Thinkpiece

“In a Room Full of Vultures”: A Look at Cultural Appropriation in Hip-Hop

You may recall, during an interview with Polish outlet NewOnce in late 2017, that Texas-based rapper/pop icon Post Malone made some pretty controversial comments about hip-hop, seemingly suggesting that the genre lacks an emotional compass:

“If you’re looking for lyrics, if you’re looking to cry, if you’re looking to think about life, don’t listen to hip-hop.”

Post was, understandably and rightfully, dragged through the proverbial dirt for his comments, which, beyond being both flat-out false and disrespectful, showed a painful ignorance of the very musical culture he professed to be a part of…Or rather, we thought it was a culture he wanted to be a part of; his comments in a 2018 profile with GQ portray someone who’s apathetic about the space they occupy within the culture:

“I definitely feel like there’s a struggle being a white rapper. But I don’t want to be a rapper. I just want to be a person that makes music.”

Comments like this have resulted in the label of “culture vulture” following Post throughout his short career (even though it doesn’t seem to have had much impact on his popularity or sales). His comments, which displayed both a lack of cultural understanding or cultural belonging, don’t do anything to discredit this designation.

But for a label thrown around so often, it’s worth discussing: what is cultural appropriation? How is one designated a “culture vulture?”

What Is Cultural Appropriation/Culture Vulturism? Defining the Terms

In the case of any logical discussion about a complex subject, one of the most important steps is defining terms. To understand cultural appropriation/culture vulturism, it pays to establish a cogent understanding of the terms.

A quick dictionary search of the word “appropriation” will show that it is “the action of taking something for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission or consent.” The word “culture,” from an anthropological standpoint, is explained as the set of values, behaviors, languages, ideas, rituals, aesthetics, etc. that characterize a social group and allow that group to both function and perpetuate itself. Cultural appropriation, then, is the action of taking elements of a culture — its behaviors, rituals, aesthetics, or otherwise — for one’s own use, without permission from the owners, or gatekeepers, of that culture.

Of course, we’ll need more than mere lexical analysis to understand this complicated topic.

Fundamentally, cultural appropriation is an observation of the relationship that exists between majority and minority cultures. In this predatory power dynamic, a dominant/privileged/oppressive culture takes elements from a group of people who have been marginalized and systematically oppressed by that same dominant group. (Note: this emphasis on the power disparity between dominant and marginalized ethnic groups is also to help differentiate cultural appropriation from acts of assimilation or acculturation, which both involve members of minority cultures being socialized and adopting aspects of a dominant culture.)

If we observe this dynamic in the context of hip-hop, we can better understand what vulturism is. Hip-hop, which is deeply rooted in African musical tradition, began as a minority-driven urban movement birthed in the ‘70s in the Bronx. Pioneered by Black and Brown youth, hip-hop was a form of self-expression and a celebration of identity. Hip-hop culture manifested itself in many distinct facets, such as music, dance, fashion, art, literature, etc. — all of which have taken on lives of their own and have developed into their own industries.

In addition to being an instrument of self-expression, hip-hop has also been an important tool for economic and political discourse, providing a safe space for Black and Brown people dealing with the struggles of living through systemic oppression and economic depression. Mainstream hip-hop acts throughout hip-hop’s history, like NWA, 2Pac, Mos Def, Kanye West (the old Kanye), and Kendrick Lamar have helped bring issues like police brutality, mass incarceration, and violence to light on a worldwide scale, helping to give ostracized groups a much-needed voice in national discussions.

Summarily, hip-hop is as much a mode of expression as it is a tool for survival for Black and Brown people around the world. Applying what we have just observed concerning cultural power dynamics as well as hip-hop’s cultural significance, I think the definition that professor/author Brittney Cooper layed out in her 2014 op-ed is more comprehensive and appropriate:

“Appropriation is taking something that doesnʼt belong to you and wasnʼt made for you, that is not endemic to your experience, that is not necessary for your survival, and using it to sound cool and make money.”

The Problem of Appropriation

For those acquainted with world history, you may have noticed the similarity between cultural appropriation and colonialism — which is the idea of a nation settling, subjugating, and exploiting another nation, and imposing its own culture and values on that nation; cultural appropriation is essentially just an extension of this phenomenon.

Cultural appropriation most often involves taking particular cultural elements out of their intended context and applying them without any genuine understanding of their purpose or significance; therefore, the actual meaning of the cultural element is watered down and diminished (e.g. non-Native people wearing Native American headresses as Halloween costumes). On another hand, appropriation gives outsiders easy access to, as well as the ability to profit off of and shape widespread perception of, the host culture, despite the fact that they have no intention of fully investing in the culture.

More importantly, though: appropriation is not the correct way of respecting minority groups or properly engaging in cultural exchange. Cultural exchange is both widespread and an essential part of the human experience; we see it everyday, especially in America, in the way that social groups share languages, food, forms of entertainment, religious practices, etc. But using privilege to exploit minority groups’ cultures, and being ignorant of their dissent thereafter, is not an acceptable or moral way of engaging in this exchange.

Appropriation in Real-Time: Hip-Hop’s Quintessential Vultures

I could write at length about the long history of the appropriation of Black music and culture, but for the sake of this post, the focus will be on two widely known characters in the hip-hop industry from the past several years: the infamous Australian rapper Iggy Azalea and country singer/actress Miley Cyrus. Azalea and Cyrus, both of whom have had their careers completely mired in controversy up to this point, have undoubtedly become prime examples of culture vulturalism in the 21st century.

Iggy Azalea

Iggy Azalea, born Amethyst Kelly, enjoyed a blizzard of success in 2014, with the release of her debut studio album The New Classic as well as the virality of her single “Fancy,” which is still currently one of the biggest hits by a female rapper in chart history.

But her success was almost entirely overshadowed by controversy. Her flow, which was heavily inspired by her mentor T.I., seemed to imitate the undoubtedly Black cadence of rappers from the South — which contrasts unambiguously from her natural speaking voice. For a culture as heavily rooted in Black/Brown identity as hip-hop, people understandably took offense to this, claiming that she was mocking the culture.

Maybe Azalea thought that adopting a fake “Blaccent” would grant her access into the culture or add legitimacy to her craft, but all it did was make her look like she was using Blackness as a costume. This “costume” was similar to, if not conceptually the same, as blackface and minstrelsy, since she essentially took something that a non-rap audience would characterize as “Black” and re-packaged it for mainstream consumption. And not only did she basically offer the masses a cheap, surface-level interpretation of hip-hop culture/Blackness, but she also got to profit off of it in a way that Black female rappers, other than Nicki Minaj, simply could not.

What Azalea seemed to misunderstand when she decided to enter the hip-hop arena is one very simple reality: you don’t have to “perform” Blackness to fit in. I know it’s a cliché, but all Azalea really had to do was simply be herself and let her music speak for itself. Well-respected white hip-hop artists, like the late Mac Miller, have carved out lanes for themselves within hip-hop culture and have left long-lasting legacies — without exploiting or making a mockery of it.

Miley Cyrus

In the case of Miley Cyrus, her sins are much more straightforward and a bit more sinister. Hip-hop culture, in Cyrus’ case, never seemed to be a legitimate interest; it was merely a stepping stone along the path of her post-Disney “coming-of-age.”

In an attempt to move away from the “good girl” persona she carried with her during her Hannah Montana days, Cyrus followed the trajectory of the countless pop stars before her and tried to “dirty” her image. She began affiliating with hip-hop artists and producers (namely, Mike WiLL Made-It) and pushing forth an edgier (dare I say, “Blacker”) image — cornrows, Jordan brand clothing, gold chains and grills, excessive twerking, etc. This period of time saw Miley reach a peak in popularity and prosperity, with highly successful songs like “23,” “We Can’t Stop” and “Wrecking Ball,” as well as multiple award show appearances and high-profile features in magazines.

But her rap/punk phase seemed to end following the 2016 U.S. presidential election, when she reverted back to her country roots and to a less abrasive, more “innocent” image in promotion of her 2017 album Younger Now. Much like Post Malone, she put her foot in her mouth during an interview that year, in which she made scathing generalizations about the subject matter of hip-hop music:

“But I also love that new Kendrick [Lamar] song [“Humble”]: ‘Show me somethin’ natural like ass with some stretch marks.’ I love that because it’s not ‘Come sit on my dick, suck on my cock.’ I can’t listen to that anymore. That’s what pushed me out of the hip-hop scene a little. It was too much ‘Lamborghini, got my Rolex, got a girl on my cock’ — I am so not that.”

Besides the fact that she offered praise to some of K.Dot’s most contentious lyrics, her comments, like Post’s, show a profound ignorance of the very culture she profited off of for years. Hip-hop was just a phase, a means to an end. Cyrus’ distasteful, *racist* generalizations revealed the real problem with her past involvement in hip-hop: to her and artists like her, our culture is nothing more than sexual deviance and flamboyance. Anyone even moderately familiar with hip-hop’s rich history knows that that is a gross misrepresentation of one of the most vibrant, intricate musical cultures.

Cultural Appropriation: Still A Complicated Subject

It’s worth mentioning that none of this is a critique of the quality of any of these artists’ music. “Culture vultures,” technically speaking, are as capable of making good music as any other artist; in fact, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like at least a few of the songs these artists have recorded. But part of being an active cultural participant, as opposed to just a passive listener, is understanding that there’s more to musical/cultural appreciation than simply finding something that “sounds good.”

It should also go without saying that white artists are not the only individuals who have been called “vultures.” For example, back in 2015, renowned drill music pioneer Young Chop accused Kanye West of “using” Chicago’s rising rappers (e.g. Chief Keef and Vic Mensa) for his own commercial advancement, only to neglect the artists afterwards. Late last year, Cardi B was slapped with the unsavory label after her selection as a judge on Netflix’s upcoming rap competition Rhythm + Flow, despite her rookie status in the rap game and her admitted use of co-writers. And as recently as this past April, U.K. grime pioneer Wiley accused Canadian rapper Drake of being a culture vulture due to his recent forays into grime music. This, of course, follows an earlier accusation of vulturism by Earl Sweatshirt in 2015, in which he reacted distastefully to Drake’s discovery of Kodak Black’s music (“Drake can be a bit of a vulture on young rap niggas…“)

And due to the decentralized nature of hip-hop culture, sometimes it’s hard to come to a monolithic consensus on who should bear the label of “culture vulture.” Notice that neither Kanye, Drake, nor Cardi B seem to have been boycotted or collectively cancelled by the culture, as of yet. This goes to show that, while some instances of appropriation are fairly straightforward and receive cooperative indictment, others are more complicated and require more nuance in their evaluation.

Conclusion: What Can Be Done About Appropriation?

The reality is that, so long as systemic racism remains an obstacle in human society, and so long as people with no regard for the culture have power over the industry, culture vulturism will continue to endure. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything that can be done on a microcosmic level. It’s incredibly important, not just to promote and support the artists that are pushing the culture forward and making great music — which is precisely what we attempt to do here on this site — but also to hold artists and gatekeepers accountable for who they let in.

Drawing inspiration from hip-hop is inevitable, especially in a time where it is more popular than it has ever been. The point of this discussion isn’t necessarily to stave people off from participating in the culture, but to highlight the difference between natural influence and appropriated influence, and to encourage people to engage responsibly.

The beauty of cultures is that they are as dynamic and evolutionary as the people who construct them; as people change, so does the outlook of the cultures they create. With that being said, those who participate ought to do so for more than just profit’s sake; they ought to know the history and have a personal stake in the issues that are pertinent to the cultures in which they are involved.

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