The Appropriation Problem

Discussions of cultural appropriation often frame the problem in one of two ways: in terms of cultural property or in terms of what composers are “allowed” to do. Both of these approaches tend to result in the conversation getting sidetracked. Another way of framing things would be to say: music is a kind of social interaction. Denying the social aspect of music-making doesn’t make it stop happening; it just means that when it does happen, you don’t see it.

Written By

Alex Temple


“In Love Like Music” by Kool_Skatkat on Flickr.

In my last two articles for NewMusicBox, I defended composers who interact with cultural streams outside the one we call “new music,” and explained why I think those interactions are good for the arts. But, as several commenters pointed out, not all borrowings are morally or politically equivalent. The big question that I haven’t addressed yet is, when does influence become exploitation?

I spent a while debating whether I should write about this topic. I know my perspective is limited: I’ve never had the experience of watching people from more privileged social groups appropriate an artistic tradition that played a central role in my life. That’s partially because I’m white, educated and American, which means I’m the more privileged one in a lot of situations. It’s also because I tend not to feel very connected to the minority cultures that I am a member of. I’m queer and trans, but I haven’t participated much in radical queer and trans counterculture. I’m Jewish, but I’ve never felt a strong connection to Jewish tradition. (I’ve also spent my life in liberal cities and college towns with big Jewish populations; what little anti-Semitism I’ve experienced has been in the form of personal insults, not systematic exclusion.) Most of the time, if you put me in a room with what’s supposed to be “my community,” I’m going to start wondering what I’m doing there.

At the same time, I don’t think it would be right for me to write a series of articles about interactions between musical traditions without talking about the ethical and political issues involved. And I have spent a lot of time thinking and talking about those issues, because most of my music explores the cultural meanings of sounds and styles, and I don’t want to do that in a way that’s exploitative or disrespectful. I’ve had some pretty heated conversations, and I’m sure I’ve made bad judgment calls—but I do think I’ve learned something over the years. So I’d like to offer some thoughts on the topic, with the understanding that this is all provisional, and that I welcome other perspectives in the comments.

* * *

I’d like to start with something I’ve noticed in discussions of cultural appropriation. They often frame the problem in one of two ways: in terms of cultural property or in terms of what composers are “allowed” to do. In my experience, both of these approaches tend to result in the conversation getting sidetracked. The former leads to increasingly abstract musings about what it really means for a group of people to own a musical style, usually while ignoring the power dynamics that make inter-cultural influence so fraught in the first place. The latter leads to impassioned defenses of composers’ freedom of expression, which—much like the arguments that pop up whenever a public figure is criticized for saying something prejudiced—typically ignore the point that just because you can do something, that doesn’t mean you should.

Another way of framing things, which I think might make for more productive conversations, would be to say: music is a kind of social interaction. It’s written by people, played by people, and heard by people. I know there are musicians who, wary of the vagueness and unpredictability of things like “meaning,” prefer to see music purely as a collection of structures with objective properties. But denying the social aspect of music-making doesn’t make it stop happening; it just means that when it does happen, you don’t see it.

Case in point: there are a lot of white composers who draw influence, inspiration or sonic materials from other musical worlds—gamelan music, for example, or hip-hop. I don’t think that’s exploitative or disrespectful in and of itself; to my mind, it really depends on how you do it. (More on that later.) But some of these composers seem to take for granted, without even realizing it, that everyone who hears their music is also going to be white and probably a fellow classical musician, too. It’s not that they’re malicious; it’s that they’re so caught up in their own perspective, and in the often alarmingly homogeneous new-music social scene, that it never occurs to them to think about how their interpretation of another culture’s musical ideas might be perceived by someone who is actually from that culture.

“But you can’t predict what meanings people will find in your work!” some will say. That’s true, if “predict” means “know for sure.” But you can certainly be aware of the meanings that people might find in your work. Human reactions to art aren’t totally arbitrary. Sure, they’re affected by a lot of idiosyncratic factors, such as personality, taste, and mood, but they’re also affected by more predictable ones—symbols, values and meanings that are held in common by many people. That’s why, for example, it shouldn’t have been hard for Katy Perry (or her agent or her label) to predict that a performance assembled entirely out of Orientalist stereotypes would not go over well. Those images have a long and well-documented history.

* * *

So let’s say you’re a composer, and you’ve come across something that strikes you in some way. Maybe there are sounds in it that spark your imagination. Maybe there’s a story that moves you. Maybe there are structural ideas that could get you out of a compositional bind. Maybe you want to illustrate a more abstract point about the nature of authorship or history or global politics. Maybe you just find it exciting and want to pay tribute to that excitement. And let’s say that this thing you’ve found comes from a tradition that’s pretty far removed from the new-music world that you work in. What do you do?

The two simplest answers are both problematic. “Everything is fair game, so do what you want” is easy, but it can lead to insulting people, taking credit for their work, or stepping on things that are profoundly important to them. “It’s not yours to use, so don’t even think about it” is straightforward, but it can lead to a kind of separatism that keeps contemporary classical music insular and disconnected from the rest of the cultural landscape. Trouble is, it’s a lot harder to follow advice like “remember that music is a social interaction,” or even “remember that real people from a variety of backgrounds might be listening.” So I’d like to talk about a few of the questions that I find helpful when I’m trying to figure out whether a piece of music is doing right by its influences.

1. What’s the power relationship between the composer and the source?
JacobTV has built a career out of music based on recorded speech. But he’s oddly indiscriminate about whose speech he chooses to sample — and there’s a big difference between The Body of Your Dreams, which uses clips from weight-loss infomercials, and Grab It!, which uses clips from interviews with black prisoners on death row. The former is about as safe an appropriation as I can think of: if there’s one group of people you can confidently say has never been oppressed, it’s advertisers. (It’s worth noting that in the visual-art world, where the word “appropriation” often has a more positive tone, it usually refers to taking elements from advertising or commercial pop culture.) Grab It!, on the other hand, takes the voices of people who are already disenfranchised, and effectively censors them by cutting them into such small fragments that it’s almost impossible to understand what they’re saying—other than the word “motherfucker.”

Sometimes, though, the power relationship isn’t so obvious. What about, for example, composers that use ideas from pop music? On the one hand, pop music has vastly more economic power, cultural presence, and media support than contemporary classical music does. On the other hand, classical music has historically enjoyed a kind of prestige that popular music didn’t have access to until pretty recently, and there are still people in the classical world who think that way—enough of them that even composers who use pop-cultural tropes out of genuine love and respect risk being misread as trying to “improve” or “upgrade” something they see as inferior.

The phrase “popular music” covers a lot of ground, too—especially if you’re using the very broad definition that classical musicians tend to. Taking ideas from Public Enemy has a different sociopolitical meaning than taking ideas from Radiohead. Although here too, the answers aren’t always obvious: Chuck D thought it was “great” when experimental sound-collagists Evolution Control Committee used his voice in a mashup without permission.

2. Is the composer reinforcing existing cultural hierarchies?
When I first discovered the polystylistic music of Alfred Schnittke, I heard it as a brash declaration that all musical styles are equally valid. I was disappointed to learn that he was actually a big believer in “high” and “low” art, to the point that he consistently described the popular and historical styles he quoted as “banal,” “vulgarly functional,” and “the lower layers of [my] musical world.” When I listen to a piece like the First Concerto Grosso now, the ironic quotation marks around the tango and late-Romantic violin solo seem obvious.

John Zorn, on the other hand, has angrily denounced the idea of stylistic hierarchies: “The idea of high art and low art … is a bunch of fucking bullshit!” He’s also spent as much time playing in bands as writing concert music. I have a hard time imagining anyone taking the trippy noir jazz in Spillane as an attempt to “upgrade” something by giving it “high-culture” status. Since I’ve read interviews with both composers, it’s hard to know for sure whether I’m reacting more to their music or their rhetoric, but I can say for sure that I find Zorn’s attitude much more progressive.

3. How well does the composer understand the source?
The usual argument is that if you’re going to take elements from another tradition, you should know it inside out. For example, I’ve seen relatively little criticism of Evan Ziporyn’s gamelan-influenced pieces, and that seems to be partially because he’s lived in Bali, collaborated with Balinese artists, and played traditional gamelan music for decades. He’s done his homework; you can’t accuse him of ignorantly and haphazardly grabbing elements of another culture without knowing anything about their real significance (as people have said about Katy Perry’s AMA performance).

But I wonder if there might also be value in totally misunderstanding something, so that what you create in response comes across as “inspired by,” rather than “borrowing from,” the source material. I’m thinking, for example, of Poulenc’s Double Piano Concerto. It also includes passages influenced by gamelan music, but they’re so utterly Poulenc-ified that you might not even realize what inspired them if you didn’t already know. And yet power dynamics have a way of creeping back in. Poulenc first heard gamelan music at the 1931 Paris Colonial Exhibition—an event explicitly designed to whitewash French imperialism. Once you know that, the piece takes on a darker tone.


* * *

All of these questions are riddled with complications. And there are plenty of other questions you could ask: What’s the original meaning of the material you’re drawing on? Is your work the result of a collaborative interaction, or of looking at another tradition from afar? Are you using your source material to portray people in a stereotyped way? Are you making money off it? Every one of those issues deserves further discussion, but this article is long already. So instead, let me ask you: What do you think? How do you distinguish beneficial cultural exchange from exploitative cultural appropriation? Leave a comment and let us know.