When Does Paying Homage Become Appropriation?

Music has always played a role in showcasing the struggle of those without a voice in their communities. Whether it was the negro spiritual slave songs, or the progression of that into Blues, Jazz, Soul, Funk, and ultimately Hip Hop, they have all influenced each other in some way. They have been a steady progression of their eras artistic expression of discrimination and hardship. 

We live in an amazing time for music and culture in general. We have an infinite amount of information at our fingertips. It gives us the opportunity to be influenced by cultures and societies in what seem like worlds away. It allows us to experience communities outside of our own that otherwise would have stayed foreign because of endemic biases. It allows people to see the beauty and struggle of the cultures that have been suppressed and appreciate the art that came from their plight.

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These genres of music have been an outlet of expression and a platform to showcase the atrocities that are dealt with on a daily basis even now.

Much like hip hop, electronic music often takes samples of other artist’s music to create something new and fresh.  Also much like hip hop it really began to gain traction in the 70’s and 80’s with the addition of turn tables, synthesizers and drum machines. Historically there has been a constant ebb and flow, but it really gained traction in mainstream media in the 80’s and 90’s and with rise in large rave style festivals like EDC and Tomorrowland. Aspects of electronic music have contributed to an array of music over the years.  

The difference is that hip hop grew from genres and people of the same neighborhoods, of the same culture, of the same struggle and those that chose to sample the music did it out of knowledge, respect, and love of the genre and artist that came before.

Electronic Music is a huge umbrella with many diverse sub-genres so to generalize them all on one pot and all artists in one conversation is unfair. Though, at this point acknowledging what is happening in the progression of music is necessary and addressing whether it is progression or in some ways another stage of the continued appropriation of a culture and people who have consistently been oppressed.

Through every stage of urban music there has been a counterculture of artists that have sought out to emulate, imitate and appropriate the sound and style of the genre and original artists in question. With Blues it was Rolling Stones to Muddy Waters. The Rolling Stones name was even adopted from the Muddy Waters song Rollin’ Stone. Chuck Berry and Little Richard played key roles in Rock n Roll and Jimi Hendrix is the king of the electric guitar but it is largely considered white people’s music.

Fast forward to hip hop, which started out as an innovative Afrocentric genre, mainstream media has now transformed it into a new manifestation of African-American satire. It panders to stereotypes instead of deconstructing them. Not to say that all hip hop is this way, there are still many Afrocentric, poetic lyricists out there but you won’t hear them on your mainstream FM stations. 

muddNow that music has evolved into an electronic landscape of mixed genres it has become far more common to hear samples of multiples genres. Blues, Jazz, Soul, Funk and Hip Hop are all borrowed from heavily in many Electronic sub-genres like Trap, Funkstep, Nu Jazz,Trip Hop, FunkStep, Funktronica and Ghettotech to name a few. A lot of these are the most amazing blend of new age technology, talent and reverence for the music that they are pulling from. On the flip side there are many artists who are making music with zero knowledge of the history and importance of the music that they are pulling from, taking samples from greats like Billie Holiday and Miles Davis without any real knowledge of who they are or ever really listening to their music.

I have spoken with a few fairly big artists (who will remain nameless) who I was excited to talk music history with because they utilize not only Jazz and Funk samples but borrow heavily from 90’s era Hip Hop only to find out that they had no knowledge of the actual music and used those pieces of music because it “sounded right” in the mix or production.

Utilizing music like Jazz without ever really listening to it or understanding it, exploits the use of black culture and creates a space of silent acceptance of the appropriation. Once again the dominant culture has taken something fundamentally urban and black and succeeded in overlooking its roots to utilize its power, passion and talent as their own. When mimicking another artist’s work or manipulating it for your own use acknowledgement must follow.

Wanting to take part in cultures that do not belong to you is a beautiful way of beginning to understand that culture. The problem begins when there isn’t an attempt to understand that culture and there is a perceived feeling of ownership without acknowledging the roots and importance of those people and their music. Therein lies the distinction between admiration or “paying homage” and cultural appropriation.

We are in the center of a cultural smudging. This is a conversation that needs to be had… and understood.  The cyclical nature of the arts is inevitable and generally a welcomed rebirth of something beloved but it is the responsibility of those utilizing something with cultural relevance to do so with reverence and understanding and to share that and those roots with their listeners.

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