The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.
Bruno Mars is having a moment. After two well received albums and a string of successful singles going back to 2010, the release of his third album in 2016, entitled 24K Magic, sent his career flying into the stratosphere. The record went platinum, a feat in this day and age, and was also his first to enter the R&B and hip-hop Billboard charts. He’s sold over 115 million singles and 9 million albums worldwide, making him one of the best-selling artists of all time, and he performed at the Super Bowl Halftime show in 2016 with none other than massive superstar Beyoncé.
This year it seemed he cemented his crossover appeal to both black and white audiences, opening the BET Awards with a well-received performance and then going on to win the Best Male/R&B Pop Artist award as well as Video of the Year. But his appearance and wins at the show were not without their fair share of controversy, as some viewers wondered if Bruno was being rewarded for cultural appropriation.
Bruno’s race and ethnicity have been questioned for years, with many initially believing the Puerto Rican, Jewish and Filipino star was black. There were rumors that he intentionally played up his racial ambiguity and picked up his stage moniker as a way to distance himself from his birth name, Peter Hernandez. The rumors gathered steam until Bruno addressed them in an interview in Latina magazine in early 2017.
In said interview, he spoke about the undeniable heritage of his father being a “Puerto Rican pimp” and insisted that he was a mixed raced artist making music for everyone. He also stressed the importance of recognizing that all popular music is black music, citing and praising the genres that informed his career as a non-black artist and insisting, “You gotta sing as if Jodeci is performing after you and dance as if Bobby Brown is coming up next.” But some feel that his paying homage to Black music isn’t enough, as he continues to benefit from mainstream recognition that eludes many black contemporaries in his genre.
Mars heavily borrows influences in music and style from prominent African-American artists of the past and present, incorporating them into his own performances and albums. He performs with an all black backing band that often doubles as back-up dancers and vocalists and frequently collaborates with black composers Brody Brown and Philip Lawrence. The beginning of his ascent to superstar status arguably began with his vocals on producer Mark Ronson’s smash hit "Uptown Funk," released in 2014. Inspired by 1980’s funk and prominently featuring one of the famous lines from rapper Trinidad James’ viral 2012 hit "All Gold Everything," the song won two Grammy awards including Record of the Year and smashed charts and sales records. Apparently seeing the writing on the wall, Bruno dropped the more simple doo-wop sound of his previous works – mainly modeled after Little Richard and a young Michael Jackson – in order to adopt the Prince-esque funk sound of "Uptown Funk" for 24K Magic.
Do his musical stylings and surrounding himself with black talent amount to Bruno utilizing black culture for a come-up, similar to an artist like Iggy Azalea? There’s two sides to the argument: on the one hand, as Bruno said, black people came up with practically every genre of music that is currently popular; from rock, hip-hop and rap to afrobeats and EDM (look up Chicago house music). So if non-black people of color and/or white people can’t partake in these genres, what can they create? Many feel that there’s nothing wrong with non-black artists participating in black culture as long as they respect and pay homage to it, making a distinction between artists like Mars that recognize the influence and the cultural ‘smudgers’ who outright steal from black artists and pass it off as their own work.
But on the other hand, with the history of racism in a record industry that has historically preferred black music from non-black artists, does it really matter if Bruno publicly acknowledges where his inspiration came from? As a non-black artist working in traditionally black mediums, he is extended certain opportunities to crossover that a black artist might not receive. “Don’t believe me, just watch,” on "Uptown Funk" certainly isn’t the same as “Don’t believe me, just watch,” on "All Gold Everything," and it’s hard to imagine Trinidad James being offered the part on Ronson’s catchy-yet-sanitary hit.
Another common pushback is that Bruno, and other non-black artists like him, are popularizing genres of black music that had since fallen by the wayside and therefore black people should just be grateful; the old ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’ excuse. But if the mainstream culture prefers black creations in the hands of non-black creators, wouldn’t it be easier for a non-black person to ‘revive’ a dead black genre?
Not to mention the reverse isn’t true: when Beyoncé did a country song and performed it at the Country Music Awards, which have had some of the lowest ratings of awards shows the past few years, there wasn’t an embracement of her by the country community as someone ‘reviving’ their genre. Major country publication CMT ran an article about how her song wasn’t ‘real’ country, it was rejected by the Grammys for consideration in the country music category, many angry fans said they would never watch the show again because they sold out by having such a large commercial pop star and there were throngs of white racists angry that a black person was performing ‘their’ music- despite the fact that black people invented bluegrass, the precursor to country, as well.
Black artists are expected to simultaneously stay in their lanes yet also widen the lane so that everyone can fit, while those dabbling in and out of black music have no such expectations placed on them to use their privilege to help black artists or call out the industry. Bruno Mars has gone from doo wop to R&B to funk, and on the next album could easily revert back to his Puerto Rican roots and do a salsa record. Black artists don’t have that luxury. As such, a possible fix to the accusations of cultural appropriation could be for him to speak out not only on the importance of his black musical influences, but also against an industry that quite possibly elevates him among his black peers, providing him with the space for growth that they don’t do for others. Ultimately, Bruno’s heart is in the right place, and with his reach and influence he could definitely raise the profiles of up-and-coming/contemporary black funk artists (like Anderson .Paak!) through collaborations and shout outs.
For more like this, take a look at our exploration of whether 'XXL' should have highlighted the rapper XXXTentacion right here.