an invitation and a challenge re: cultural appropriation...

Today I want to lay out both an invitation and a challenge involving critical thinking, popular culture, exploitation, art, racism, creativity, and the movement of beauty, truth and goodness.  On July 31, 2017, Ryan Holiday wrote a provocative and nuanced article about "cultural appropriation" in the realm of music. To be sure, there is polemic and hyperbole as he is not writing a scholarly critique, but rather a think piece for popular culture. So if you are interested in wrestling with this beyond ideology, my invitation to you is to first read the article and then give yourself time to think critically about it. You can find it here: I would welcome your insights.

Holiday's reflection begins by noting that in August 1968, Robbie Robertson recorded a song with The Band that evoked great emotional and popular success.  "The Night They Drove Ol' Dixie Down" describes "a particularly painful moment in American history told from the perspective of a group that had experienced merciless violence at the hands of the US federal government." His presenting question is simple: given the rigidity of contemporary thinking re: cultural appropriation in art - a movement committed to righting the wrongs of the past when dominant culture profited from a minority community's creativity - why was there no public outcry over Robertson's identity "theft?" The musician is after all a Canadian First Nations artist; what could he possible grasp about the American Civil War from the vantage point of the vanquished? When asked about motivation, the best Robertson could say was that he wanted to write a song that worked well for Levon Helm's voice. (Helm was the only American in the group.)

Holiday then carefully unpacks some of the issues in our current dilemma: "Cultural appropriation, properly defined, is the exploitation or co-opting of a culture to which one has no rightful heritage." Opinions differ widely on the magnitude of this ugly reality ranging from chastising Katy Perry for wearing a kimono at the American Music Awards (she is not Japanese) to decrying the wealth Elvis Presley made when he blended Black R'n'B grooves with White Country'n' Western sounds to popularize what we now call rock'n'roll. As one who celebrates the creativity of Elvis, noting that another rock pioneer, Chuck Berry, did much the same thing while working from the opposite direction - taking Black music and mixing it up with White country twang - I appreciate the way Holiday presents his concern in contemporary terms: "Who does Robertson think he is trying to speak about the plight of the poor tenant farmers of Dixie?" The remainder of this lengthy article suggests a simple but nuanced answer: Robertson is an artist. His creativity honors both another's culture in a genre bending manner while also creating something new, true and beautiful in the process.  The author notes that the same cannot be said about the Joan Baez cover that is all schlock and sentimentality. Her version does to "Dixie" what Pat Boone's cover of "Tutti Fruitti" did to Little Richard.

This is where it becomes tricky for me: in a climate that neither values nor understands art, and is so self-absorbed and insecure simultaneously, how do we legitimately combat cultural appropriation without becoming neo-Stalinists in the process? This isn't a new question.  Back in the early 60s Bob Dylan nearly quit writing and performing songs because the New Left demanded more social justice folk anthems from him when he was on an inward journey. Irwin Silber, the self-styled Commissar of Art for the American Left, regularly called Dylan out for his deeper, introspective experiments in poetry, music, emotion, and rock and roll. (see "An Open Letter to Bob Dylan @ http://www.edlis. org/twice /threads/open_letter_to_bob_dylan.html) It took a chance radio program playing "I Want to Hold Your Hand" by the Beatles for Dylan to rethink an early retirement. "I can do that too" he concluded near New Orleans and began to refashion his music with the same verve as the Beatles but from a new American reality. Dylan blended the blues, the Beats, T.S. Eliot, and rock and roll in a way that changed popular culture forever.  And in his genre bending critique, he raised social commentary in music beyond the confines of tradition into art.

Robertson, who played with Dylan when the master went electric, spent a few years learning the songs of "the old, weird America" after Dylan's motorcycle accident allowed him time to recover in Woodstock, NY. Listen to "the Basement Tapes" recording and the roots of "Dixie" begin to become clear.  That's the invitation: read the article please - and think about it.

The challenge is this: share with me your understandings of how far ideology can be allowed to trump art.  As you can probably tell with my celebration of genre-bending, I favor Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, Antonin Dvorak, Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Dave Brubeck, Ella Fitzgerald, Carlos Nakaai, and others who have chosen to honor tradition while playfully expanding upon it. I contend that the Beatles, the Stones, the Yardbirds, Van Morrison, Elvis, Chuck Berry, Etta James, Janis Joplin and others did exactly this without ripping off traditional culture and its purists. To be sure, some of these artists profited from the music of others, but they were paying tribute to forgotten genius - and made certain to pay royalties as well.

Over the next few days I would like to think critically with you about how to call out those who are genuinely exploitative without imposing the straight jacket or censorship upon our artists.  Thoughts? Comments?  Critiques? Until then, "I'm going to Graceland..."


Anonymous said…
We cannot go out on the streets anymore and demand that people stop race mixing. That ship has sailed. However, thanks to the left, we can now go on the streets and demand that cultures stop mixing. That's not racist one bit.

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