This was a useful foundation with which to think about appropriation, and I think it begins to show why certain examples of appropriation are troublesome while others are not. Here are examples that come to mind immediately:
An argument could be made that, historically, the vibrancy of any given pop scene can be measured by the amount of appropriation going on.
So maybe the question I’m really after isn’t “Is this sentence that Jonathan Bogart wrote true?” but “In what ways can this sentence that Jonathan Bogart wrote be true, and how can we maximize this sort of thing happening in this positive manner?”
If that’s an invitation…
The term “appropriation” has developed a singularly negative connotation here on Tumblr, which, as Jonathan Bogart and the entire post at Occupied Territories point out, is an unfortunate development for a word that is morally neutral and should be an analytical tool rather than a judgment on a particular work. It is descriptive rather than condemnatory; it should open the door for further inquiry rather than serving (as it currently seems to) as a stamp of dismissal.
To appropriate something is “to take for or to oneself” - in our instance, it is to take a particular speech act or piece of culture and claim it as one’s own, to incorporate it into oneself and how one relates to the world, and to seek recognition of this new self from an audience. There is a certain commitment involved in appropriation, and we will see this in an example below.
What I notice about the so-called appropriation that’s often criticized here on Tumblr is that it usually involves producers of culture taking a foreign piece of culture in order to highlight its different-ness (exotic-ness, strangeness, deficiency) from their norm - in essence to own it temporarily, without commitment, while distancing themselves from the actual content and implications of that piece of culture. This is not appropriation as defined above. Perhaps a more fitting term for this phenomenon would be “cultural exploitation.” I have addressed this in more depth as it appears in kpop using the term “concept.”
- That time Ke$ha decided to wear a Native American-style headdress. I’m not sure many people really sat down and thought about why this was wrong. They simply reacted to it instinctively, which is okay. The thing is, a headdress cannot help but convey “different-ness” because we only ever encounter them in that context and because we don’t wear anything like them today, in our culture. But they don’t just convey the idea of something foreign in a pre-modern sense: that would be something like a powdered wig. Instead, they seem unintelligible and alien because we don’t understand their purpose, which is why we reduce them to the merely decorative. Native American understandings of clothing are actually quite fascinating because they involve the interplay of many different forms of being (I guarantee you that what birds the feathers come from matter for whoever wears a headdress—sharing in the birds’ being is what matters). This means that it’s probably impossible for anyone to truly adopt headdresses as their own without first understanding Native American worldviews, which isn’t something you could do without first spending at least a year of your life immersing yourself in them.
- Somewhat similar is T-ara’s use of Native American imagery in their “Yayaya” video. Specifically, they use this imagery to convey the idea of “savagery,” playing a group of “savages” kidnapping a man who crash-lands on their island. Again, in this case, the appropriation’s explicit purpose is to convey foreign-ness. However, I think it’s more complex in this case, and I have to admit that I really like this video. Why do I like it? Because, for one, if T-ara are the “savages,” then aren’t we supposed to be sympathetic to them? One issue here is that we tend to read these images pejoratively. I wonder how many people, though, attack depictions of certain people as a way to attack the people themselves without really realizing that they’re doing that, not that T-ara’s video captures anything realistic. I once had a conversation with a young woman (a person of color, I might add) who reacted strangely when I told her about what I thought was one of the great scenes in Terrence Malick’s film The New World: the scene in which the Native Americans, upon first making contact with Europeans, approach and sniff them. I thought this scene seemed very realistic, and it plays upon a contemporary prejudice against the sense of smell. But it’s also true that the sense of smell was an important way of knowing others in various cultures, and there’s nothing “savage” or “primitive” about that. But she reacted in a kind of reflexively PC manner and wondered if the scene wasn’t, in fact, a little racist. I think this is a case of her prejudices being exposed: she was uncomfortable not with the depiction itself but with the otherness it conveys.
I like T-ara’s “cute savagery,” especially because it ties into a kind of subversion of aegyo in that they are displaying aegyo without being submissive or deferential (they kidnap and tie this man to a post). But ultimately, what’s problematic about this example of appropriation is that they use Native American imagery in a rather interchangeable way. Why use that specific imagery when there’s nothing intrinsically Native American about this concept? Thus, it encourages not to look any deeper into the images they associate with Native Americans, but given that this is a Korean video, it’s hardly as harmful as the perpetuation of similar stereotypes here in the Americas. A video like this makes me realize why creatures like vampires, zombies, witches, etc. are useful for us and attractive to us: these beings provide ways to explore otherness in a manner that doesn’t exploit our prejudices against people who actually exist (well, it’s tricky with witches, because there’s a hidden subtext of misogyny often there, but Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath, one of my favorite feminist films, does something with witches that is similar to what T-ara try to do with “savages,” making them sympathetic despite their “otherness”). Think about how much greater the “Yayaya” video would have been if they had bothered to create an entirely new group of “savages,” in no way tied to any already existing group of people.
- Those two examples involve the appropriation of imagery, but one of my favorite examples of someone who blatantly appropriates other forms of music, including music that reads as “ethnic,” is Bryn Jones, aka Muslimgauze. Sadly, Jones passed away in 1999, at the young age of 37, but even in his death, he is still releasing music, and his discography spans over 200 releases. One of these releases is, in fact, called Occupied Territories, and this is where I got the name for this tumblr. I’ve been a big fan of Jones’ work and have foolishly dreamt of one day hearing all of it. His early work (from the early 1980s) is very unique, but it’s more or less what most of us would call “industrial.” It was apparent even then that he was interested in politics (an early 7” record is called Hammer & Sickle, one of his standout early LPs is called Buddhist on Fire, and then there’s this note on the entry in his discography for Flajelata from 1986: “side one is dedicated to the Occupied Lands of Afghanistan and Palestine” / “side two is dedicated to all dissidents from the Soviet Union”).
Early on, he was interested in oppression in a very general sense, but over time, he came to refine his focus specifically to Muslims. His music became less industrial and more immersed in the music of the areas that interested him, primarily the Middle East and Pakistan but occasionally other places as well. From the music, which often incorporated authentic instrumentation from these areas (Jones claimed to play all the percussion on his records himself) and samples of, for instance, Arabic speakers, to the imagery and design of his records, which was radically pro-Muslim and pro-Palestine (one of his best early records is called The Rape of Palestine), Jones internalized these worlds that fascinated, and he truly made them his own.
Often, when approaching a Muslimgauze record, what stands out is how aggressively uncommercial it is. He certainly liked to push people’s buttons, it would seem, but in interviews he came off as exceedingly sincere, often claiming that the oppression of Muslims was the central political issue of the time. If you didn’t know that he was a white guy from England, you might suspect he was a radical Arab Muslim himself. Even after finding out who Bryn Jones is, the records still seem hermetic, mysterious, and unknowable. The music contained on them doesn’t really help either: it often doesn’t really “do” anything, unlike even experimental electronic music of the time. It just revels in grooves, soundscapes. Sometimes, a track is nothing more than a loop that modulates over time, never changing its fundamental form. Nonetheless, I happen to love it and even crave it sometimes, because Jones had a great sense of creating worlds, wielding exoticism as a weapon.
Listening to his music, you do feel like you are in the midst of otherness, and if you listen diligently and sympathetically enough, I do think this music can change you and broaden your political thinking. Grappling with these records, I know I had to do the research to find out just what he’s making a reference to at any given moment (his song titles are brilliantly allusive and mysterious, e.g. “Harakat-Ul-Ansar, Speak for Us”, or just plain confrontation, e.g. “Israeli Bullet Passing Through the Body of a Palestinian Child”), and I learned many things in the process. Faced with so much otherness, you have to either reject it or cut through your own ignorance, and Jones’ music is too good for me to do the former. The fact that he committed his life to making music that he thought would broadcast his political message, a message that didn’t really concern him given that he was neither Muslim nor the type of person likely to be mistaken for a Muslim, and that he attracted only a small, albiet dedicated, following, never achieving widespread success, is a good sign that this manner of appropriation is legitimate. Unlike Ke$ha, for sure, he dedicated an immense amount of time learning about the people whose music and imagery he appropriated, and unlike T-ara, his music demands that our prejudices be confronted and analyzed, never merely accepted.
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