Cultural appropriation cuts deepest when viewed as innovation
A little more than a year ago, rapper J. Cole placed the music industry in a position of discomfort with one line, “While silly n*ggas argue over who goin' snatch the crown / Look around my n*ggas white people have snatched the sound.”
The world stopped.
In an effort to call out what seems to be an avalanche of white appropriation of historically and culturally black art, Cole’s verse made examples of artist who received the white stamp of approval after manipulating black culture and calling it their own. The list included names like Elvis, Timberlake, Macklemore and of course, Iggy Azalea.
Since then, the conversation regarding the legitimacy of white artists within a black genre has been amplified by the likes of Azealia Banks, numerous music blogs and hip-hop radio talk shows.
Cole’s verse included another white artist whose name was not as readily held in contempt by black listeners as the others.
A certain Marshall "Eminem" Mathers — “slicka-slicka” Slim Shady.
Why were black hip-hop fans, for the most part, readily able to stand up for Eminem? He is without a doubt a white artist who has also used black culture to get ahead. So why does he get the “black blessing,” so to speak.
It could be a slew of answers. First, Eminem is without question a formidable opponent when pinned against any other artist skill-wise. Second, his gift for storytelling combined with his lower-class upbringing allows him to put forth narratives that somewhat mirror those of blacks who grew up with him. Third, and perhaps the most important, is Eminem’s propensity for calling himself out.
In his 2002 hit record, “Without Me,” he sings, “I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley / To do black music so selfishly / And use it to get myself wealthy.” On the same album in his song “White America”, Eminem sings, “My skin is starting to work to my benefit now?” and “Let’s do the math: If I was black I woulda sold half / I ain’t have to graduate from Lincoln High School to know that.”
Perhaps his consistent understanding of his own privilege further advances his image as an authentic emcee who purely loves and appreciates the art. Rather than another gimmick trying to capitalize on already corporate sabotaged black music.
But what separates Eminem the most from artists who have received the cultural appropriation crown is his lack of something I’d like to call the “Adopt and Block.”
The "Adopt and Block” is when a white rapper, singer, fashion icon, or other famous person adopts a cultural attribute, glamorizes or takes it out of context and introduces it to a new audience who never knew it existed and are likely to never come in contact with it at all. Then blocks the originator of the style from ever receiving the recognition they deserve, whether they desire the recognition or not.
Everyone on J. Cole’s list of public enemies are prime offenders of the "Adopt and Block."
Elvis’s “King of Rock” title disillusioned and distracted his audience from heavy hitting black mavericks of the genre, such as Little Richard and Ray Charles. Iggy Azalea and Macklemore’s main demographic are young impressionable listeners who typically do not comprehend the racial, sociopolitical roots of the genre the two artists are flourishing in: the “I-don’t-really-like-hip-hop-but ...” crowd. Thus leading to a treacherous blocking and misrepresentation of culture. And through this belittlement comes an equally damaging oversimplification of an entire people. It is the admiration of those who profit from one part deception and one part skin color, equaling 100 percent privilege.
Eminem’s journey has been less "one-man-band" and more of a tag-team effort, dissimilar to the "look-at-my-black-friends" cliché. But in the sense that his existence in this platform must never overshadow those who made it available for him.
Why is any of this important?
Cultural appropriation cuts deepest when the stolen culture is not even recognized as stolen, but rather “innovated” or “discovered.” What cuts deeper is when said “discovery” is a subpar, watered-down version, which insults the original by generating a naturalization of the assumption that the original was equally subpar. It is the proverbial Plymouth Rock landing on blacks once more.
Michael Anderson is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in journalism and media studies with a minor in Africana studies.
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