May 26, 2015 at 2:54 am

The Thing About Cultural Appropriation

The Thing About Cultural Appropriation

by Gary Paramanathan


Cultural appropriation is rife these days, just about everyone from Miley Cyrus to your non-Japanese neighbour in her geisha outfit are edging on pushing some cultural politico over the edge. I was one of them, I was totally sold on cultural appropriation, and by that I mean how bad it was, how it needed to be stopped….etc etc. Then I started having my doubts.

Let’s define Cultural Appropriation first. I know it is so passé to use wikipedia as a reference, but this isn’t a journal article, so here goes. According to Wikipedia, the definition of Cultural appropriation is “the adoption of elements of one culture by members of a different cultural group, especially if the adoption is of an oppressed people’s cultural elements by members of the dominant culture.” This works for me.

So now let’s consider some examples, this Non-Japanese neighbour of yours, especially if he/she is white (dominant culture) appropriating (via Geisha outfit) a less dominant culture (Japanese), then it most certainly is Cultural Appropriation. Your neighbour might as well be Gwen Stefani or the contemporary poet Nicki Minaj, both have been known to notoriously culturally appropriate. And in this case, note that not all cultural appropriators are white. African American Artists have been appropriating Eastern music for awhile now, and we’ve been appropriating their music back. Missy Elliott for example with Get Your Freak On, uses Punjabi beats, a Japanese intro and the occasional Hindi whispers. I wonder when she constructed this brilliantly catchy track, did she know that she was grabbing from multiple ethno/cultural groups, and if put off by “cultural appropriation” she may have walked away from a great piece of modern pop.

Then there is also this random French Tamil ‘Gangsta’ rap song. Are we really going to shut this down as cultural appropriation?

We also have to question, what has come out of Gwen and Nicki culturally appropriating Japanese ‘culture’, namely Harajuku and Samurai/Ninja imagery? or a bunch of Tamil Parisians appropriating hip-hop/rap culture?

Nothing. No one died. Neither subcultures were in anyway radically transformed. No one got offended. Everyone just got on with their lives. Well everyone except some cultural politicos, who got their proverbial knickers in a knot.

Now don’t get me wrong, there are examples where cultural appropriation just seems downright unacceptable. For example, appropriating Aboriginal Australian art and culture. For a community that has had everything that is theirs plundered, art and culture is their last tangible asset. Someone appropriating their art is essentially another form of stealing, and when so much has been stolen from them, every little bit of stealing matters. This is both an economic and social argument, and to an extent codified.

My issue is, in general theories about cultural appropriation make a number of false assumptions, many of which don’t apply to the rest of us, and it is a tool of oppression by the non productive creatives and critics shutting down those who dare to experiment.

Instead of hanging heads on pikes for appropriation and seeking an apology (because every Samurai is definitely holding out for an apology), I think we should instead seek an acknowledgement of use when necessary, and mostly just let it go. Ultimately, we should adopt a Creative Commons model, because culture does not belong to anyone, and it is always open to modification.

Now with Nicki and Gwen, their intention were pretty clear. They do very well in Japan in album sales and concerts, so for them it was as much a creative choice as a marketing/economic choice. Those kids old enough to know Madonna and her Ray of Light era will know that she totally appropriated Hindu culture, tradition and imagery. Not for sales, because I doubt Ray of Light reached top of the charts in India, but because she identified with that culture momentarily, and she saw that as a point of differentiation from other artists. Did she in any way alter Hindu culture/tradition? Did she lead to any damage done to the religion? Did anyone leave the religion? Na, nada.

If anything, yoga subscriptions and Deepak Chopra sales went up a little. Maybe some people even read up on Hinduism and adopted the philosophies behind the imagery. Being overly ambitious in her appropriation, Madonna, on the same album also did her Geisha thing via the song Nothing Really Matters. I’d like to pause for a moment to say, we need to consider setting up a Geisha Appropriation Fund, so the Geishas get their rightful share of pop culture income.

Maybe not.

On the ground level, here’s what Madonna did to me. As a young South Asian kid growing up in Australia, as someone partly indoctrinated into Hinduism, she gave me an avenue of pride, and acknowledgement that her work and her identity was somewhat influenced by a religion that was much more familiar to me. She gave me an immediate access to her work, that otherwise I would not have developed. So to me, her appropriation of Hindu imagery, gave me a sudden desire to re-explore my own cultural heritage, at the same time offering me a sense of belonging to Western pop culture. I’d imagine for most Japanese, the appropriation of Geisha imagery does provide some sort of nod to their identity, even though the vast majority of them are not Geishas, they may feel in the global pop picture, they matter.

Lately, there’s been a lot of flack dished out towards Iggy Azalea. I am no fan of Ms. Azalea, nor any new pop diva I guess, they all seem recycled versions of Madonna (the Knowles sisters being the exception). I however choose not to rip into her like everyone else. The way people have been badgering her, besides being a serious case of online bullying, most of it seems out of line and illogical. Iggy didn’t rise magically from the ground, she was a carefully rolled joint, managed by a powerful team of producers. She has been working since sixteen at this game. She moved to Georgia, appropriated on the daily a culture she clearly fell in love with, and created the Iggy persona. She had a lot of help along the way, a lot of Black stars, shining their light on her. If we are going to really critique her and call her a cultural appropriator, let’s look at her team, her management and ultimately the Black rapper who gave her the chance to do what she wanted.

Is it fair to then compare the cultural appropriation of 20th century White American musicians of Black music and culture with today, when the biggest music celebrities happen to be Black, and increasingly the business of music also becomes a darker shade?

Then there are also artists who actually take it a step further and manage to evolve an art form via appropriation. How do you think MIA got her start; listening to all sorts of African, Caribbean and non-Sri Lankan artists. She got her inspiration,began appropriating these styles and then evolved the entire form so much so that other artists who she once felt inspired by her were now referencing her work. Imagine if we shut her down for cultural appropriation in the early stages of her career.

The moment we do that, we stifle creativity and stagnate culture. We often forget in our criticisms, that culture can be transient. As I mentioned, sure there is no equal footing in who gets their work heard, and who gets acknowledged, but what’s worse I believe is these self proclaimed gate keepers, cultural warriors who police and judge what is and isn’t cultural appropriation.

People who claim something is culturally appropriated also masquerade as if they speak from the community perspective, but as I’ll also cover in my next article, what is community? And who are we to represent a group that we have no real way of surveying and pertaining their attitudes? Cultural Appropriation is a pit stop along the way of acknowledging unequal distribution of power based on socio-economic factors, where often race is a strong determinant. It’s not the holy grail, it’s just a temporary stop. As many of us migrants move into this space of power and influence, let’s just let artists do what they do best; create, borrow and evolve.


Photograph by David LaCapelle for Rolling Stone 1998



If you are still anti cultural appropriation, here are some great reads:


If you are really angry about this article, please click here for some MIA wisdom:


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2 thoughts on “The Thing About Cultural Appropriation

  1. JMD says:

    Thanks Gary! I think your piece voiced some things I’ve been thinking through (but don’t like to voice because I’m Anglo-Australian).
    One thing that interests me is that it is often exactly my group (white middle-class academics) who are so keen on policing this appropriation committed by other white people… and if CA is an issue, is it up to white etc people to decide what it does and doesn’t consist of…

    1. Thanks JMD, it is interesting how often the narrative on both sides are arbitrated by those not directly affected by the ‘appropriation’. There’s also a lot of shutting down of opinions based on “oh you’re white, hence you can’t comment”, I find both to be destructive, and ultimately achieves nothing in addressing the issue of inequality.

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