more thoughts on cultural appropriation...

Let me amplify a few observations I set out in yesterday's "invitation /challenge" re: cultural appropriation blog post (check it out @ html) In raising my concerns about the "absurd logic" of the current status of anti-appropriation combatants, I am not trying to inhibit or prevent squashing the unethical violations of another's culture, religion, aesthetic or art. The socio-economic hegemony of my own dominant US culture has long abused the beauty of First Nations' talent, stolen African American music and dance, sanitized immigrant folk songs and stories, and appropriated the handiwork of women's crafts in pursuit of naked financial gain. Turning the iconography of one people's culture into the kitsch of souvenir shops is vulgar and degrading. To intentionally cheat artists out of the financial reward their creativity has garnered is criminal. 

Let there be no ambiguity, therefore, in my position: stealing, degrading, and manipulating the art, music, and craft of another culture is morally wrong and aesthetically destructive. On this point, Holiday is spot on: "Cultural appropriation, properly defined, is the exploitation or co-opting of a culture to which one has no rightful heritage."  A brilliant example of an artist and producer getting this right might be Sly Stone and his inter-racial band. Not only did those cats celebrate Black and White cultural influences in the turbulent 60s respectuflly, they made certain to give both camps their propers so everyone else could joyfully danced their booties off. Here was jazz, funk, classical, proto-rap, Black, White, and Latino all mixed together for the common good.

Two other examples from American pop culture tell a different story involving
white entrepreneurs capitalizing on the emerging popularity of African American music and intentionally stealing it through legal machinations. The Chess Brothers, Leonard and Paul, were Polish immigrants who created Chess Records in Chicago. In time, they hosted our nation's most important blues artists including Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Etta James, Bo Diddley, Little Walter, Willie Dixon and Buddy Guy. To be sure, the brothers Chess loved the "race music" they recorded. They made certain it received the distribution beyond the ghetto it deserved. And, Chess Records will always remain a beacon in the early days of popularizing rock and blues music.  At the same time, it must be noted that the contractual relations the Chess brothers negotiated with their African American artists regularly rewarded the brothers more than thei "brothers." Was their business cultural appropriation in the strict sense of the term? Sometimes yes, and sometimes no. Did the brothers Chess benefit from American racism and unequal power dynamics of the 1950s? Beyond the shadow of a doubt. And is American music richer because of their risk taking and creativity? Absolutely in ways that continue to fill my heart with gratitude. (For more on Chess Records go to:

The story of Pat Boone's outright rip offs is much less ambiguous: his producers /handlers simply stole songs from early rockers like Little Richard and Fats Domino without paying royalties or rights. They had their white bread singer "cover" black songs for a nervous white audience and made money hand over fist doing so in the early days of rock'n'roll. Not only was this blatant cultural appropriation in all its shameful arrogance, it was aesthetically offensive. Just compare the exuberance of Little Richard and then try to listen to Pat Boone's weak ass cover of "Tutti Fruitti."  (For more of the back story, go to "Tim's Cover Story @

From our vantage point in 2017, Pat Boone's music and actions are a clear rip off. Can the same case be made against Paul and Leonard Chess?  I think not, even while calling out some of their unethical and overtly racist business practices. Shades of gray are as important in art as in ethics. The current black or white rigidity of some in this conversation dumbs down the whole debate. 


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