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Steal this culture: why all pop music is theft

Jesse Kinos-Goodin

Sixty years ago, “Shake, Rattle and Roll” was released — twice. One white, the other black. One became a well known foundation of rock ’n’ roll, the other, a footnote.

Originally released by Kansas City blues shouter Big Joe Turner in April, 1954, “Shake, Rattle and Roll” reached the number one spot on the R&B charts on June 12. The very same week that Turner’s song peaked, a sanitized “white” version that incorporated elements of country music and stripped the song of most of its sexual innuendos was recorded by Bill Haley & His Comets (it was released in August). While both versions eventually sold over a million copies, only one version is the song everyone knows well, spending a total of 27 weeks on the Top 40 pop chart and peaking at number seven. The other, after topping the R&B chart for three weeks, peaked at number 22 on the pop chart. I’ll leave it to you to guess which version did what.

“Shake, Rattle and Roll” was rock ’n’ roll’s first major hit, ushering in a new music epoch, but more importantly than that, it set the blueprint for the practice of appropriation in popular music that continues to exist today.

“There’s never been a form of American popular music, as far as I know, that hasn’t been invented by black people and co-opted by white people,” says The New Yorker’s Andrew Marantz, speaking to Radiolab about a piece he wrote on how a white DJ, HOT 97’s Peter Rosenberg, became a gatekeeper of what’s cool in hip-hop.

It’s a troubling and all too common trend with echoes of colonialism, in which a dominant culture adopts and assimilates aspects of a marginalized culture, in the process threatening its very existence. In the course of history, it's reached a tipping point. Cultural appropriation has gone from being the exception to the expectation — especially if a white artist wishes to shed one image for a new, cooler one.

“Black is the gold standard for cool, and you don’t need to look any further than the coolest thing of the last century, rock and roll, to see the ways in which white culture clearly sensed that the road to cool involved borrowing from black culture,” writes Questlove of the Roots, as part of an excellent six-part essay series titled “How Hip-Hop Failed Black America.”

Borrowing cool
When a culture’s “cool” caché depends on its status as an outsider, what happens when mainstream artists aggressively adopt the signifiers of that culture, making them the new status quo?

We need look no further than some of the biggest pop stars on the planet for examples: Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus, two young artists who wished to shed a Disney-fied image in favour of, to use their own words, a “black” one.

"I'm very influenced by black culture, but I don't think of it as black or white," Bieber told The Hollywood Reporter. "It's not me trying to act or pose in a certain way. It's a lifestyle — like a suaveness or a swag, per se. But I don't really like to say the word ['swag'] anymore. It's kind of played out."

For Bieber, it means tattoos and drop-crotch pants. It means trading his saccharine pop hooks for R&B. It means trading Carly Rae Jepsen endorsements for collaborations with black artists from across the genre spectrum: pop (Nicki Minaj), golden era nostalgia (Chicago’s Chance the Rapper), the vanguard (Atlanta’s red hot rap trio Migos) and R&B (R. Kelly). While he’s increased his foothold in the “black culture” he so admires, the chasm between old Bieber and new Bieber was ripped wide open this month when two videos emerged of a younger Bieber telling disturbingly racist jokes.

Then there’s Cyrus, who approached the (black) songwriting duo Rock City when she wanted a change. They wrote “We Can’t Stop” for her, which was the beginning of Cyrus’s rapid ascent to the top of the pop pecking order. Of working with Cyrus, Rock City (brothers Theron and Timothy Thomas) told Vibe magazine, "She was like, 'I want urban, I just want something that just feels Black.'”

Not to dwell on Cyrus too much, but the singer’s use of twerking, a dance that also derives from black culture, was another major part of her transformation — the centrepiece of it, even. When Nicki Minaj, who twerked in music videos long before Cyrus, was on The Ellen Show, the topic came up: namely, why were people making a big deal about Cyrus, but not Minaj? Caught off guard, Minaj delivered an answer that couldn't be more on point.

Minaj: It’s the white girl thing. No, seriously. If a white girl does something that seems to be black, then it’s like, black people think, oh, she’s embracing our culture, so they kinda ride with it. And then white people think, oh she must be cool, she doing something black. It’s weird, but if a black person does a black thing, it ain’t that poppin’.

DeGeneres: Is that right?

Minaj: It’s clearly obvious Ellen.

And what about the current number one rap song (and a leading contender for song of the summer), “Fancy,” by Iggy Azalea? If you’ve ever asked yourself why a white girl from a town in Australia with a population of approximately 3,000 would speak in ebonics, you’re not alone. Azalea’s attempt to imitate Southern rap parlance (Atlanta's T.I. produced her 2012 EP, Glory) is so painfully contrived that her affectations border on minstrelsy, never mind the cognitive dissonance at play on lyrics like the ones below, taken from 2011’s “D.R.U.G.S.”

"Tire marks, tire marks, finish line with the fire marks,
When it really starts I'm a runaway slave... master,
Shitting on the past gotta spit it like a pastor."

In a controversial story published by Forbes, Azalea was praised as hip-hop’s newest star and someone who “runs” hip-hop. Somehow, despite her regressive and condescending relationship with the culture from which she’s blatantly taking, she was celebrated as someone filling a “void.”

“Iggy Azalea is not a success story I wish to celebrate,” wrote Olivia Cole for Huffington Post, in response to the Forbes piece. “To me, she isn't a success story at all: she is a novelty, a tiresome example of white female privilege and the delight white culture finds in white people appropriating any and everything.”

Appropriation vs. appreciation
But even given all this, it’s too simplistic to say that every single instance of one culture borrowing from another is appropriation, which comes down stealing with extreme prejudice and disregard for that culture. If anything, critics can be too hasty to call artists out on it, a recent case being Avril Lavigne’s Japanese-themed video for “Hello Kitty.” Western critics were quick to condemn it as racist and insensitive, even though it was received favourably in Japan.

The phrase “cultural appropriation” has been used so much as of late that Huffington Post named 2013 the year of cultural appropriation. Google trends, which indicates the popularity of search results for key words, shows the phrase to be in a drastic and steady ascent since December 2012.


The positive side to this is that it indicates a hyper awareness of cultural appropriation, and, even if the meaning is diluted at times, particularly egregious examples don’t go unnoticed, whether it’s Azalea’s ebonics, Lady Gaga and Rihanna’s “burka swag,” Selena Gomez’s bindi or the inappropriate use of indigenous headdress in music videos and magazine covers.

With a broad enough definition of appropriation, all popular music could be classified as theft, so what happens when something is actually the result of a reasonable exchange between cultures?

“Is there anything that, in the idealist, most pure sense, that has not been sullied or alloyed by outside influences?” asks Ken McLeod, a professor of history and culture at the University of Toronto, in an interview. “Where has that happened? Name one kind of music that has just existed and just sprung up as a pure entity from nothing, that hasn’t been the result of cultures rubbing against another.”

Ian Campeau, a.k.a. Deejay NDN of A Tribe Called Red, an Ottawa act that makes electronic dance music using samples of powwow music, agrees.

“Everything we do today draws from the past, everything comes from some sort of idea that comes from something else,” he says. “[Appropriation] comes down to who’s really profiting from it all. It comes down to exploitation. When you are exploiting a culture you are using it for your own benefit and profit. It’s not cultural appropriation if credit is given and that original group benefits in some way.”

Country rap
This brings us to the biggest act in country music right now (a genre that is historically not one of the most progressive). Florida Georgia Line is the duo of Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard, from Florida and Georgia, respectively, and their sound owes as much to hip-hop as it does to country music.

Their hit song “This is How We Roll” is blatantly built around rap slang and cadences, right down to Hubbard’s “Holla at yo boy” in the second verse, which he raps. Country rap in itself isn’t new, but the way in which this song slides in and out of rap mode, as if there is absolutely nothing out of the ordinary, is.

Compare it to Blake Shelton, a country traditionalist and figurehead, who rapped on “Boys 'Round Here” last year, but kept the rap element at arm’s length, treating it as a novelty, something to exploit, complete with an awkward video emphasizing stereotypes.

To Shelton, the incorporation of rap was “the sound of money, lots and lots of money,” as his label president, John Esposito, told The New York Times. And he was right, as “Boys 'Round Here” hit number two on the Billboard country chart and earned Shelton his highest position on the Billboard Hot 100. All this despite the song proving just how awkward and disjointed it can be when one culture skims from the surface of another and re-purposes it.

The success of "Boys 'Round Here" explains why rap is permeating country music, a trend that can be dated back to Bubba Sparxxx in the early aughts (or even earlier than that if you want to consider Woody Guthrie and talking blues), but which has been making enough of an impact on country music lately that it can no longer be passed off as fleeting. In 2010, Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem” featured him rapping a verse, and the song became one of the best-selling singles by a male country solo artist.

To the country world, hip-hop isn't just the sound of money, it's the sound of relevance.

“[Aldean] … busted down the doors,” Tyler Hubbard of Florida Georgia Line told The New York Times in the same piece mentioned above. “This sound is part of the evolution of country music.”

But this is where it gets tricky. Is it appropriation, or is it an example of two cultures intersecting and creating something different, with both parties benefitting? Atlanta rapper Ludacris, after all, was featured on Aldean's “Dirt Road Anthem” remix, and St. Louis rapper Nelly, who’s not new to rap-country collaborations, was featured on a remix of Florida Georgia Line’s previous hit, “Cruise.” Country artists are taking from rap, yes, but it would seem that some of them are also giving credit to the artists that inspired them by way of collaboration. Nelly is even joining Florida Georgia Line on a U.S. stadium tour this summer, which, as far as I can tell, is the first instance of a tour this size featuring both a rap and country artist.

“Mixtape’s got a little Drake, little Hank,” Hubbard sings on “This is How We Roll,” a telling line that indicates not only their taste in music, which ranges from Canadian rap to classic country, but the taste for a majority of Americans living in the South and, based on the success of the duo, their fans.

It’s an uncommon case where both parties are benefiting financially from the exchange, giving us an indication of how little music has evolved since the duelling “Shake, Rattle and Roll”s of 1954. The fact that Florida Georgia Line — a group whose popularity is matched only by their unpopularity; who, as leaders of the “bro-country” movement, have been criticized for perpetuating sexist tropes and sullying country music as a whole — are taking the lead in responsible borrowing is surprising.

Their “aggressive ordinariness” aside, at least they're giving credit where credit is due. It’s more than can be said for a lot of artists at the top.

Follow Jesse Kinos-Goodin on Twitter: @JesseKG