Towards a structural view of cultural appropriation

By Adam Elliott-Cooper / @adamec87

I’m the real ambassador!
It is evident I was sent by government to take your place,
All I do is play the blues and meet the people face to face;
I’ll explain and make it plain I represent the human race,
And don’t pretend no more!
Who’s the real ambassador?
Certain facts we can ignore;
In my humble way I’m the USA!
Though I represent the government,
The government don’t represent
Some policies I’m for!

Louis Armstrong, The Real Ambassadors, 1962

Old white men is runnin this rap shit
Corporate forces runnin this rap shit
A tall Israeli is runnin this rap shit
We poke out our asses for a chance to cash in

Yasiin Bey (Mos Def), The Rape Over, 2004

Amandla Stenberg eloquently explained that cultural appropriation is a real problem. Cultural appropriation is generally understood as the process by which an individual, or group of individuals, from a dominant group (e.g. white) uses the cultural symbols, traits or traditions of an oppressed group for their own ends – enjoyment, social gain, career aspirations – with little if any acknowledgment of the socio-historical context of the culture in question. White artists cashing in on Black hairstyles or throwing up “gang” signs are clichéd, patronising and damaging. However, they are essentially symbols of structural oppression. While symbols are powerful, they are only a representation of a far more deep-seated form of exploitation and appropriation. The point of this critique is to reflect on how to redirect anti-racist activism and energy away from the sometimes superficial identity politics that centres the individual and the immediate, and towards the collective while engaging with the histories of colonisation.

The extraction of resources – land, labour, raw materials and energy – is the primary ambition of capitalist expansion and imperial domination. But other, less tangible resources such as music, cultural markers and traditions are also exploited for commercial gain. As far as the big three record labels, Sony, Universal and Warner, are concerned, cultural appropriation is their raison d’être. This process goes much further than simply reproducing the culture of an oppressed group without acknowledging its socio-historical roots. Regardless of how precious, subversive or potentially revolutionary the art-form, the sole purpose of these corporate behemoths is to reduce and repackage culture into a saleable product, maximising and extracting its monetary value.

This may or may not involve the exploitation of a Black artist to sell a particular brand of Black culture. What is certain is that any regard for artistic merit that could adversely affect profit must be excised from the process. Any concern towards content that may reproduce sexist, racist, homophobic or classist views must not be allowed to interfere with increasing revenue flows. And of course, criticising or even acknowledging the legacies of Europe and its settler colonies’ extraction of labour and resources from colonised peoples, often destroying their cultural formations in the process, would be unthinkable for the oligarchs who own and control 89% of the world’s record sales.

Black culture isn’t just extracted for profit by capital (facilitated by the capitalist state); it is also employed as a tool of Empire. The rise of the United States as an imperial power following the decimation of Europe in World War II resulted in a Cold War which involved the mass appropriation of Black culture. In the 1950s and 1960s, the US task of championing democracy in the face of communism wasn’t easy, during the period of formal and legalised segregation. Therefore the US State Department poured huge resources into a propaganda war to cloak America’s racial injustices. This was done by organising photographic displays, audio/visual recordings and live tours by African-American artists across the Global South, which was in the process of freeing itself from its colonial shackles. Many of new independent states in their struggle to build nations free from imperial domination were looking to socialism for inspiration, and to the Soviet Union for support. In response to this, the US State Department organised Jazz Tours around Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and Eastern Europe to create the impression of racial harmony in the then rising global power. The intention of course was to co-opt governments into providing access to valuable resources for the United States rather than the Soviet Union or other post-colonial nations.

akon ludacris on camelsToday, rather than Jazz, it is Hip-Hop that is deployed. In 2007, Akon and Ludacris headlined the launch of MTV Arabia (now MTV Middle East), which broadcasts the music videos of primarily African-American male and female artists across the Global South to reproduce myths of America as a post-racial melting pot and the vanguard of women’s liberation. Black culture is continually appropriated and (re)sold as the smiling (Black) face of imperial domination, as US firms take the lead in extracting resources and establishing their military presence. Thus, while cultural and political identities (gender, ethnicity, “race”) are essential for understanding our relationship with cultural formations, it is vital that we incorporate an analysis of the forces that shape them: the state, capital and empire. Black and anti-racist communities in resistance to this exploitation need an understanding of the ways in which capitalism commodifies, the state facilitates, and imperialism internationalises this process.

While I do accept the agency of individuals who are reproducing existing racial hierarchies through their use of racialised cultural formations. I think it is unstrategic, and often ineffectual, to solely target individuals who have limited say over how and why cultures are reduced to commodities, sold to the highest of three bidders, then repackaged and resold to white westerners, black westerners, and the peoples of the Global South. So what is to be done? The most obvious things many of us already do – support independent artists (e.g. Akala), distributors, music venues and other platforms. This is the only viable alternative to signing a record deal in which an artist’s work will be manipulated to maximise its financial, rather than its cultural, artistic or political value. But as we know, capitalism, the state and empire are structures of power, so our work cannot stop with the support of alternative artists. Bringing about an uncommodified culture will take new creative ideas that may take forms that are yet to be realised.

There is already a long and rich history of anti-racist, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist struggle which have resisted many forms of oppression. Many of us accept that the prison system, police brutality and military aggression are fundamentally linked to capitalism, the state and empire, we should view corporate cultural appropriation in the same way. This is why resistance often involves the disruption of capital flows, direct action, democratic participation that refuses to rely on state institutions, and the building of international links of solidarity. By understanding the appropriation of culture, particularly Black cultural formations in the West, as a fundamental part of this machinery, we can build on the momentum of anti-imperialism which has provided much of the essential intellectual and activist groundwork required.

This is part of the Black Friday series on ALL BLACK EVERYTHING section of Media Diversified. A series of articles from a range of activists, poets, artists and writers which will culminate in a real-life discussion and meet-up in London on Saturday 1st August. Adam Elliott-Cooper will be a speaker at this event.

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