This past week, I’ve been having conversations with my friends about whether or not cultural appropriation is evil, what culture is exactly, and if we can actually say that certain cultures belong to a specific group of people. I myself am of the opinion that yes, culture can belong to people, but it can also be shared, borrowed and exchanged so long as those who are co-opting other people’s cultures do so with respect. Still, I can’t say that this model is necessarily an option that exists in our hyperactive, consumerist, globalized world.
Is cultural appropriation inevitable? That is a loaded question, I know, and as such, one that has several questions even within it.
First, we ask ourselves, what is culture? As I was taught in primary school, culture is the way of life of a group of people which includes their language, food, music, dressing and so on. So we would say that Creole is a part of Caribbean culture. If you disagree with my definition of culture, or if for you, it’s too simplistic, please comment and share with us how you conceptualize culture.
We then ask: what is cultural appropriation? Is it a bad thing? Again, the simple definition of cultural appropriation is an act which consists of using an aspect of a culture in relation to which one is an outsider, (so being Nigerian, I am an outsider to African-American culture – it not being integral to my socialization) and using it in a way that either takes it out of its context, makes it seem less valuable or sacred, or sells it for material gain while claiming ownership of it. In that sense, cultural appropriation is like plagiarism. If you borrow someone else’s words, you have to cite them. It is not enough that you, in using their words, were privately paying them homage – it is still stealing if you don’t own up to the words not being your intellectual property. Is it a bad thing? Well that’s a slippery slope, and a question over which there will continue to be many Tumblr threads on.
Today, I want us to ask a different question: is it inevitable? Is it just the nature of things that pop musicians like Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Iggy Azalea and now Taylor Swift and their producers will see African-American and non-Western cultures, distort, and present them in their music videos in a way that makes a lot of people uncomfortable? Is is just par consequence of our living in a world where everyone is hybrid and so the cultures are too? I really don’t know; if anyone has opinions on this, please share them.