This Is How We Don't: The Raised Stakes of Appropriation

Why the wanton jacking of black culture by white artists carried an extra edge in 2014.

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Dec 24 2014, 2:00pm

This year, Iggy Azalea's “Fancy” was ubiquitous. It played on the radio, in bars, in stores, and anywhere else people might congregate. You got used to hearing it. But having to hear Iggy Azalea claim she’s both “the realest” and in “the murda business” while staring at a picture of Mike Brown’s dead body face down on pavement on a phone screen while standing in line at the grocery store was still an egregious WTF moment of 2014 for me. Azalea, who takes no issue with rapping like she’s from Bankhead despite holding an Australian passport, has pretty much become the personification of the problems with cultural appropriation, riding a wave of facsimile blackness to the top of the charts while treating discussions of race with smarmy dismissals. My moment in the checkout line was just one reminder of the ways this appropriation carried a particular edge in the political and racial landscape of 2014.

Telegraphed by the ascent of Miley Cyrus after her twerk heard ‘round the world at last year’s VMAs, 2014 saw a wave of white artists either trying to be something they’re not or using black bodies and culture as furniture and visual aids. It's been a real drag, one that extends beyond the sphere of music in a year that has proven, through the way the country has remorselessly responded to a series of police killings of its own citizens, that a post-racial America is a straight up delusion.

“Can’t you appreciate a culture?” Katy Perry asked in a Rolling Stone interview earlier this year, in response to criticism of her Cleopatra swag and award show geisha costumes (and foreshadowing her hot new cornrow look in the “This Is How We Do” video). You certainly can “appreciate” a culture, Ms. Perry, but y’all are doing it wrong, coming across as about as tone-deaf — and occasionally racist—as one can be without literally blacking up. By wantonly jacking black culture and profiting from it, white artists are both propping up narrow and out-of-touch images and pushing actual black culture out of the way. If the same thing were happening to #WhiteCulture it’d be called cultural theft—or maybe “cultural looting” if Fox News were reporting.

Appropriation—that is, said wanton culture jacking—is malignant because it reduces people to exotic artifacts. Artists collecting the paraphernalia of black (and Asian and Native American, let’s be real) culture—the way the Sultan Of Brunei might collect vintage Lambos or diamond-encrusted Air Forces that he’ll later gift to Usher—makes those twerking girls framing Miley onstage or Lily Allen in a video something other than human. And that view of people has repercussions: Large swaths of white America can be only be okay with Mike Brown and any of the other men, women and children lost to police violence this year if these individuals are seen as “thugs,” “threats” or anything else besides people. It creates a new, unspoken three-fifths clause, where taking a black life is seen as not that big a deal to far too many people.

With the highest wealth gap in over two decades between blacks and whites, killer cops murking us out with impunity, the perception among whites in polls that blacks are more racist, and black America still lagging hugely in education and achievement, all this shit—Macklemore winning this year's Best Rap Album Grammy, Iggy's potential (and likely, per the opinion of J. Cole and others) win of the same award in February—is a real stick in the craw, much like it was 50, 60, 70 years ago when black blues and jazz artists similarly saw their humanity denied and art mimicked. In the context of what has effectively become a new Civil Rights Movement, these artists, couched in their whiteness, with their privilege enhanced by wealth and fame, have no stake in the #BlackLivesMatter game, an actual game of life and death as we see how much race still matters in America. The protests in the States and abroad — and the wildly uneven, unnecessarily brutal police response to them — have been symptomatic of a disease, the acuteness of which has been revealed in the wake of high-profile cases of state violence against people of color with no resultant culpability. If you’re going to dress like us and rap like us, you’re god damn right we’re gonna be heated if there’s no apparent effort to give credit where it’s due and acknowledge our dignity.

Ultimately, appropriating black culture is free of the racial burden of black skin. Justin Bieber’s wannabe criminal vibe in 2014 intrigued much of the press, given the lack of old school “bad boys” in entertainment. Yet, in light of the consequence-free shootings of black men, women and children by out-of-control police, a narrative like “The Transformation Of Justin Bieber From A White Youth To A Black Man” seems plain irresponsible on a number of levels. “Everybody wanna be a nigga ‘til the cops come,” as it’s said: I have a hard time believing that a white artist like Bieber could pop shit at a deposition and wild out as recklessly as he has were he black without at best being labeled a “thug” (the new-and-improved “nigger” for the discreet racist) or at worst, killed by an unrepentant cop or white-is-right do-gooder. If “Bieberveli” looked like Tupac, would he have been met by a hail of bullets rather than a plea deal after egging that house in Calabasas? The world may never know.

By not breaking character and acknowledging the debt they owe to the culture, these artists are exacerbating the problem. They do not function in a vacuum. And what may seem like benign flattery in the form of imitation can be more accurately described as densely camouflaged anti-blackness that is part of a complex, if old-as-dirt, system of simultaneous whitewashing and othering. This system, to echo the words of Azealia Banks in her recent, much-discussed interview on New York hip-hop radio station Hot 97, shouts loudly and clearly that “Y’all don’t really own shit... Not even the shit you created for yourself.” Iggy and co. benefit greatly from this system, being afforded the luxury of remaining silent on the #BlackLivesMatter front, able to play the “Why do we have to make everything about race?” card should the need arise. It’s not as though tons of black artists have been terribly vocal in these frustrating past few weeks and months, but, insulated by dense layers of privilege, these white artists wielding black tools (and bodies) to make their way in the world aren't even expected to have a stance on the matter. The incentive to speak out against things like police overreach and a biased legal system isn’t nearly as high as that of the decision to don blackness like a garment and twerk to one’s heart’s content.

Among the fuck shit perpetrated by the cabal of poseurs, surprise drops of genuine articles like D’Angelo’s marvelous Black Messiah have been like eye-opening coronations of The Real Ones, drawing into sharp relief just how grainy the copies we’re inundated with truly are. Like an echo of the thief-in-the-night release of Beyoncé’s self-titled album last December, Black Messiah dominated social media and became a critical darling and commercial success immediately (even if there was a 14-year wait). The savory, slowly sipped brandy to the desperate hits of crack that are “Fancy” and “All About That Bass,” objects like D’Angelo’s much-anticipated follow-up to Voodoo are reminders that there are still genuine black voices out there, more than capable of drowning out the din of a chorus of fakes. It’s all well and good to self-proclaim one’s album as The New Classic, but Beyoncé and Black Messiah have an undeniable feel of authenticity and emotion that can’t be drummed up with a PR team or slickly mastered vocals. They're emblems of a kind of blackness that can't be as easily ripped off.

The old adage of “niggas can’t have shit” is still a valid one, but black forms of expression have always been dynamic enough to stay two steps ahead of white pop’s game of catch-up. Consider the wave of boy bands biting off of 90s groups such as Jodeci, New Edition et al. at the turn of the 21st century and us just kind of moving on from the male R&B group thing. Similarly, the Great Twerking Craze left many blacks harking back to 2 Live Crew videos from ‘94—back to African dance even—thinking, “shit, y’all are wild late to the party!” Black culture will continue to stake out new places for itself.

In her emotional interview with Hot 97, Azealia Banks appealed to the likes of Iggy: “Y’all owe me the right to my identity. That’s all we’re holding on to in hip-hop and rap.” The Australian’s wan response on Twitter came off, like the video for Iggy's biggest hit, as classically clueless. It doesn’t seem that she wants to make the concession Banks asks of her. Enjoying those aspects of blackness deemed beneficial without the risk of feeling the wrath of anti-blackness, she doesn’t need to. Yet, in a year where race has seemed more vital to our national conscience than it’s been in at least a generation, the resistance to the white supremacy that appropriation and its denial of genuine blackness bolsters will only grow stronger, especially as black music continues to innovate in ways that confound imitation.

Kasai Rex is a writer living in Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.