The following is my reaction to a reactionary “Cultural Appropriation” Thread (sparked by this article on the topic and consisting entirely of non-Black commenters) that I can’t comment on directly (friend of a FB friend). Heading: Clueless White Guys Griping about This Shit… Again. And it is tiresome.
“It’s not “cultural appropriation” when Kiri Te Kanawa sings Verdi, when Yo Yo Ma plays Bach, or when Aretha Franklin sings Puccini.”
Yeah, but it would definitely be a form of cultural exploitation if Aretha Franklin (and lots of other singers resembling her) pushed the Europeans to the margins of the Puccini circuit… and German cellists would certainly be sorely irritated if only Yo Yo Ma (or people resembling him) could make good money performing Bach, no?
“How is it cultural appropriation when a white musician learns a style that was generated by black musicians and performs it well enough to make a living at it?”
How is it not a grievous offence against reason, taste and fairness when “Edgy Black styles” plus “Pretty White Faces” is the surest path to mega-success in show biz?
Further down in the thread someone writes:
“For decades I’ve heard how Elvis stole the black man’s music. Spike Lee, Chuck D, et al. keep spouting that crap. I am a tenured white professor at an HBCU and one place you won’t hear that is at LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis or just Memphis in general. African-Americans in Memphis knew exactly who and what Elvis represented from the start. They knew he loved R&B, blues, country, white gospel (above all), and black gospel and put them in the Elvis blender and out came one of the 20th Century’s greatest artists. Elvis loved the Memphis black community and supported it his whole life. He always gave credit. And the black community loved and continues to love him right back. For a freshman composition class I start students off with a discussion of the state of Memphis. I’ve read hundreds of manuscripts of black students proud to call Elvis king.”
It’s not so much that Elvis stole anything (beyond Otis Blackwell‘s vocal tics and, uh, certain financial windfalls, courtesy of Col. Parker), it’s that he was instrumental in the crafting of a corny, hybrid, post-hootenanny Pop form that his Pretty White Face made wildly acceptable to Negrophobic Mainstream America… and fair enough. That’s just the lucrative business of Negrophobia. But, for anybody who’s ever heard Little Richard cut loose, to call Elvis the “King”… this can only be attributed to tone deafness, racism or insanity. There is just NO comparison. And any Black Kids sincerely (rather than arse-kissingly) referring to Elvis as “The King” need a 45-minute emergency dose of unadulterated pre-’70s Richard as. soon. as. fucking. possible. If you have actually heard Richard and you have actually heard Elvis and you persist in calling Elvis “The King”, you are a Spiritual (if not a literal) Cracker.
Wait, what’s that you say…?
Whenever I hear someone start a “cultural appropriation” rant, I counter with “We can talk about that as soon as they return our 12-tone music.” Stops ’em dead.
Oh do be quiet, Gomer.
“I may be a mediocre blues guitarist, but I’m better than most African Americans, and I’ll play whatever I feel like at home. And whatever I can get paid for on a gig.”
Aha. It’s dubious clairvoyance like that that Racism was developed to facilitate.
Are we surprised by it?
Where was I?
It’s not a Black vs White thing, it’s a Little Richard vs an Elvis thing. For example, I feel that The Beatles‘ version of “Twist and Shout” is by orders of magnitude more powerful than either The Isleys‘ or The Top Notes‘ fruity attempts, or any other attempt that I’ve heard. And it’s not as though, say, Chuck Berry was a powerful vocal stylist (as opposed to a guitar innovator): he wasn’t. But find me the “hottest” version of anything by Elvis and I can vaporize it with any of Richard Wayne Penniman‘s unsanitized tracks (and even some of his tame stuff). It wasn’t just Richard’s recklessly proto-punk, raging bisexual energy that elevated him to a musical precipice far harder to reach than Presley’s, it was more that Richard could really sing… he could blow a gale with or without a microphone… there was aerosolized blood in his wailing because he was singing from the groin while pounding the hell out of the beat. Elvis’ genteel singing technique came entirely from the back of his throat. Ie: he was a modified crooner. He was technically most similar to Bing Crosby (and one of his most successful descendants, in this technique, is Bryan Ferry, who’s an even weaker vocalist than Elvis was), though Elvis was capable of a theatrically sneering version of “raunch” (a la “Hound Dog”, and “Heartbreak Hotel”, helped with the studio magic of slap-back) that none of his teeny bopping fans were capable of distinguishing from The Real Thing. Christ, do I really even need to make this point, still, in 2015? Looks like it.
No, of course not: no particular Race owns any particular Art Form or manner of speech or dress. Which explains the Defensive Maneuver of all this “Cultural Appropriation” talk lately, ironically… because it sometimes seems that all Cultural Forms end up being owned and operated by… uh… You Know Who? And the laughable apparent sense of White Male Grievance about the (admittedly, on the face of it, irritating) term “Cultural Appropriation” is disingenuous as holy fuck.
And, in closing, and just to clarify…