Hands off our music! Notes on authenticity, belonging, and cultural appropriation in music of the digital age

In 2001, the late jazz critic Joel E. Siegel reviewed a new Billie Holiday boxed set issued by Columbia Records in the November 9 issue of the Washington City Paper. While he praised the music effusively, he objected to literary critic Farah Jasmine Griffin’s essay on representations of Holiday in literature featured in the liner notes, “Literary Holiday”. The source of his ire was his belief that her argument was  too narrowly derived from identity politics, “Filled with the buzzwords of academic race and gender analyses—Holiday is referred to as the ‘ancestor,’ ‘muse,’  and ‘foremother’ of black women writers—this racially skewed lubrication dismisses representations of writers of other races…or ignores them altogether.” Among the writers he mentions are Elizabeth Hardwick and Alice Adams.

At the time, I was developing my relationship to jazz which I had always thought of as “black music” but he challenged me. Notably, when he argued that, “In her haste to disenfranchise non-African-American writers, Griffin fails to acknowledge that the overwhelming majority of Holiday’s songs were composed by songwriters of European descent and that the instruments that accompany her and the tonal system they employ are also of European, rather than African, origin. Holiday’s music belongs to all of us, and Griffin’s attempt to appropriate it as the heritage of a single race is misguided, if not distasteful.” 

His line that “Billie belongs to all of us” shook me because it challenged so much of what I had believed up to that point. I also responded viscerally to the line because I had frequently found the pervasive reduction of Holiday’s art and life to tragedy, and the appropriation of Holiday’s art to perpetuate myths about doomed celebrities, grossly simplistic and exploitative.  Siegel’s observation speaks to the literal fusion, of a European tonal system and the African-American blues aesthetic that is core to jazz’s componentry as a musical genre. He also pinpoints the broader reality that there is something profound in Lady’s Day’s artistry that has enabled her to become iconic as a musician across continents, generations, races, and genres.  

Billie Holiday is one our most transcendent artists. She belongs to all of us culturally, according to jazz critic Joel E. Siegel. 

Billie Holiday is one our most transcendent artists. She belongs to all of us culturally, according to jazz critic Joel E. Siegel. 

I am not sure if this kind of “transcendent” artist exists anymore. Today’s musical fragmentation means that even performers as popular as Adele, Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Bruno Mars, Taylor Swift, and Kanye West, sell only a fragment of a previous generation of musicians. More importantly, their appeal seems very tied to specific demographics, especially in terms of age. We are as far away from a consensus about popular music as we have ever been, and demographic transcendence seems almost antiquated.  

Conversations about the mass culture’s appropriation of cultures, especially ethnic, regional, and working and lower class cultures, has reached an apex of circulation. Young white musical performers like Izzy Azalea, Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, and Taylor Swift are some of the more recent examples. Yet, these conversations originated in the late 19th century when blackface minstrelsy emerged as mainstream popular culture and has extended as regional styles like jazz, R&B, country, reggae, and hip-hop have entered the mainstream. 

In 2016 the blog site The Root discussed the issue of cultural appropriation among contemporary figures like Justin Bieber.

In 2016 the blog site The Root discussed the issue of cultural appropriation among contemporary figures like Justin Bieber.

We can extract several questions from these debates including the following: In the age of mass production and digitization could any type of musical expression could ever remain contained within a specific culture? How is this desirable and/or useful, if at all? Is there is an ethical way for ethnic/regional/underrepresented cultures to reach mass consciousness without erasing their origins and diluting the music itself? How invested are we in the potentially “transcendent” qualities of music, and does this ever trump affective investments in protecting/preserving/curating regionally/ethnically specific music? These are thorny issues and neither a laissez-faire perspective that all culture is ripe for the plucking or a curatorial identity politics approach seem satisfying.      

To return to the jazz example, unlike regional genres, such as Washington D.C. based Go-Go music, jazz did not remain confined to a specific geography or culture for very long. Nor were its leading practitioners leery of it reaching a mass audience. Though musicians frequently worry about genres suffering from commercialization and dilution, jazz ambassadors like Louis Armstrong welcomed its reign as the most influential musical aesthetic in popular music from the mid-1920s until the mid-to-late 1950s. Many critics, such as the late Amiri Baraka, lamented big band music and “cool jazz” as commercialized distortions of jazz’s blues roots. Arguably, though, jazz had to extend outward from enclaves like Chicago, Kansas City, New Orleans, and New York to grow. Otherwise, there would be no bebop, soul-jazz, avant-garde, Latin Jazz, Brazilian jazz, fusion, or other variations. 

When recording technology emerged in the early 20th century, and mediums like records and radio made different types of music accessible to broad audiences, urban music reached rural areas, rural music reached urban areas, and these boundaries altered our contexts for listening.  You did not need to participate in black Protestant church services to appreciate gospel singers; people all over the country who never witnessed the footlights of Broadway hummed show tunes; folks could enjoy country music from the comfort of their homes without ever visiting the South.

The intentionally generic picture I am painting of the way these genres once reached the mass audience seems like a distant memory, but consider the following: If you did not grow up in certain communities in New York and Los Angeles, you are, disconnected, technically, from the cultural environments that produced hip-hop originally.  If this is true of you and you enjoy hip-hop, does this make you a poser? Does this mean you are insincere in your listening practices? Does it compromise your ability to comprehend the music fully? Most reasonable people would say no, or, probably not. The paradox of possessiveness is that artists usually want to be heard by anyone willing to listen.

But, because there is a cultural dimension to hip-hop, (e.g. cultural references, slang, geography, fashion) the relevant issue is how deeply these elements, experienced through consumption, could reasonably extend into the lives of listeners.  Since the late 1990s, many hip-hop scholars have noted the irony of upper middle class white teens consuming graphic forms of hip-hop (e.g. West Coast “gangsta” rap) but lacking cultural connections to the scenarios the music describes. This sensation is elevated when performers from genres outside of hip-hop adapt hip-hop’s musical and/or cultural elements into their music. We can easily dismiss everyday people as posers, but musicians might profit from musical tourism and expand their audience. How do we reconcile the relationship of genuine curiosity to exploitation, and can we expand the terms of the conversation? I return to the four questions above to explore what’s possible.

In the age of mass production and digitization could any type of musical expression could ever remain contained within a specific culture? Once we document cultural expressions (e.g. musical, choreographic, verbal, visual) they are immediately vulnerable to circulation and, by extension, appropriation. Notably, in the context of music, someone outside of the original environment can listen, duplicate, employ, and exploit the expression. They could also refine, embellish and enrich the tradition. There is more than one narrative possibility.

Technologies are integral to documenting and circulating culture. In the “selfie” age, where spectacle and external approval are so salient, one wonders if people seeking to protect/preserve culture are aware of how documenting their expression opens it up to public scrutiny. Exploitation, which I will define as co-optation or adaptation, without credit is one consequence. The local or regional creator of a style may be understandably upset if a style went national or international without acknowledgement of its geographic and/or cultural roots.

Three other relevant issues emerge. First, new music is usually generated by communities of musicians not just one individual. For example, the development of bossa nova (which I discussed in July 2017) occurred among multiple Brazilian musicians jamming together in the “bottle” region of Rio in the late 1950s. This is similar to the bebop musicians experimenting in New York in nightclubs in the early 1940s, and the DJs and MCs whose experiments with breakbeats created hip-hop in the 1970s. No one individual can usually take credit for creating music.

Second, if creators want to contain music to a space, documenting it and performing it means it will be heard and is thus vulnerable to circulation. Professional songwriters copyright their music and have publishing deals to ensure payment when other musicians record and/or perform their music , and when radio stations and other outlets broadcast their music. Though this is an imperfect system, it is one way that musicians have tried to protect their creation. The challenge is both the shady tactics of the publishing industry (e.g. record companies and song publishers offering musicians low royalty rates; corrupt managers adding their names to songs they did not write) and the fact that performance itself cannot be copy written. If there is a visual style and/or performance accompanying a song, it is much harder to control this aspect. A person viewing it on YouTube could easily re-create it, embody it and claim it as their own. The larger question is how creating art means we are seeking some level of reception and even immortality. In the digital age media increases the chance of something gaining exposure, but also makes artistic ownership difficulty to control.

Paul Simon, Miriam Makeba, and members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo pose triumphantly at a concert performance.  

Paul Simon, Miriam Makeba, and members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo pose triumphantly at a concert performance.  

Third, we must also consider the potential for appreciation. There is the benign and valid pleasure we experience listening to something fresh and original. Musicians may also feel compelled to re-create a sound, not necessarily for profit, but because they can hear how it speaks to their musical aesthetic. In the mid-1980s, Paul Simon traveled to South Africa and jammed with South African musicians. He then edited these sessions into tracks and wrote melodies and lyrics that became the 1986 album Graceland. He was not the first Western musician to work with South African musicians but he was the most successful. He heard many overlaps between with rock and roll, gospel, and South African music and achieved immense commercial success and acclaim for his fusion. Many people criticized Simon for breaking broke the U.N.’s culture ban, but he exemplified intercultural values showing the possibility of harmony through music and broadening the audience of the singing group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. He also toured with the group, as well as legendary South African musicians Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela, and they actively campaigned against apartheid. Some might characterize him as attempting to be a white Western “savior” but few contemporary musicians have been as successful in helping expose other musicians, illuminating political realities, and recognizing the cultural roots of their music with the same conviction.  

 How desirable and/or useful is cultural preservation, if at all? People who originate from cultures that have been historically subject to genocide, enslavement, holocausts, and other forms of annihilation, tend to be guarded about how their culture travels. Given the technological landscape and illusions that we have reached a post- racial/gay/gender society (we haven’t!) we must ask: What are vulnerable populations trying to protect and/or preserve?

Dignity is one of the foremost concerns for targeted groups. Blackface minstrelsy emerged in the 19th century as the first form of national U.S. “entertainment.” Blackface minstrels were typically white performers, dressed in black face who sang, danced, and performed routines intended to mimic black performers.  At the time, whiteness was crudely conceived as intellectual, organized, and dignified and blackness as the opposite. Many scholars have argued that minstrelsy was a “mask” that allowed white performers to express a buried emotionality that would otherwise be unacceptable. As such, some have interpreted it as a form of appreciation and homage. Comparatively, many black Americans viewed (and still view it) as racist and degrading, in part because it confines black expression to one mode, defined by exaggerated and distorted ideas about black expression. After centuries of enslavement and dehumanization it was perversely ironic for white culture to create and enact a version of blakc culture without recognizing the humanity of blacks. Many black performers have performed in blackface minstrelsy in the late 19th and early 20th century, but this was more for survival than anything artistic.

Gradually, this style, which made people like vaudevillian Al Jolson famous, faded from popular entertainment.  Arguably, it has manifested itself in everything from the cartoon-ish faux-gangster image of Vanilla Ice in the early 1990s to “urban themed” parties hosted by white fraternity and sororities featuring members in blackface. The indignities represented by blackface, which epitomizes appropriation, distortion, and exploitation is a core reason why many genre fans are leery of “urban” culture reaching the suburbs. There is a pervasive sense that those who mimic these emergent aesthetics are seduced by the cultural products but disinterested in the people and cultures that have generated the products. This gap is in many ways a metaphor for U.S. racism.

Cultural appropriation, and the associated indignities, are often a kind of default conclusion we draw when culture we covet seems to emanate from the wrong person or place. The intent of culture making is at stake. Presumably, performers want audiences, and those who do seek out ways to get their music circulated. If this is the case, what are the boundaries between listeners adapting and refining music and merely borrowing it? This feeds into my next question.

 Is there is an ethical way for ethnic/regional/underrepresented cultures to reach mass consciousness without erasing their origins and diluting the music itself? Stealing culture is easy; as is finger pointing.  What is harder and more interesting is discussing what it looks like to pay homage properly and/or to fuse and hybridize effectively. Prior to rock and roll professional songwriters and/or those contracted to write for Broadway and film wrote the most popular songs. These are the kinds of songs that made Holiday, and other legends like Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald famous.  In the late 1940s through the mid-1950s a new class of singer-songwriters emerged in R&B, folk music, and rock and roll and it became common for singers to write their own material. Interpretive singers of the rock generation frequently covered music written by songwriters of their own generation, not from the swing era. Then, in the late 1970s and 1980s, a lot of rock generation sinners began recording pre-rock material with orchestras, which evoked the feel of pre-rock music. Many critics applauded this as a sign of generational reconciliation, but others lamented the inferior musicality of the new generation and/or the failure to modernize “old” songs effectively.

A few singers transcended the nostalgic preservation approach and garnered some critical respect. For example, Cassandra Wilson’s 1993 album Blue Light Til Dawn eschewed orchestras and traditional jazz instrumentation, and the typical jazz repertoire for a more stripped down sound with elements of electric blues and R&B. she also chose songs from multiple eras, and wrote original material. The result was a wholly contemporary approach to jazz singing that influenced her peers. She is an example of a singer from the rock generation (she was born in the mid-1950s) who melded her taste with her interest in jazz and blues music. More recently, singers like Joe Jackson who paid tribute to Duke Ellington on 2012’s funky The Duke, and contemporary post-bop singer Gretchen Parlato, have stretched the boundaries of what people might define as jazz by using contemporary, experimental interpretive approaches. They are aiming to innovate and add to the tradition, rather than mimic and repeat easy formulas, and the results are dazzling

Gretchen Parlato is a great example of a contemporary jazz singer who is aiming to innovate within the tradition rather than duplicate the past.

Gretchen Parlato is a great example of a contemporary jazz singer who is aiming to innovate within the tradition rather than duplicate the past.

 How invested are we in the potentially “transcendent” qualities of music, and does this ever trump affective investments in protecting/preserving/curating regionally/ethnically specific music? These questions return us to the original issue of transcendence. Music is cultural expression, entertainment, and pleasure. Artists want to people to listen, and often consume their music, as well as their persona and their aesthetic.  Artists often seem less bothered by appropriation than audiences and critics. I distinguish this from their anger toward corrupt record labels, managers, agents, accountants, and nightclub owners.  Wanting to be heard and seeking visibility entails vulnerability, but also possibility. No one will ever be able to duplicate someone as gifted and unique as Holiday, or Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Hank Williams, Laura Nyro, or Cassandra Wilson to name a few. We can enjoy their music and take inspiration from it but artists attempt to achieve originality. All artists reflect their influences, but perhaps the most distinguished artists synthesize elements of their influences into something that feels connected yet distinctive. Finding your own language—musically, visually, emotionally—and continually refining it is a consistent pathway our most heralded icons seem to pursue. The examples of mimicry, cultural exploitation and formula I have outlined represent the worst of what happens when artists fail to tap into their roots and create something new.

But there are plenty examples of artists whose careers are defined by this approach from Paul Simon to Gretchen Parlato. Holiday derived her phrasing, her interpretations of lyrics, and her sense of time from absorbing the art of predecessors like Bessie Smith and Armstrong.  While we can hear elements of their influence in her artistry, what we mostly hear is Holiday. She has inspired fine artists like Tony Bennett, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Etta James, Abbey Lincoln, and Carmen McRae, all of whom have recorded tributes. Yet no one would ever confuse her with them, or vice versa and that is the point. They learned from her that each artist has to make a unique imprint to matter. There is no substitute for the real thing.

 

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