Music is a celebration of expression and revelations of the human condition. It thrives on diversity not only in the music itself, but in the people that create and listen to it. However, since the rise of rap and hip-hop music in the 1970s and its increasing popularity in the last 20 years, there have been accusations of cultural appropriation by the white population, specifically white youth. To understand the complexities of cultural appropriation and to interpret the positive and negative aspects of it, the definition must be fully explained. There also needs to be a comprehension of cultural appropriation from the white and black audiences’ as well as the artists’ point of view.
The definition of cultural appropriation is quite flexible depending on who is defining the term. To some, it is simply the learning of a minority or subordinate group’s culture by a majority or dominant group. However, this essay will critically use and evaluate the term as defined by Marian Bredin. She defined cultural appropriation as “the use and exploitation by a majority or dominant group of cultural knowledge or expressions originally produced by a minority or dominated group” (Bredin 2008:1095). She goes on to say that elements within the culture such as music, imagery, stories, etc. are often commercially exploited by the dominant group. In addition, cultural appropriation has a more positive connotation when the borrowing of elements from the subordinate group is done without the sole intent of exploitation and instead does so respectfully and tastefully with the minority group kept in mind. There is an inexplicable relationship between music, ethnicity, race, class, sexuality, gender, and of course, power. (Born and Hesmondhalgh 2000:4). Music is becoming more political and rests on the dynamics that are listed. The western civilization philosophy to appropriate and take false ownership of components of subordinate cultures stems from colonialism that dates back to the 19th century (Born and Hesmondhalgh 2000:5).
Hip-hop music first emerged in the 1970s as an African American art form that produced a demonstrative way for a marginalized group to express a cultural and social experience they endured. It has roots in blues, also an expressive art form. Hip-hop rests on the artist’s ability to viscerally tell a story that speaks to the understanding that marginalized, stereotyped, and discriminated groups collectively and communally have (Garcia 2009:303). The hip-hop culture started as a system that enabled urban youth to evaluate and criticize the marginality of their economic, political, and social injustices ranging from poor educational opportunities and amenities, low employment, difficulty obtaining affordable health care, police brutality and unfair treatment by law enforcement in general. Historians and scholars believe the beginnings of hip-hop, like the blues and even songs that were sung in the wake of slavery, were a means that were “humanizing to a dehumanizing environment” (Garcia 2009: 302). This article focuses on the cultural appropriation of hip-hop and rap music, but there is “no lack of studies of western music’s long history of borrowing from and evoking non-western cultures and musics” (Born and Hesmondhagh 2000:8). Country music, perhaps the music most synonymous with the United States and is heralded as ostensibly American, borrows from Swedish yodeling and Hawaiian guitar strums (Born and Hesmondhagh 2000:8). Since its beginnings, music has given people a way to express feelings and impressions, especially groups of people who are marginalized. It creates a communal knowledge that only *this* group can fully understand and appreciate. In the case of hip-hop, its historical context lies in its politically charged and intentionally racial themes and messages.
Beginning with the positive results and methods of cultural appropriation in the music industry is the specific contextualized meaning of culture. Culture, by its very nature, is a communal and unpossessed societal concept (Zushi 2015:55). Culture and cultural knowledge are meant to be shared and celebrated by a multitude of people across all cultures, not owned exclusively by one group of people. Zushi writes, “None of us can, or should, “own” hip-hop, cornrows, or the right to wear a kimono” (2015:55). There is no clear and explicit owner or dictator that decides what is allowed to be borrowed from one particular culture. That practice is believed to reduce the vibrancy of diversity in cultures and intellectual properties. Cultures are an evolution of sharing and exchanging, learning and composition (Hsu 2016:71). Music in particular is so vast and listened to by an insurmountable amount of people. Almost every culture celebrates music and uses it to form expressions of their triumphs, struggles, and spirit. To borrow from that and create new or replications of that art form are an empathetic exertion and celebration of a culture and their music. Music is an art form that embellishes in the therapeutic nature it creates. There is a sociocultural, psychological, and societal dispensatory characteristic that only music can provide, and the sharing and borrowing from other cultures is a strong reinforcement of that nature.
Antiracist cultural appropriation is a positive and mindful form of appropriation. It credits and respects the culture it takes from without “[distorting] or [maligning] the image in mocking ways; it refuses to use the image in the interest of racial domination” (Desmond and Emirbayer 2010: 393). Desmund and Emirbayer also assert that not only must the audience or creator of art that is culturally appropriated do so in a respectful manner, they must also acknowledge their role in perpetuating a superiority. This form of appropriation can also generate a positive discourse that challenges cultures and helps deconstruct racial barriers to gain a better educational grasp on characteristics of a culture foreign to theirs. (2010: 394).
The negative and harmful features of cultural appropriation are consequential and have long, deep lasting effects on the creators and members of the subordinate group that is being borrowed from. There is an element of color-blind ideology that facilitates cultural appropriation. Color-blindness provides a crutch with which institutional racism can flourish. It perpetuates the inequalities and injustices that racism produces by denying and ignoring the very factors that allow dominant groups to remain at the top of the power differential. If the dominant group ignores “race” and color, then it is impossible for them to be racist, by their philosophy. This ideology provides a conduit for the dominant group to remove themselves from the inequalities that the subordinate groups encounter, including cultural appropriation. It gives the “discursive foundation upon which whites construct racial identities as ‘cultureless,’” (Rodriquez 2006:646). Cultural appropriation is allowed to take place without the respect and reverent manner that makes it a more communal experience. It is a form of theft that lifts and picks aspects of a culture that elevate a dominant’s group social condition while diminishing the culture they took from. A disconnected white audience of rap music undermines the very component that hip-hop was established upon: race.
Along with this color-blind ideology is the racial framing with which the dominant group operates from. Their racial framing generates a beneficial narrative that preserves and rationalizes institutional racism and other forms of racist oppression (Feagin and Feagin 2011:13). Whites can pick and choose which part of “blackness” they want to borrow without being “black” and still have the privilege of identifying as white which, produces the most beneficial outcome for the dominant group. The social structure that functions today reproduces a racial system that keeps whiteness superior. Whites can choose to be a part of a culture and take advantage of components of that culture that is most rewarding for them socially (Rodriquez 2006:246).
Blackness then becomes a fantasy that whites can step in and out of, delegitimizing a humanizing experience for the black audience. Hip-hop music encompasses a culture and a form of cultural and artistic expression that transcends music. For many African Americans and African Caribbeans, hip-hop was the only way to define a sense of self and identity. As hip-hop and rap entered the mainstream consciousness, or the into the likeness of non-blacks, those elements that made hip-hop so revolutionary to a community are diminished. One of the richest and most productive aspects of hip-hop and rap culture is the response and engagement it creates with its listeners, most of which are African American. With hip-hop being so entrenched in the black cultural expression, it’s hard to ignore the color-blind scope that whites view the music genre. The dominant group reduces the rich and racially inspired music that contributes to a larger expression of the black experience. There is an awareness of hip-hop culture becoming more “white.” Harmful and racist forms of cultural appropriation pose a threat to the political power of racial messages in hip-hop music and culture. Some argue that the “white community has attempted to strip hip hop culture and rap music of their humanity and initial goal, which is to voice the opinions and emotions of the Black community that has been silenced for centuries” (Howell 2017:1). Scholars say it is another form of objectification and dehumanization of the black community (Howell 2017:1).
Along with hip-hop music is hip-hop culture that is also adopted by whites. The “fashion” and “trends” associated with hip-hop like baggy pants, tipped hats, and loose fitting clothes are worn particularly by white youth who haven’t lived the black experience (Desmond and Emirbayer 2010: 338). However, it is pointed out that “it is too simplistic and wholly unsatisfactory to comprehend cultural appropriation as a kind of ‘ethnic theft’ which always occurs when insider culture is performed by outsider bodies” (Desmond and Emirbayer 2010: 389). Cultural appropriation is more than what is being appropriated, the most important aspect that should be examined is how a culture is being appropriated.
Whiteness as the widely accepted cultural standard and expectation is an element of color-blind ideology that negatively impacts hip-hop culture. The beginnings of hip-hop that is known today starting with Elvis in the 1960s and into Vanilla Ice owning the first hip-hop track to reach the top of the Billboard chart are examples of this. Elvis Presley occupied a space in music culture that was an “implicit black male subjectivity that erased the visible sign of blackness that in minstrelsy was represented by the act of masking” (White 2011: 91). Many black performers were reminiscent of Elvis’s style and presence, but without the color of his skin. There was a craving for sexual icon like Elvis to come along in the 60s, and Americans waited for it to come along in a white body personifying the black male subjectivity.
The white creators of culturally appropriated music are evaluated and criticized in terms of their response, or lack thereof, to the accusations that they have wrongfully culturally appropriated music. In the case of the white rapper, Macklemore, his hyperawareness of his white privilege and the position that puts him in in the hip-hop music scene is complicated. He raps about his discomfort and confusion in his role as a rapper who has made a career in a music genre that is undoubtedly an expression of African Americans’ enduring political, economic, and social inequalities. There is a spiritual and cultural expression that is shared through hip-hop that African Americans experience. Additionally, “When we talk of appropriation today, however, we are really talking about power and access: about the politics of making-and listening to- music at a time when many people live by the laissez-faire attitude that we are entitled to one another’s cultures, genres, and stories” (Hsu 2016:71).’’ With hip-hop in particular, there is a presupposed social, political, and economic condition that is shaped by experiences almost exclusive to the African American community.
Another prominent white rapper, Eminem, is also aware and acknowledges his white privilege in his raps, but his bringing up was not too dissimilar from that of many other rappers. He grew up in a lower working class home and he reflects that narrative in his music but also recognizes that no matter how disruptive his experiences might have been, he is white and that puts him in a category that is isolated from other black rappers who share a similar story. His talent and raw expression in his raps is another reason why he isn’t shunned by the hip-hop community. Although Macklemore does rap about his journey to discover his place in hip-hop, he raps about issues that aren’t entirely his own and reaps the benefits of them. Hsu asks, “Is it enough to name the privilege while profiting from it?” (Hsu 2016:71). Eminem acknowledges that his whiteness has helped him sell “more records than if he had been black, and that he has expanded the audience for rap among white suburban adolescents,” (White 2011:113). Macklemore will never have the ability to partake in black expressive culture and his commercialization and profit from an art form that is precisely that is an issue. Some dispute Macklemore’s validation of the black struggles that so many rappers have explored through their music. But Macklemore has been given the most credibility specifically with his win at the Grammy’s in 2012 for Best Rap Album, beating Kendrick Lamar, a rapper who isn’t hesitant to engage in political discourse in his songs regarding the injustices African Americans endure.
Vanilla Ice was one of the first successful mainstream rappers, but he was also the first successful solo white rapper. His popularity rests in the hands of white suburban youth who could finally see themselves represented in a culture they had no stake in previously. However, ironically, Vanilla Ice’s background that helped form his profitable image was fabricated. He didn’t grow up in mostly black neighborhood, he lived in a diverse Miami community before spending most of his adolescence in a typical middle class Dallas suburb. Vanilla Ice and listeners of his music took white authorial ownership of certain “black” elements in rap. One of his two hits, Ice Ice Baby broke through on radio stations that had disregarded hip-hop and rap music in the past. The hip-hop and rap music that was ignored on pop music stations were mostly from black artists (White 2011: 102). Vanilla Ice’s fame and popularity in hip-hop supplements white supremacy and the invisibility that whiteness possesses. This resembles racist appropriation, the act of “de-racializing and re-racializing an art form, racist appropriation denies nonwhite groups the ability to profit from their creations” (Desmond and Emirbayer 2010: 390). Hip-hop as a mainstream music art form was not validated or legitimized until it was performed by a white artist and celebrated by a white audience. This cycle is similar to the minstrelsy performances done throughout American history but indeed still happen today. Whites own and control the black body in a way that reinforces that social and hierarchical power. The power differential among whites and blacks in art is obvious and contributes to larger and more forceful racial discourse that is entirely revolved around power.
With music being an art form that celebrates mutual feelings and communal understandings, it can be a prolific means to elevate diversity and appreciation for other cultures and peoples. There are positive and negative ways to engage in differing cultural practices, with antiracist being the most appropriate, as it does so in a way that doesn’t deform, discredit, or mock the culture it is borrowing from. Instead it aims to learn about and understand people through the art forms they enjoy. The ever evolving and diversifying world makes cultural appropriation inevitable, which is why it is important that the way in which it is done is treated carefully and with respect. Engaging in hip-hop culture in a way that socially or economically benefits a dominant listening group while negating a powerful racial connotation the music carries is threatening to its very nature. It facilitates and reproduces the inequalities that hip-hop music was designed to manage and cope with. White artists and the white audience of hip-hop must not only participate in the culture attentively and with non-threatening motivations, they need to acknowledge the place they occupy in a possibly harmful form of cultural appropriation. There is potential for a more educated and mindful audience of hip-hop that appreciates the reciprocity that positive, antiracist cultural appropriation evokes without adhering to a color-blind ideology that denies the powerful racial dynamics and history of hip-hop culture.
Bellman, J. (2002). Western Music and Its Others. Notes, 58(3), 567.\
Bredin, M. (2008). Cultural Appropriation. In W. Donsbach (Ed.), The International Encyclopedia of Communication (Vol. 3, pp. 1095–1100). Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Desmond, M., & Emirbayer, M. (2010). Racial domination, racial progress: the sociology of race in America. (pp. 338–339) New York: McGraw-Hill.
Feagin, J. R., & Feagin, C. B. (2012). Racial and ethnic relations. (p. 13). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Garcia, M. (2008). Hip-Hop Culture/Rap. In L. Locke, T. A. Vaughan, & P. Greenhill (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Women’s Folklore and Folklife (Vol. 1, pp. 301–304). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Howell, Z. (2017, March 2). The Black community is no stranger to cultural appropriation. New York Amsterdam News. p. 34.
Hsu, H. (2016). The Struggle. New Yorker, 92(4), 70–71.
Rodriquez, J. (2006). Color-Blind Ideology and the Cultural Appropriation of Hip-Hop. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 35(6), 645–668.
White, M. (2011). From Jim Crow to Jay-Z: race, rap, and the performance of masculinity. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press.
Yo, Z. (2015). What’s mine is yours. New Statesman, 144(5283), 54–56.