In defence of Adele’s ‘cultural appropriation’ — It’s time to accuse the accusers
British musician Adele was recently accused of cultural appropriation over an Instagram picture in which she sported a traditional African hairstyle known as Bantu knots. One tweet claimed that this was “cultural appropriation that nobody asked for”, adding the sweeping generalisation that “this officially marks all of the top white women in pop as problematic.” Another advocated “jail” with “no parole” for her Bantu knots crime as Black British public figures like Tottenham MP David Lammy and model Naomi Campbell came to the singer’s defence. Most of the fuss appears to have been generated in the US.
The term ‘cultural appropriation’ juxtaposes a very complex human phenomenon — culture — with a legal notion of protection of Intellectual Property — appropriation. The inherent tension between these concepts explodes at times like the Adele-Bantu-knots furore. Understanding whether or not something was taken without permission requires an understanding of the thing which is alleged to have been taken. UNESCO’s Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity defines ‘culture’ in a single sentence, but each component of this sentence has been worthy in itself of countless tomes throughout the ages:
‘the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group, and that it encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs’.
The accusation of theft by ‘appropriation’ requires a consideration of whether the subject matter is in the public domain. That, in turn, requires a consideration of whether the subject matter merits protection owing to the possession of characteristics such as a sufficient degree of originality, substantial investment, or novelty. Also required is a consideration of whether the originator of the subject matter actually seeks protection. Outside those aspects of culture where intellectual property is easy to identify, such as art and literature, the contours of the public domain are often grey or non-existent. If you can’t ‘appropriate’ something that is in the public domain, isn’t the term ‘cultural appropriation’, as applied to the more nebulous aspects of culture, actually an oxymoron? Does it have any validity in any situation?
It’s also important to ask whether it’s wise to selectively politicise and remove cultural expressions from the public domain if removal might be detrimental to both the originating culture and to others who will inevitably draw on them for inspiration. Cultural products that we generally accept should be protected to reward the creator for their work are not the subject of the Bantu knots furore, which is more a problem of culture that is all around us, ‘in the air’ — the stuff we live and breathe without consciously understanding how it came to be: a way of speaking, a dance form, a distinctive musical sound, an attitude or response to situations and life, a peculiar way of doing things and, yes, hairstyles. But my attempt to delineate what is and what isn’t up for debate itself merely highlights the complexity we face. A musician may copyright a song she writes and produces but not the genre of music which may have a discernible cultural origin. If the song owes part of its creation to a cultural genre, can anyone lay claim to that genre? Is it a traditional cultural expression that a minority or indigenous group could validly seek to protect? If so, how? The interaction between IP law and culture is a minefield. If you doubt that, skim read this paper by Lucie Guibault on Intellectual Property and Culture.
Culture depoliticised and distilled to its essence is the social manifestation of human thought. ‘Appropriating’ culture is as human and inevitable as thought itself because no human being, whether an artist, author, inventor or individual engaging in a hobby, creates anything in complete isolation, and all culture that is in the public domain serves as building blocks for further creation and innovation. Culture is continuously morphing as its creators imbibe from the available pool, alchemizing the old into the new. The history of all genres of pop music is a story of how artists from diverse backgrounds fused their own individuality with different musical cultures in a process of continuous innovation.
We all instinctively get this, so how are we to explain accusations of cultural appropriation in relation to something so obviously available for public transmutation as a hairstyle? Body art in all its forms has never been subject to any form of societal or legal restriction. Should everyone agonise about the cultural origin of tattoos before they decide to get one? Is there really anything that any distinct group of humans can claim to be exclusively “theirs” if that group evolved by interaction with and absorption by other groups?
Leaving aside, for now, the wider philosophical questions about culture and appropriation, let’s return to the very specific question about hairstyle appropriation. And here is one website that will provide you with a definitive answer on the rights and wrongs of hairstyle appropriation. According to its mission statement, gal-dem “is a new media publication, committed to telling the stories of women and non-binary people of colour” seeking to address “inequality and misrepresentation in the [media publication] industry.” Although a British based website, it echoes the rhetoric and preoccupations of its US counterparts. In an April 2016 post, it sets out to answer the question: Can white people wear dreadlocks?
The dictatorial tone of its introduction to the topic is at once jarring and cartoonish because it’s what you would least expect from an organisation committed to addressing injustices of racism. The writers at gal-dem express surprise at the frequency with which the question comes up in various forms and, bristling with hubris, they unequivocally promise to “answer these questions, so that you never have to ask us again.”
Gal-dem defines cultural appropriation in two sentences, the first of which is: “the process of adopting certain elements of another culture…and removing them from their original cultural context.” The second sentence explains its inappropriateness owing to outcomes such as “profiting off the intellectual property of other cultures”, the disrespect shown to the culture and “the double-standards involved when a dominant culture adopts aspect [sic] of a culture they have historically oppressed.”
Not even a passing mention is made of the reality of living in a city like London where you could be, to use gal-dem’s words, “adopting certain elements of another culture” without giving it a moment’s thought almost from the moment you get out of bed. Literally. Nobody can pinpoint its precise origins, but Buddhist meditation practice began some 2600 years ago in South East Asia and only gained any notable foothold in the West in the mid 20th century. Today there are countless meditation apps “profiting off the intellectual property of [an]other culture”. And it goes without saying that the adoption of cultural practices will, by definition, “remove them from their original cultural context”. What’s sorely lacking in gal-dem’s analysis is nuance: when does cultural adoption cross the line from being the never-ending socialised extension of human thought to offensive appropriation? Equally important, who has the right to make that judgement? After all, human societal groups are rarely homogenous blocks marching in ideological lockstep.
The post goes on to deal with the historical evolution of dreadlocks from Ancient Greece, Egypt, the Vikings, ‘various ethnic tribes in Africa’ and Hinduism through to modern day Jamaica. This evolution is acknowledged only because it poses a threat to the claimed ownership of dreadlocks which gal-dem asserts is the cultural property of Black Jamaicans. And how is this threat dismissed? With this petulant and cognitively dissonant finger wag:
“However, in the modern-day 21st century of which [sic] we all currently live, dreadlocks are most commonly associated with the Rastafari movement which developed amongst Black Jamaicans, through which dreadlocks hold spiritual significance. So, although all ethnicities have a history of sporting dreadlocks, anybody who wishes to deny that dreadlocks are a black hairstyle within the cultural context of the present is in denial.”
And with this ungainly mental pirouette to convert a ‘black hairstyle’ into cultural property, the past is swept away: that was then and this is now! This is problematic for at least two reasons: Firstly, it’s true that culture is in a state of continuous evolution which morphs an old past into a new present, a process by which ‘ownership’ gets lost in the mists of time and diluted in the alchemy of cultural transmutation. But if you’re going to dismiss past iterations of culture in order to claim ownership in the here-and-now, then be prepared for others to dismiss your present claim at some point in the future and don’t complain when it happens. When you acknowledge the evolutionary process through different cultures and generations, you can’t help but become less possessive about cultural property. Secondly, the that-was-then-this-is-now approach to problem solving is a crude tool used by racists in dominant groups to sweep historical crimes under the rug — ‘get over it’, ‘it’s ancient history’, ‘we need to move on’, and variations on this theme are frequently used by right-wing commentators to dismiss the debate on reparations for slavery. We know that history reverberates into the present so is it wise for anti-racists to employ the same crass tactics that are often pulled out of the racist’s tool box?
Moreover, if it were possible to reach a consensus opinion that dreadlocks are now Jamaican cultural property, shouldn’t Jamaicans alone be the ones to decide who can and can’t wear them? And, if they could arrogate that power to themselves, might they restrict African Americans from wearing them? I just can’t see how smearing hair art with cultural appropriation will lead to anywhere other than a never-ending mess of tangled knots and contradictory curls.
Ironically, the attempt by a group of people of African descent living in North America to define and then police African culture is an appropriation of a right they do not possess. Most of the fuss about cultural appropriation of African hairstyles comes from African Americans not Africans. There is no observable uproar on the African continent in response to the occasional White Western celebrity sporting an African hairstyle purportedly patented for use exclusively by Black people.
The gal-dem post then addresses the question: “But hair is just hair. How can it be appropriated?”. Sadly and probably unwittingly, they resort to a tactic commonly used by racists to defend what they regard as their territory:
“different hair types are better suited to different styles, and so certain styles undeniably become linked to certain ethnicities.”
Well, the average Middle England racist has great difficulty imagining the 007 James Bond role being reprised by Idris Elba because, in the cobwebs of their bigoted minds, certain roles ‘undeniably become linked to certain ethnicities’, right?
And with one last flourish, gal-dem settles the biggest question: “Tell me straight. Can I, as a white person, wear dreads?”:
“Yes, you can. In the same way you can also choose to use racial slurs, or ignore systematic oppression. But you won’t be exempt from criticism for the reasons I listed above. In a society that puts emphasis on free speech, you have the freedom to wear dreadlocks, and black people have the freedom to explain to you why they find it racist or offensive. We are not entitled to all things. We cannot get away with doing everything we want at all times. Make of that what you will.” [Emphasis added]
Well, that certainly is telling it straight! But the whole tone of gal-dem’s post is altogether bullying, petulant, arrogant, anti-intellectual, suffocating, illiberal, imperious and alienating. It is everything anti-racism should not be. But it is also genuinely sad because this plaintive cry, buried three quarters of the way into the post, more than hints at the root cause of the fight over appropriation of hair styles:
“Imagine handing in your homework and someone else getting all the credit, then your teacher making fun of how awful your own identical work is in front of everyone. That’s what it can feel like for black people when white people wear dreadlocks.”
Culture is integral in defining people’s identity, whether it’s national identity or identities of minorities. To acknowledge that African Americans are a persecuted minority only scratches the surface of the scab covering the huge wound of centuries-old brutality they have endured. The USA’s enormous wealth is congealed with the blood and sweat of Black America. And the country would not be the cultural icon, albeit waning, that it is today without the blazing contribution of Black American culture, triumphing in spite of the relentless machinery of institutionalised racism. Systems of institutional inequality guarantee over-representation in prison cells and under-representation in the enjoyment of the country’s social and economic capital, as they do here in Britain. And so it is understandable why a feeling of insult being added to injury is experienced when Black creativity and inventiveness are mined in the natural process of cultural absorption and exchange that made Elvis the King of Rock ’n’ Roll and gave the Rolling Stones inspiration for so much of their work.
So here we are in 2020 with Black America rightfully asking, “What have we got in return?” And the pain inherent in this question is at the root of posts like gal–dem’s which seek to ameliorate it by attempting an intellectual argument for why white people should not wear African hairstyles. Black America and Britain still finds itself battling systemic racism that takes, takes and takes without giving credit or reward. Gal-dem’s intellectual arguments fail, in my opinion, but the emotional pain and anger is palpable. What they are really saying is: stop taking and start giving.
We can and should empathise with gal-dem’s raw emotional reaction to perceived cultural theft. But empathy should not lead to automatic agreement. Let’s consider the effect of arbitrarily excluding others from Black experience by looking at the right wing attack on cultural diversity and the aim of its attack.
In the late noughties, when it was becoming clear that the right-wing in Europe and the US was gaining ground by stoking anti-immigrant sentiment, centre-right and even centre-left politics debased itself by pandering to anti-immigrant sentiment. The result was that cultural diversity was put squarely in the crosshairs. Of course, cynical politicians would never have succeeded in doing this if they had bothered to consider and explain what cultural diversity was actually about. At its core, it is simply a stated desire to encourage a willingness to live together in societies that are diverse by encouraging cultural exchange as a means of widening the range of cultural options open to everyone and ultimately bringing people together through shared experience.
The attack on cultural diversity was not only cynical but also perverse, and the idea that a minority can defend itself against racism by protecting inherently porous aspects of its own culture from the public domain should not be welcomed by anti-racists either within or outside minorities because it can so easily be misinterpreted and twisted as confirmation of a desire for separateness. Alienating well-intentioned white (and other) people who want to experiment with Black culture is so obviously self-defeating and plays into the hands of racists.
Black people are obviously not an indivisible, homogenous group marching in ideological lockstep. But to the extent that any attempts by self-appointed spokespeople of “the community” to exclude others from Black experience were successful, they would be self-defeating because exclusion perpetuates segregation. Exclusion is segregation. The practice of cultural exclusion is a race to the bottom, the end result of which is that we will all agree to lead separate lives. Only racists want that outcome.
Cultures that clash and then end up having to share the same space must come to an agreement on how to also share in each other’s heritage. That agreement has to be preceded by an understanding that everyone is going to dine at the same table, eat the same food (consisting of a culturally diverse banquet!) and pay the same price for the meal. It can be done. Today, descendants of white British settlers who defeated indigenous Maori tribes in bloody battles to expropriate land perform the Haka with their Maori compatriots at the start of All Blacks’ rugby games. Of course, as a colonial settlement, New Zealand is not without simmering ethnic tensions, but it is not on fire.
Race is a ‘social construct’, but this benign technical description of a human social phenomenon belies its true destructiveness. It is one of the cruellest hoaxes humanity has played on itself. Believing that certain experiences are the preserve of certain ethnicities is a trap set by racists. People of colour should not fall into it. No-one should. All people should be angry about the invention of race because it diminishes everyone. It took the genius of James Baldwin to remind us that Europeans were not ‘White’ until they moved to the colonies and nor were Africans ‘Black’ until they were transported to those colonies. And, with the election of two morons (Bush Jnr and Trump) to the American Presidency in the first twenty years of this century, no one spells out better than Baldwin the incalculable price America and the world continues to pay for the centuries-old hoax of false identities:
“Just so does the white community, as a means of keeping itself white, elect, as they imagine, their political (!) representatives. No nation in the world, including England, is represented by so stunning a pantheon of the relentlessly mediocre…But this cowardice, this necessity of justifying a totally false identity and of justifying what must be called a genocidal history, has placed everyone now living into the hands of the most ignorant and powerful people the world has ever seen: And how did they get that way? By deciding that they were white. By opting for safety instead of life. By persuading themselves that a Black child’s life meant nothing compared with a white child’s life… And in this debasement and definition of Black people, they debased and defamed themselves. And have brought humanity to the edge of oblivion: because they think they are white. Because they think they are white, they do not dare confront the ravage and the lie of their history. Because they think they are white, they cannot allow themselves to be tormented by the suspicion that all men are brothers. Because they think they are white, they are looking for, or bombing into existence, stable populations, cheerful natives and cheap labor. Because they think they are white, they believe, as even no child believes, in the dream of safety.”
We need to start accepting that culture as ideas and customs, as the socialised manifestation of human thought, invites appropriation. Culture is not denoted by skin colour. Should Elvis and the Rolling Stones have been forced to apologise for being heavily influenced by African American music? No. Should they have given more credit to the Black artists who gave them inspiration? Yes. But we’re also going to have to accept that this isn’t always going to happen because art and vanity are inseparable. It is far more important to recognise that the forces seeking to maintain or erect new fences and barriers around ethnic groups are growing and we only feed these destructive forces if we agree to the erosion of shared experience. Adele’s wearing of Bantu knots at the time of London’s Notting Hill Carnival was an artistic act of solidarity. Shooting down acts of solidarity as ‘cultural appropriation’ is anti-racism shooting itself in the foot.