Monday, April 17, 2017

Cultural Appropriation

I don't often read Teen Vogue (ok, never), but someone linked to this article on "How to Avoid Cultural Appropriation at Coachella" so I had a look. Apparently "cultural appropriation" is Bad. According to Wikipedia:
Cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture. Cultural appropriation is sometimes portrayed as harmful, framed as cultural misappropriation, and claimed to be a violation of the intellectual property rights of the originating culture. Often unavoidable when multiple cultures come together, cultural appropriation can include using other cultures' traditions, fashion, symbols, language, and cultural songs without permission. According to critics of the practice, cultural (mis)appropriation differs from acculturation, assimilation, or cultural exchange in that the "appropriation" or "misappropriation" refers to the adoption of these cultural elements in a colonial manner: elements are copied from a minority culture by members of a dominant culture, and these elements are used outside of their original cultural context—sometimes even against the expressly stated wishes of representatives of the originating culture.
Of course "cultures" don't actually have intellectual property rights, but what Teen Vogue is on about is the use of elements of fashion by Westerners in order to give themselves a festive, but exotic air:

Click to enlarge
 Well, ok, but what about the music? The Music Salon can reveal that pop music is mostly appropriated from a whole bunch of places. First of all, sure, white pop artists have been covering and recycling black musician's work for decades, but we can go deeper. Did you know that every single pop artist has appropriated--without permission--the entire harmonic and melodic structure of Western European music? Yes, it's true! The scales and chords that pop artists use every single day were taken whole from European musicians who developed them over hundreds of years. Not to mention the instruments. Yes, the electric guitar was an American invention, but the guitar itself and its system of tuning goes back to Medieval and Renaissance Spain and Italy. The piano was invented by an Italian in the early 18th century. Drums? Woo-hoo, they go back a long, long way, but a lot of their use was transmitted through Islamic and Turkish cultures (who also gave us the cymbals and high-hats of the drum kit).

Wait, it's even worse! All, all, of the terminology used in music like "melody", "harmony" and "rhythm" comes from the ancient Greeks who also invented the idea of the scale and intervals. Now there's some cultural appropriation for ya! What about song lyrics? Well, the pop musicians themselves come up with them, of course, but the whole idea of "lyrics" is taken from Greek poetry, sung to the lyre, hence the name.

And hey, that diadem of flowers worn by the woman in the photo above? Well, of course that whole idea also comes from the Greeks. The word is διάδημα, "diadema" which means "band" or "fillet". Actually the Greeks probably stole it from the Egyptians. The sunglasses are also a European invention, by the 18th century English optician James Ayscough.

So this whole idea of "cultural appropriation" is historically confused. Let a hundred flowers bloom I always say...

Let's listen to some culturally appropriated pop music that no-one has complained about so far. This is "Love You To" by George Harrison from Revolver, who was busily appropriating North Indian classical music. Unfortunately, the original is not on YouTube, but this is a very accurate cover version:

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