Expression and its evolution
If it is a good thing that Misty Copeland is a ballerina with the American Ballet Theater, only the third female African American soloist in the history of the company, then it should also be a good thing that Iggy Azalea is an award-winning rapper, the first white, female Australian in that role. Copeland is praised, rightly so, for persevering in the face of arbitrary criteria that dictate a ballerina must be white and willowy rather than brown and muscular. That she has had to endure such criticism and opposition has been widely derided. Her struggle was immortalized in an Under Armour ad featuring her dancing while a voice over read rejection letters critical of her body. Azalea is also criticized for her looks, in particular her light skin color and blond hair. She is frequently referred to as an albino, as if that was an insult.
Copeland is seen as breaking down barriers. Azalea, on the other hand, is viewed as a cultural appropriator. I did not give a lot of thought to the concept of cultural appropriation until I pursued an advanced degree in writing in Hong Kong. There, authenticity in writing was a serious concern as was sensitivity about stereotyping people and misrepresenting other cultures. The thorniest issue, however, was who gets to write about what. Are writers restricted to writing only about their own culture? This question was often debated, but never resolved.
Then in 2013, pop singer and former Disney actress Miley Cyrus performed her infamous dance routine at the MTV Video Music Awards and brought the concept of cultural appropriation into the mainstream for her use of the dance move twerking. The central argument of cultural appropriation is that members of the dominant class take from an oppressed minority dress, dance, language or other cultural expressions without permission. This unauthorized use robs the minority of due credit for what ever it was that was taken. One obvious problem with this argument is determining who is the legitimate cultural arbiter. Who grants permission and who declines? On Huff Post Live two black commentators, comedian Amanda Seales and Ohio State gender studies professor Treva Lindsey, were troubled by pop diva Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off” video for including twerking dancers. Twerking is a dance move that originated in West Africa and was later incorporated into American hip-hop videos in the 1990s. Swift’s take on the dance move was self-deprecating but her critics concluded that Swift lacked the anatomy and proper appreciation of the black and white power dynamic to twerk. West Africans were not consulted for comment. The very thought that an artist would have to seek anyone’s imprimatur before creating art is antithetical to the process of creative expression.
Another problem with the concept of cultural appropriation is that the chain of creative influence has no beginning and no end. Like a geometric line, it extends infinitely in either direction. Artists throughout history have been influenced and in fact borrowed from those who came before them. Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah writing in The New York Times points out that “Picasso was a Spaniard by birth, living in France, who took inspiration from a Vili figurine from the Congo, shown to him in Paris by a Frenchman, Henri Matisse, at the home of an American, Gertrude Stein; and so helped create a new form of art … ”
Similarly, the evolution of an art form or its trajectory cannot be predicted or controlled as with the case American rap music dispersing to Korea, France, Ghana and beyond. Similarly, pointing out that rock ‘n’ roll originated in the black community is like revealing pasta originated in China — mildly interesting trivia. But just as lasagna bears only a passing resemblance to its ancestor Shanghai fried noodles, Led Zeppelin may have been preceded by Fats Domino, but sounded nothing like him. Every influencer was once the influenced. Even black jazz musicians play instruments that were created by white Europeans.
With the possible exception of remote tribes in the Amazon, there is almost no corner of any culture that has not been influenced in some way by a foreign concept. Do Japanese thank the Portuguese every time they eat tempura? What about spicy Kimchi? Deep-frying did not exist in Japan nor were hot red peppers indigenous to Korea; Portuguese traders influenced both dishes.
Once something is created and released for public consumption, the creator relinquishes control over their work. Some will receive the work and appreciate it. Some will reject or criticize it. It will inspire others to imitate it. A very few will experience it and then take it to another level. And that is how artistic expression is propagated, not appropriated. Permission is not part of the equation.
Claire Noble is the author of “State-Sponsored Sex and Other Tales of International Misadventure.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @thehkhousewife.