Last week, Highsnobiety reported on Vic Mensa’s comments on cultural appropriation, in which he used Justin Timberlake as an example of a celebrity who borrows from black culture but is silent on the serious issues affecting black people, following a moving speech by Jesse Williams about police brutality and black culture.
(Note: Mensa's comments preceded JT's recent tweets, which suggest, to his credit, that he took Mensa's words to heart.)
But it’s still a controversial point of discussion, and it's clear from comments like the one Highsnobiety received below that there’s still work to be done actually explaining the phenomenon:
Particularly in the light of the recent police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, it seems like a good time to address the issue and explain what cultural appropriation is, why it's a problem and why it was fair for Vic Mensa to address the issue the way he did.
Systematic Inequality Is Real
The world is unequal, and institutionalized inequality still exists, but it can be tough for some people - usually privileged people - to accept just how harshly the odds are stacked against black folk.
(Quick aside: in just about every facet of everyday life, people of color (POC) have it worse than white people and, within those groups, women have it worse than men, LGBT people worse than heterosexuals, and transgender people more than cisgender folk. I'm sticking to the treatment of black people here because it's the topic at hand, not because I'm unaware of these intersecting dynamics.)
These are concrete realities: being black means life is made harder, on a systemic and institutional level, in myriad different ways. You’re charged more for mortgages, targeted for subprime loans, prevented from renting housing, often barred from business funding, discriminated against in the workplace and punished more harshly than whites from childhood for committing the same (or lesser) crimes, and that’s before we even mention the issue of police brutality, which is reaching terrifying new lows in America right now.
All this is to say, your lived experience in the world will be very different if you are black, and arguments about cultural appropriation must take these core facts as a starting point. Most misunderstandings about this issue stem from a lack of understanding on this basic point: that we don't live in an equal world that provides a fair playing field for people of all races. That's simply not our reality yet.
Jesse Williams, Justin Timberlake and Vic Mensa
Which brings us to Jesse Williams and his BET Speech. At this year's awards, Williams made a rousing speech addressing police brutality, specifically taking care to mention that black women also suffer at the hands of police (a fact often overlooked.)
He spoke on a number of issues, but ended on the topic of cultural appropriation:
“We’ve been floating this country on credit for centuries, and we’re done watching and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us, burying black people out of sight and out of mind while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil – black gold, ghettoizing and demeaning our creations then stealing them, gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit. The thing is that, just because we’re magic, doesn’t mean we’re not real.”
It was a great speech, and Justin Timberlake agreed, tweeting that he was "inspired" by it. Shortly afterwards, Twitter users brought up the fact that Timberlake’s solo career is built on the back of black music and culture, and discussed how he left Janet Jackson out to dry after the Super Bowl fiasco.
Timberlake replied in the most #AllLivesMatter way possible by saying that we are "all one...the human race," sidelining the bigger issues at hand and clearly missing the point.
On The Nightly Show, Vic Mensa used Timberlake as an example of artists who continually profit from black culture and sounds, while contributing nothing to the wider black culture and issues affecting it. The key point here, which Mensa expanded on later, was that Timberlake was just a single example.
Mensa could’ve used any number of artists to illustrate this point: Iggy Azalea, the Kardashians, Kylie Jenner, Justin Bieber and tons of other celebrities all profit from adopting elements of black culture, but they're strangely silent when black people are murdered by the police.
This is a historical trend, and some of the most popular bands of yesteryear, like the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton and The Beatles, were heavily influenced by black folk and blues singers, with the latter almost always going uncredited for their creative influences. Black culture and music is one of the most heavily-borrowed from, and uncredited, both historically and today.
So, when Vic Mensa was talking about Justin Timberlake, he wasn’t really talking about Justin Timberlake personally. He was talking about the wider system that is in love with black culture, but not with black people, and urging those with privilege to use it in a positive way.
Studies have shown that white men are the only group of people who are praised for talking about diversity, so perhaps the least white artists can do is give back in a small way to the community they have benefited from so much.
Why Cultural Appropriation Differs from Punk or Pizza Chains
“What about pizza chains? Or punk aesthetics?”
It's definitely true that other cultures and sub-cultures have elements that are borrowed or appropriated, but there tends to be a particular kind of disrespect when black culture is appropriated.
The issue with the appropriation of black culture is that, on a widespread scale, black people aren’t rewarded and credited for their work. They're also subsequently treated as invisible while white people receive praise for using stolen dances, language and aesthetics.
No one is ignoring the roots of punk in the same way that they do when they rebrand Kim Kardashian’s cornrows as "box braids," for example, and Kylie Jenner’s entire aesthetic is taken wholesale from black women, yet she’s now credited as a "trend setter."
What's more, often things that black people do, say and wear are called "ghetto," "ratchet," and "trashy" when we do it, yet praised when white people do it: see, for example, colored hair, acrylic nails and "box braids" on black versus white women.
For the adoption of punk aesthetics or the proliferation of pizza chains to be anything close to the kind of cultural appropriation that occurs with black culture, we'd need to see people ignoring the existing history and then, crucially, crediting it to someone who had nothing to do with creating it. We'd also need to see the same widespread social disadvantages black people face faced by punks and Italians.
In short, it's not quite the same problem.
The Difference Between Appropriation and Appreciation
In an ideal world, it would be possible to simply "appreciate" a culture by adopting elements from it, but there is a power dynamic in the real world which complicates this idea.
The key difference between appropriation and appreciation comes down to crediting your sources: Valentino claimed that their "African-inspired" collection last year was "appreciation", but didn’t actually name a single specific influence. Actual appreciation involves giving something back - be it credit, money or simply a voice when people won't listen to the people from the community in question.
If you need a great example of appreciation, look no further than David Bowie. When David Bowie made his Young Americans album, he hired black contributors, specifically asked to appear on BET and he always called what he did "plastic soul" to pay homage to black artists who inspired him. He also directly spoke up on behalf of black musicians, as per the above interview.
So What Can You Do?
Helping to combat the problem of cultural appropriation only requires a small amount of effort from people with white privilege. As we’ve noted already, white men get praise for talking about racial issues when others would be labelled as complainers, so use your privilege to speak up about wider socials issues affecting the black community.
Try not to be defensive, and instead just listen to minorities when they talk to you about their lived experience. The devil has enough advocates, so don't argue for the sake of it: if you're dominating these conversations and centering yourself because of your guilt, fragility or unwillingness to face clear social realities, then you're part of the problem. Good news, though: it's never too late to start educating yourself and making a more positive contribution.
If you're peppering all your language with AAVE like "bae", "on fleek" and "doe" or DJing trap music for cash, or even if you benefit from black culture in less obvious ways (hint: that's all of us), then it behooves you to also raise awareness about issues like police brutality and participate in movements like #BlackLivesMatter.
Speaking up in this way shows that you care about black people, rather than simply using our culture when it’s convenient for you. That’s what real appreciation looks like.
For more cultural commentary, check out why Marvel has a problem with its Asian characters.