Black music has been hijacked, stolen and culturally appropriated by white artists in the music industry since before Eminem.
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Black music has long been imitated and culturally appropriated by white artists.
Popular culture in America today is directly rooted in Black culture. White privilege enables white people to reap its benefits. To listen to Black artists and steal their style without giving credit. Wear clothing inspired by Black culture. Or even in the case of Kylie Jenner, steal clothing designs from a Black woman. Use slang coined by the Black community, capitalize on traditionally Black beauty trends, to consciously draw on fragments of Black culture for your personal benefit but then stay silent when Black people are being killed is the norm for white people. It has been for such a long time.
A History of Theft
White people draw extensively from Black culture every single day, from the music they listen to, the clothes they wear, the slang they use and to the food they eat.
Like systemic racism, appropriation of Black culture is so ubiquitous and normalized that most white people can actively engage in it and never, not once in the course of their lives, be forced to confront that fact. Nothing new there. The infatuation with Black culture by white people has historical roots; look no further than the whitewashing of the rock ‘n’ roll genre and hip-hop culture, along with other cultural thefts, for evidence. The enduring influence of Black culture in America as well as white people’s enduring exploitation of it is not a matter of opinion. It is fact.
This modern-day race and power play is no original drama. Terms such as “blue-eyed soul” tap into the phenomenon of white artists that steal from the inflections and pulse of Black music.
A big problem in the Black music industry is that you have so many white artists that are co-signed by Black producers, such as Justin Timberlake and Timbaland, and Justin Bieber and Usher.
We live in a world that privileges whiteness. The same thing happens in the music industry.
Music artists, such as Elvis Presley, have hijacked rock ‘n’ roll. Or Miley Cyrus, who exploited the use of Black signifiers.
The big problem is that you can be blackballed if you speak out against cultural appropriation. Music is but one iteration of institutional racism.
Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author Norman Mailer once wrote about the issue of White Americans immersing themselves in Black culture in a 1957 essay, “The White Negro.” Tracing the history of Black American coolness or “hip” as he called it, from jazz to those 1950s hipsters he considered white Negroes he asserted: “So it is no accident that the source of Hip is the Negro, for he has been living on the margin between totalitarianism and democracy for two centuries. But the presence of Hip as a working philosophy in the sub-worlds of American life is probably due to jazz, and its knife-like entrance into culture…”
The analysis, although not wrong, was simplistic. Filtered through today’s lens, however, the same is generally true. Black Americans are cool. Black culture is cool. Thus, hip-hop is cool.
In his essay “The Appropriation of Music and Musical Forms,” Perry Hall Ph.D., an assistant professor in the University of North Carolina African, African American and Diaspora Studies department, points out that although Louisiana Creoles created jazz during Jim Crow, the first known jazz album was made by white guys, the Original Dixieland Jazz band. A decade later, Paul Whiteman, a white man, was crowned the King of Jazz by the media. Ironically enough, modern-day critics and historians don’t even class Whiteman’s jazz to be jazz at all, given its strange symphonic sound.
The reality is that most white artist’s success is due to their race. The fact that in hip-hop circles most white artists skills are considered, at best, average, further solidifies that fact.
You can make it as a white artist with limited skill, but as a Black artist, you need to be incredible, and even then you might not get recognition.
This generation of white artists who’re inspired by and compelled to emulate Black music are no different than those that preceded them. It’s hard to resist the cool of Blackness. Yet the unspoken rule should be that when an artist mimics another’s art, acknowledgment must follow. We’re in the midst of a great cultural erasure, one that started long ago; and has no end in sight.