A Look At Cultural Appropriation Within The Hip-Hop Culture

A Look At Cultural Appropriation Within The Hip-Hop Culture

There is always a lesson to be learned.

I’ve heard a lot about cultural appropriation since it has recently become such a hot topic in the media - specifically within the world of hip-hop. One thing I’ve heard the most is the opinion that it's more than just a genre of music; it is also a lifestyle and a culture, and I completely agree. Hip-hop was born in the ghettos of the South Bronx as a way for black people to express themselves in a style that was all their own. As time went on, the music became more popular and reached the mainstream airwaves.

With its growing popularity, hip-hop crossed over into pop music and the lines began to blur as artists from each genre began to collaborate. Pop artists began adopting the hip-hop style; everything from hair and clothing styles to dancing and musical sound. Many white artists have fallen victim to criticism for “trying to be black,” but what does being black mean exactly? What does it mean to appropriate a culture?

I came across a video about this topic a while ago. In the video, actress Amandla Stenberg talks about appropriation by describing what it means to be black. She uses the term “black identity” with examples of how white artists in the media have taken the culture and sort of repurposed it for themselves as an expression of style. Stenberg talks a lot about the importance of black hairstyles as a part of the black identity and the role these hairstyles play in the hip-hop culture. She mentions white artists who have since been seen wearing hairstyles such as cornrows and wearing clothing and accessories specific to hip-hop/black culture. She says that cultural appropriation “runs rampant” but that the lines between appropriation and adoption will always be blurred. Stenberg then goes on to give the best definition of appropriation I’ve ever heard. She says “appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated but is deemed as high fashion, cool or funny when the privileged take it for themselves.”

The first time I heard the term “cultural appropriation” was in my Intro to Mass Communications class my sophomore year of college. In that class, we were discussing Miley Cyrus’s performance at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards. The issue with her performance, some may say, is that it was tasteless and inappropriate. While that may be true, the bigger issue some people had with it was the twerking. For most of that year, Miley was the poster child for cultural appropriation. So, what is twerking? Urban Dictionary defines it as “the act of moving/ shaking one's ass/buns/bottom/buttocks/bum-bum in a circular, up-and-down, and side-to-side motion.” Twerking was known as a “black” dance, so when Miley first showed off her new moves at a Juicy J concert back in 2013, the media, of course, went crazy. Everyone was talking about how well Miley could dance and “who knew a white girl from Nashville could move like a black girl!”

The problem wasn’t Miley’s twerking, however. The problem was her use of actual black girls as props in her music videos and stage performances. All of her backup dancers were black women with big butts who twerked around her. A lot of people were outraged by this, and until that class discussion, I hadn’t really given it much thought. I thought Miley Cyrus was awesome and that her new style was working for her. After all, there’s nothing wrong with stirring the pot a little. I never thought of her as appropriating black culture, but referring back to the definition that Stenberg gives and applying the devices Miley has used to break out of her “good girl” Disney image, I would certainly say that she fits the bill. Before Miley started twerking, the dance was mainly seen in hip-hop music videos, where the women are of course oversexualized and objectified, and in strip clubs. In other words, it was a trashy dance that black women did to look sexy for men. When Miley started twerking it became “cool," and young white girls started doing it too - which not only cast a bad light on Miley as a role model but also solidified her role as an appropriator.

Miley is not the only artist who has previously been in the media for this same offense. Rapper Iggy Azalea has gotten even more backlash for her music and style. Iggy is a white, blonde Australian rapper who has blown up the charts in the hip-hop world. Some people support her, but some people think that her origin and race don’t belong in the hip-hop culture. Azealia Banks, a black rapper from the Bronx, has been the most vocal in her distaste for Iggy. Banks is no stranger to twitter feuds, and is known for lashing out at other artists for various reasons, but her most on-going war has been about her opinion that Iggy’s music cannot be considered hip-hop and as a result, Iggy does not deserve all the credit she has received.

Banks first lashed out in regards to Iggy back in 2012. Iggy was featured on XXL’s annual freshmen cover as the only female rapper on the list. Banks fired off a series of tweets discrediting the magazine’s choice, including “I’m not anti white girl, but I’m also not here for any1 outside my culture trying to trivialize very serious aspects of it,” and “Sorry guys. But I’m pro black girl.” While Iggy defended herself, that was not the last we heard from Banks. In a 2014 interview with hosts Ebro and Peter Rosenberg from Hot 97, Banks explained her issue with Iggy and the music world in general.

I am an Iggy Azalea fan and I do not personally like Azealia Banks, and the first time I listened to this interview I thought “who the hell does she think she is?” But after listening to it again and considering every aspect of it (and not just being defensive of Iggy), I understood that Banks is less interested in bashing Iggy and more interested in bringing to light a problem that is at its peak within black/hip-hop culture.

“I feel like in this country, whenever it comes to our things, like black issues or black politics or black music or whatever, there’s always this undercurrent of kind of like a f*ck you,” said Banks in the interview. She explains that there’s a sort of “cultural smudging” when it comes to things that black people own or create, because when white people take it for their own, they get the credit - which comes back to this idea of appropriating the culture. Banks gives the example of The Grammys, and how in previous years, white hip-hop artists have been beating out black hip-hop artists for awards like Best Hip-Hop Album or Favorite Hip-Hop Artist. She mentions Macklemore beating Drake for Favorite Hip-Hop Album and says that his album wasn’t better than Drake’s. Banks says "The Grammys are supposed to be accolades of artistic excellence. Iggy Azalea is not excellent…and when they give these Grammy’s out all it says to white kids ‘oh yeah you’re great’…and it says to black kids ‘you don’t own shit, not even the shit you created for yourself,” said Banks. Not only did she talk about the music, but she also brought up the racial injustices that have been brought to the forefront with the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and the like. Stenberg also mentions this in her video; White artists who adopt black culture and participate in “blackness” did not speak out on the issues that were plaguing the black community, and Banks criticizes Iggy specifically for staying silent on these matters.

I have to say that agree with her on the issue of The Grammys. It’s been said many times that black Hip-Hop doesn’t get a fair chance at The Grammys because the people who pick the winners are of a completely different age group and demographic than the black nominees, and therefore pick the artists with the most media buzz as the winners. For them, it is about ratings. At the time, Iggy and Macklemore were creating more of a stir than their black counterparts so they won.

Now, while I thoroughly enjoyed both of their albums, I do think the method is a bit unfair. Macklemore himself couldn’t believe he beat Kendrick Lamar and said he shouldn’t have. As for the injustice, I honestly didn’t even notice that they hadn’t commented until Banks pointed it out. And I have mixed emotions on that subject because on one hand, I understand the anger that Banks was expressing: in that if you are going to partake in a culture apart from your own and adopt and promote that culture, you are not exempt from the issues that said culture experiences. On the other hand, I feel that making these observations and shaming people for not speaking out is not doing anything to help solve the problem. If anything, it just drives more of a riff between cultures and races; and it takes the spotlight away from the victims who need to be advocated for.

Macklemore even went on the same radio show after Azealia Banks to give his opinion on the matter. He gives a very good response when asked about why white hip-hop artists did not seem to say anything about these racial injustices. “Silence is an action,” he says, “and I’ve been silent for a long time because I didn’t want to mess up, I didn’t want to offend anybody. But I’m tired of being silent.” He says that, as a white rapper, he has the privilege of staying silent; but watching everything that has gone on has made him sick and that this conversation needs to be had in order to progress in this country. Ebro agrees with him by saying that because people are so quick to dismiss someone’s feelings, the conversation gets pushed aside and ignored. Out of sight, out of mind.

Getting back to the music, much of Macklemore’s interview is a discussion about the progression of hip-hop music into the mainstream and the resulting “whiteness” that has become the genre. Peter Rosenberg notes that when he first discovered hip-hop he didn’t want to hear white rappers, he wanted to learn about black rappers and black culture. He also notes that since it became mainstream, white kids got into it and as a result wanted to see rappers who looked like them. The interview continues on with this debate and Ebro asks Macklemore if he thinks his music was embraced by white radio because he’s a white rapper and Macklemore says yes. Peter Rosenberg then expands on the question by asking “If a black rapper had made Can’t Hold us, you don’t think it necessarily would’ve had the same effect?” Macklemore replies with “Why am I safe? Why can I cuss on a record, have a parental advisory sticker on the cover of my album, yet parents are still like ‘You’re the only rap I let my kids listen to’?”

I think Macklemore makes a very valid point with his response. While he posed it as a question, it spoke volumes more than any straightforward answer would have. Macklemore is right, he is seen as “safe.” And I know for a fact that if I were a parent, I would let my kids listen to him before I even considered letting them listen to Drake or Lil Wayne or Kanye. There's a difference between me and the parents Macklemore is using as an example. He is saying they let their kids listen to his music because he’s white, and because of his whiteness he must be wholesome and decent. My reason for not letting my imaginary/future kids listen to the black rappers I mentioned is not because they are black, but the content of the majority of their music does deal heavily with sex and drugs. That being said, I would also prohibit my kids from listening to Iggy Azalea and Eminem because they also produce content that I would not want my children to be immersed in. And furthermore, if there were any songs on Macklemore’s album that I deemed unfit for little ears, then they would be prohibited too. For me, it is not about race, it is about content. I like all of the artists I mentioned above, and I guess it makes me a hypocrite that I’ve been listening to all of them since they each came out, but I want to make a point that it shouldn’t matter what color the artist is. If the content is inappropriate, that should be the deciding factor.

One last thing I wanted to touch on was Amandla Stenberg. Her video, which is titled “Don’t Cash Crop my Cornrows,” is not just about the appropriation of black hairstyles. That is used as a metaphor for the deeper issue that has stemmed from centuries of oppression of the black community. “Appropriation occurs when the appropriator is not aware of the deep significance of the culture they are partaking in,” Stenberg says. She then goes on to say that hip-hop stems not only from a black struggle but from jazz and blues “that African Americans created to retain humanity in the face of adversity, which itself stems from songs used during slavery to communicate and survive.”

This topic needs to be emphasized because it has such deep roots, and those who partake in the culture because they think it’s cool or fun need to be educated on the significance of the identity created by the black community. There needs to be a line drawn in the sand between adopting/adding to a culture and appropriating it because there is a significant difference.

There is always a lesson to be learned in these debates. People, regardless of racial, economic, social or political background, should educate themselves about the issues that arise. Sure, the argument is valid that some white artists are guilty of appropriating black/hip-hop culture, but like I said, pointing fingers doesn’t help solve the issue. The way I see it, Azealia Banks is just as guilty of fueling the fire negatively as the artists she accuses. While appropriation within the hip-hop culture is only one sect of the racial debate, it still affects not only this generation but the generations to come. These are the people we look up to as young kids and adults. These are the people we see and want to emulate, so if they start the conversation and assist in educating not only themselves but their fans, then progress will soon be on the horizon.

Cover Image Credit: blackgirllonghair.com

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