

Chuck Berry was a very talented musician. But his big break was his recording of “Maybelline”, which was a version of “Ida Red” popularized in 1938 by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, but first recorded in 1924 by Cowan Powers, pictured below:

The Bob Wills version used lyrics from “Sunday Night” by Frederick Root (1878)
An Appalachian tune with lyrics by a Boston songwriter, Turned into Swing by Bob Wills, and into Rock and Roll by Chuck Berry.

Elvis had a huge 1956 hit in “Hound Dog”. Big Mama Thornton released a fabulous version of the song in 1953. But Elvis recorded the song after seeing a version of it covered by Freddy Bell and the Bellboys. “Hound dog” was written by Lieber and Stoller, a Jewish songwriting duo from L.A.

And the people who wrote those songs were inspired by others, bouncing back between cultures forever. Rock and Roll would never have been invented in Either Europe nor Africa. It was a product of cultural exchange. Like almost everything else.



So you think there is such a thing as cultural appropriation? If so, do you agree that it’s an egregious form of behavior? And can you provide an example?


When you write “I’d be pretty concerned if [Starbucks] started advertising traditional Japanese tea ceremonies. (Are they working with people who can teach the significance of the ceremony and it’s parts? Are employees really going to be trained to do it right in a way that respects the culture?” I wonder if you have a working definition of (a) who gets to decide who are “people who can teach the significance,” and (b) what “respects the culture” means? For example, in the US, we have a constitutionally enshrined right to parody and satirize—i.e. US culture is, arguably, based partly on a healthy appreciation for disrespect.

What is a respectful way for non-US folks to respect our culture of disrespect?

Who gets to decide that?

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You mean the song he was contractually obligated to play based on the tastes of Leonard Chess?

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This is true.

However, it is also true that these white musicians were some of the most highly visible allies of black people during the 50s and 60s- From Elvis having the clout to demand that his black backing players were treated the same as his white ones, to Buddy Holly introducing white audiences to Bo Diddley and Ray Charles, to the Beatles refusing to play to segregated audiences. Being in a mixed race rock and roll band was probably the first time black people were really able to walk into a white establishment and demand to be treated as equals.

Obviously, it wasn’t all roses, but still- It made white people open doors.


Meanwhile in Canada…

Its an interesting issue… and one I’m not so keen to dismiss out of hand.

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Do you generally go around blanckely assuming other people don’t know these things?

I’m not a music historian, for sure, but I am a musician who happens to appreciate the history that came before me and specifically I look to understand how the evolution of music allows me to do what I do.

Or do you really just feel that white people need yet another person to defend them? You certainly didn’t address the larger point of my comment, which is that whites exploited black musicians and black music for mostly their own benefit, while excluding them from the wealth generated from it.




No, working from a definition usually works against understanding something. Like teaching to the test or trying to improve the metric instead of the thing you were trying to measure.

I don’t see any even vague analogy between cultural appropriate and parody. If disrespect itself is cherished, where are all the cherished people walking down the street screaming swear words at old women? Or the cherished people standing in groups to flip off public school teachers when they leave work?

Surely it isn’t disrespect itself that is valued.

I’m definitely from a culture that values taking public institutions and traditions to task. But if you decide to do that to the institutions and traditions of another culture that you don’t really understand, you stop being an irreverent questioner of the status quo and start being an insufferable know-it-all (at best). And cultural appropriation isn’t that at all, it has nothing to do with parody. It’s about putting something on display like it’s part of a freak show, usually for profit.

Who gets to decide anything? We’re basically discussing what is and what is not a dick move. I don’t mean to be flippant about the harm that cultural appropriation can do (I’d describe many murders “dick moves” too), but unless there is or has ever been a higher moral authority we can turn to to figure this stuff out, we’re just muddling through it.

I guess I wonder: If you saw Starbucks was starting to offer “traditional Japanese tea ceremonies” and Japanese Americans said, “That’s bullshit, the stuff they’re doing is basically a mockery of a real tea ceremony.” Would you think Starbucks was being pretty dickish by passing off their bullshit as a cultural tradition?


Yes, I know, but you’re simplifying the situation too. White-owned record companies made an overwhelming share of the wealth generated by white musicians too (this is just the nature of record company accounting-- they will charge anything back to the artist.) Plus, when some black artists did quite well “two pennies instead of one” is the difference between $2 million and $1 million.

The history of recorded music is one of record companies and artists all learning as they went along, it was all new territory in 1920, so The Carter Family could take any folk song, black or white, and claim copyright on it-- that wouldn’t fly today, when any musician is wise to lawyer up as soon as MCA or Sony comes calling.

I’m not defending the crimes of record companies, but there’s more to it than just lawyers and accountants ripping off artists. Chuck Berry got robbed of royalties, but the nature of the business means a hit record = bigger venues and more shows, so it’s not just record sales. It’s one thing for Jimmy Page to rip off Willie Dixon’s songwriting, but it’s another for the Rolling Stones to revive Muddy Waters’ career (something he always thanked them for.) And if Chuck Berry had never gotten a record contract, then what?

I was making a hypothetical situation in reply to someone (elsewhere) saying a white musician playing black music is disrespectful, so my comeback was “isn’t whites refusing to play black music also disrespectful?” It’s an idealized situation, not actual history.

Ultimately my argument revolved around “what exactly is cultural appropriation and/or theft when it comes to the arts?” Stealing a song note for note? OK, that’s theft. Stealing a style? Nope, that’s just the nature of art in general.


Stealing a song is stealing.

A white person playing black music because they grew up listening to it is not appropriation.

A white person playing black music that they’re not familiar with it, and then sanitizing it for a white audience, is appropriation.


As Mexican, I think there’s subtext in the article which can be easily missed if you’re not familiar with the language and the culture.
1.- He uses Spanish to curse, the object of his invective is usually an American.

2.- Using the term SJW gives away too much, you’re probably all too familiar with the perception many outsiders have of America and Americans. unfortunately many Mexicans feel that SJW’s as played up by internet trolls are a real thing instead of the straw man argument it really is, and that standing up for causes that help others is only ever done for virtue signaling, this means that using this term and the way he used it means that he subscribes to an ideology that mocks the very idea of an imbalance of power.

3.- This argument basically boils down to: “One Mexican family is rich so anybody can and should be rich”

We’re no one’s victims, and who says we can’t beat the wasichu at their game? And who says Mexicans are somehow left in the poor house by white people getting rich off Mexican food? Go ask the Montaños of Mitla how they’re doing.

I could go on but there really is a lot of evidence to suggest that the article is written as a way to mock the idea of cultural appropriation, people who use “SJW” as a pejorative tend to do this all the time.


I agree. But then what are any of us supposed to do when that happens? Groan and roll our eyes, I guess.

I finally listened to some Paul Whiteman records recently (part of a Bix Beiderbecke collection I found), and thought it wasn’t half bad. Now I’m scared.

Firstly, I think we need to make a distinction between “cultural appropriation” and “cultural counterfeiting”.

I have a problem with Whitey McWhiteface reading three books and then passing himself off as a teacher of authentic native shamanism, and I think we can all agree that the Navajo nation should have some say in what gets sold as a “Navajo rug”.

But when it comes to creating original art based on another cultures’, or adopting their clothing or food or language and incorporating it into your own, that’s just how culture works. I also think that it gets really fucking dangerous when we start applying some sort of racial purity test to who can do what.

This leads into my second point, that my experience has been that this is an exclusively American issue. The moment that comes to mind involves my very white former brother in law, who teaches African drumming. He’s been rather brutally called out by African-Americans for teaching African culture, but he was taught how to teach this stuff by Africans who regularly invite him to teach and perform with them. He’s put in literally tens of thousands of hours into learning not just the music, but the culture and language behind it, from natives eager to teach, and he’s being lectured by people who couldn’t find Mali on a map.

I’ve seen the same thing with the museum over the kimono exhibit, despite the fact that kimonos are traditional gifts given to Westerners who visit Japan and struggling kimono makers suffering from the invasion of western fashion are just dying to open new export markets.