Saturday, May 20, 2017

Cultural Appropriation in Music

I don't have a "cultural appropriation" tag and I hope I won't ever need one. Canada, in the last couple of weeks, has been in a frenzy over supposed "cultural appropriation" from native people, or as we are to refer to them now, as indigenous people or "First Nations." The latest in a series of news stories and opinion pieces was published yesterday in the Globe and Mail, written by Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, who is, according to the blurb, "an Anishinaabe writer and editor from the Chippewas of Nawash First Nation, Saugeen Ojibway Nation. She is the founder and managing editor of Kegedonce Press, a publishing house devoted to Indigenous writers." Ok, so obviously someone with skin in the game. Her livelihood depends on both retail sales of writing by indigenous writers (why should that word be capitalized?) and on government and other grants and funding. But that is a poor argument, of course. We are all motivated by our own interests. Let's take a few quotes from her essay to get the idea:
This controversy continued into 2017, a year that, for Indigenous people, marks 150 years of colonial oppression. As the Canadian government unrolled its Canada 150 budget and agenda, Indigenous people across the country recoiled. Canada “150”? Really? To suggest that this country didn’t exist for us before 1867 is a punch to the gut – a half-billion-dollar, year-long celebration that hammers home the message, over and over again, that Canada depends on our erasure. The reality of our existence does not fit the official national narrative and so it must be dismissed, ignored and forgotten. Whether that erasure is attempted through the Indian Residential School System, the ongoing apprehensions of our children by Child and Family Services, the murder and disappearance of Indigenous women and girls, “starlight tours” conducted by police in Saskatchewan, the wildly disproportionate incarceration of Indigenous peoples in Canada’s prison system, the theft of our lands and resources, the stealing of our stories or the inequitable policies of a party on Parliament Hill, the message is persistent – and devastatingly familiar.
Oh yes, all is not sweetness and light up north. Way back in the 1600s the French and later the English actually invaded what is now Canada and conquered the entire continent right across to the Pacific with not a whole lot of resistance by the native peoples. This is the historical fact. Ms Akiwenzie-Damm wants us, at this late date, to regard this historical event as something akin to an illegal act, but since it is not possible for the native peoples to undo it by force of arms, she is going to make us feel really, really bad about it.

Yes, this is Canada's 150th year as a nation and the celebrations have been criticised at great length by various parties. Canada, as a nation and not a mere geographical locale, was the creation of the British by means of an Act of Parliament in 1867, hence the celebration. This act united the remaining British colonies north of the rebellious American states and the nation has done pretty well. So part of the complaint above is simply a category error, mistaking the territory for the sovereign nation. The nation "Canada" did not and does not depend on the "erasure" of native peoples, but yes, it did and does depend on their defeat as sovereign peoples and their absorption into the new nation of Canada. Inasmuch as the writer resists this she is, to some extent, in a state of rebellion against Canada. But this is nothing new: the First Nations have been engaged in more or less open rebellion for decades now. And why? Because they never suffer any consequences, but instead are rewarded by "treaties" giving them resource concessions, funding, and just general looking the other way by the agencies responsible for public order. Viewed objectively, it is a pretty shocking record.

I recommend you read the whole essay and then continue to read the comments. What is very interesting about the comments is that they are 100% opposed to the views of the writer! The Globe and Mail, obviously is taking a position supportive of the notion of cultural appropriation from native writers, even in the face of complete disagreement by their readers. But never mind, they will simply keep pumping out the narrative until a majority of Canadians agree with it, then they will take a poll. That's how we roll in Canada.

Another interesting thing, and the reason for this post, is that we have not, up to now, raised any questions of cultural appropriation in music. That would be a pretty short debate, at least at present, after two or three decades of propaganda in the Globe and Mail, who knows? In music the cultural appropriation of techniques, styles, genres and so on is the basic practice. In pop music it has become the norm, the occasional case of copyright infringement as with the song "Blurred Lines" a couple of years ago, being very much the exception. By the way, the Wikipedia article on "appropriation" in art seems to be lagging behind this latest trend because it simply discusses how art appropriates from other art without getting all political about it.

Even in classical music there is a kind of color and culture-blind constant recycling of musical materials by everyone from everyone. You could write a pretty interesting dissertation on the appropriation of musical ideas and textures from black musicians by white musicians in the 1950s. Then this "rock and roll" was further appropriated by black musicians in Nigeria in the form of "high-life" music by people like King Sunny Adé. Here is an example:

Then, of course, it is appropriated back by other musicians! That's just how music works. It is remarkably immune to a lot of identity politics. If it doesn't sound good, no-one will listen to it anyway.

One thing about the essay by Ms Akiwenzie-Damm is how she ignores the fact that the very act of writing itself is an act of cultural appropriation by native peoples from their colonizing oppressors. Yes, it's true, the native peoples in North America had no form of written language before the French and English invasion. If we were to apply their principles of cultural appropriation, we should really ask for our alphabet back. If you want to get even more pissy about it, I strongly suspect that the flavor and texture of the prose of native writers, not to mention how they handle metaphors and even psychological memes about alienation, oppression, mythology and so on are all based on European models, themselves deriving in part from models taken from literature of the Ancient World.

One wonders when Canada's ruling intelligentsia will shake their heads and recover a sense of reality.

Here is Stravinsky happily appropriating musical ideas from Pergolesi, a couple of centuries earlier:


Anonymous said...

No comment about the Niedzviecki firestorm? Man, you've been out of Canada too long!

Marc Puckett said...

"Way back in the 1600s the French and later the English actually invaded what is now Canada and conquered the entire continent right across to the Pacific with not a whole lot of resistance by the native peoples. This is the historical fact."

Must confess that I pretended to a more significant grasp of Canadian history than I actually possess (on the basis of the reading I did in response to your Louis Riel post-- cannot even recall the composer's name, tsk) in a comments thread at Althouse where the post was about... oh, something about a Canadian writer's patronizing of Americans with their evil past, Canada possessing a virtuous one: for example, what does 'not a whole lot of resistance' actually mean? thousands slain instead of ten thousands?Am tolerably well informed about the 'resistance' here in the US but have very little knowledge about Canada's.

Andrew R said...

Not going to dig into the meat of your article, but just responding briefly to the I/i in Indigenous aside you made. I believe it is a grammar thing, not a point trying to be made. Much like you would capitalize European, Asian, Irish, South African, etc as a proper adjective. There's some confusion with all these groups names, as the line gets blurred between whether they are a specific descriptor or a group of classes.

Will Wilkin said...

Tribal (ancestral) identities performed an essential survival function in the past, especially in hunter-gatherer stages of cultural development when the tribe was the group on which the individual depended for survival. But as commerce expanded and division of labor exploded, as political organization grew much more geographically extensive as a reflection of the larger units of commercial organization, ancestral identities recede into a mostly nostalgic basis and national identities, based on shared institutions and governance, became the gigantic functional units of identity they are today. Long before the political term of "cultural appropriation" was invented by modern cultural leftists, the process itself was shaping the cultures and technologies of ancient Mesopotamia and every other archaic civilization that eventually became the classical world that was "appropriated" by the great artists and scholars of the European Renaissance, bless their souls!

Will Wilkin said...

In fact, "appropriation" is the central cause of the acceleration of technological and cultural change --compare the slow rate of change in paleolithic societies to that of neolithic (faster) and now especially modern (blurry speed) times. Instead of lamenting or politicizing "cultural appropriation," we should recognize we are a social species and "collective intelligence," ie, culture, is what makes humanity so different from the other "intelligent" species.

Will Wilkin said...

That Pergolesi violin sonata is also heard in Stravinski's "Suite Italian" alternate form of the Pulcinella music. I had forgotten that was the basis of those pieces I know by Stravinsky, until a friend gave me a book of Pergolesi violin sonatas and as I sight read the first one I said "oh yes, its the Suite Italian!"

Bryan Townsend said...

Nice to see so many comments on this piece! In order:

@Anonymous: Actually this post is in reaction to the whole of the latest dust-up starting with the Niedzviecki firestorm! I just chose the essay by Ms Akiwenzie-Damm as the occasion to respond.

@ Marc: Sad to say, I am not as well-read in the history of the colonization of Canada as I might be. It was a long and complex series of events, but I think it is safe to say that the native peoples were not equipped to fight European armies with modern (17th and 18th century) weapons. This is also the case in the US. The territory corresponding to what is now the US and Canada was not as thickly populated as Mexico--in the late 15th century Tenochtitlan was possibly the largest city in the world by population--but Europeans were able to conquer and colonize all of the New World, though it took a while. Hernán Cortés defeated the Aztecs with, according to Wikipedia:

...600 soldiers, 15 horsemen, 15 cannons, and hundreds of indigenous carriers and warriors.

Of course, he picked up allies along the way.

@Andrew: the rule in English is that proper names, that is names of specific things, places and peoples (the English, the Germans, the Chippewa) are capitalized, but mere descriptors are not: natives, aboriginals, indigenous, etc. It is, I think, a subtle technique to claim nation status for all the native peoples of the land.

@Will: nothing to quibble with there!