Cultural Appropriation

I was lounging around the sitting room the other day with an assortment of flatmates when I started playing a Senegalese artist called Baaba Maal. He’s pretty great and I strongly recommend giving him a listen, he makes traditional music accompanied by an acoustic guitar, in a language which Wikipedia informs me is called Pulaar. He’s a bit of a staple at home and is often blared at ungodly times on a Sunday morning by my step-dad, who I assume first started listening to him during his wild youth as a Phd student living in Africa, redefining the mud brick wall as we know and love it.

So there I was, quietly jamming to Baaba, when I was distracted by my flatmate wincing. I mean, physically wincing. I’m used to pretty negative reactions from my music taste (Cyndi Lauper my love for you is real) but never an actual wince. I felt I had to confront it – a wince cannot be overlooked – and her wince-justification was that ‘it’s a bit like cultural appropriation, like we don’t have a right to listen to this music, I don’t know anything about his culture or even what he’s saying, it just feels a bit wankey’.

My first response was that she was being ridiculous and to passive aggressively blare Irish folk music in her general direction, but afterwards it got me thinking about cultural appropriation and the line between enjoying and engaging with another culture and being a bit ‘wankey’.

Cultural appropriation is the taking on elements from another culture, generally one which has been oppressed by the taker. The most commonly used example is the Native American headdress being worn to hipster festivals by alternative girls aiming to recreate a look they saw on Tumblr once. The whole thing reeks of colonialism, imperialism and an exploitation of a nation of peoples who have been grossly mistreated in history and still to this day. It equates to wearing a big neon sign on your head reading ‘we took your lands, and now we’re taking your cultural dress, because we’re just so damn edgy.’ It is, by every definition of what might be a made up word, wankey.

But where does the cultural appropriation stop and multiculturalism begin? I read about a yoga class in Ottawa which was recently stopped as it was accused of appropriation – and I wonder if maybe that is going a bit too far? In all fairness I never attended that class and don’t know how it was practiced, but I love a bit of yoga. Grounding myself to the earth while trying to get my legs over my head and still remember to keep on breathing at the same time, that’s my jam. But its origins are from another culture, and derived from a country I’ve never even visited. I also like curry, and Cuban rum, and Reggaeton, and I like Baaba Maal, but am suddenly struck with a sense of impending angst that this might not be okay. Am I appropriating other cultures? Am I stealing part of another’s identity, and ones that as a British person have a history of exploiting time and time again throughout history?

I loathe to use the phrase ‘political correctness gone mad’, partially because it undermines the concerns and feelings others have voiced, but mainly because it conjures an image of a giant Daily Mail staggering through the streets of London, knocking down buildings as it goes and a hoard of pseudo-liberals running for their lives screaming ‘It’s Political Correctness Gone Mad!’. But in all honesty, I love living in a society where I have the opportunity to experience parts of another culture I would otherwise never have known about. I love the give and take and the mixing pot that it creates, from going to Diwali festival in Trafalgar square to simply grabbing some Jerk Chicken in Brixton market. Surely this is great, and I like to think that the man who makes my jerk chicken enjoys cooking it and sharing it, and is happy that I am enjoying his food. If not all I can look forward to is a long life of fish and chips and Morris dancing, carefully avoiding anything that may be even remotely diverse. It looks like a horribly segregated society with the buzzword being ‘appropriation’.

Of course, these are more moderate examples, and there is a definite line when diversity does become appropriation. Things like bindis and henna hover interminably around this boundary, some saying okay and other saying not. I can’t help but think this is where things get a bit wankey. When it is not simply the enjoyment of another culture and when understanding seems to be a bit lost, these symbols of cultural identity become a fashion statement, a shout to the world of how edgy you are. This is nothing if not ignorance. To use the bindi example, they have been worn by thousands of people for hundreds of years and there is simply nothing individual about wearing one. But then on the other hand, they are beautiful, as is henna and even feathered headdresses. It’s a tricky line to navigate and one that I think eventually boils down to respect and understanding. Symbols of culture are not shallow and cannot be treated as such and what makes diversity work is a give and take and a mutual enjoyment of things which culturally aren’t ours. As soon as the balance is tipped and the give and take becomes one of simply take then I fear, young ones, that it is simply being a bit wankey. In the meantime I will continue listening to Baaba Maal.

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Illustration: Fran Murphy