Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Two Words this Music History Student Never Wants to Hear Again

As a former Music History student, I learned a lot about…well…music history. And music history is in many ways an easy way to follow history in general. One of the most important things I learned in all my music history classes was also one of the most obvious ones, and that is that everyone borrows from and is influenced by everyone.

This doesn’t just mean that Bach, from Germany is also influenced by Buxtehude, who is also from Germany; it means that he was also influenced by Vivaldi, from Italy. All over Europe, composers were traveling and hearing music from other countries, and bringing back those styles to be used with the music of their own countries.

To borrow a term from botany, that’s the way cross-fertilization works. Georg Friedrich Handel, a German, moves to England, where he becomes George Frederick Handel, and influences English music for generations to come. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, from Austria, becomes known for Italian music, and greatly influences its style. Oh, and he also wrote a Turkish rondo, while Beethoven wrote a Turkish section to his 9th Symphony.

People from one culture are hearing things in another, bringing it back, and working it into what was native to them, and no one complained. It’s the way that music works.

It was also the way that fashion worked. You didn’t have to be French to wear French-styled clothes. Those styles made their way to Germany and England just as styles from Germany and England made their way to France.

Worth noting is that this cross-fertilization often happened even while those countries were at war with each other…which seemed to be fairly often.

So with this in mind, what are the two words I never want to hear again?

Cultural appropriation.

The way I’ve heard it used lately, it’s the idea that white people are illegitimately taking and profiting from things from black culture. They’re taking what is “ours” and using it when they really have no right to. This refers to everything from “our” music to “our” hairstyles, and even “our” way of speaking.

How do you say “bullshit” in Swahili?

Is it cultural appropriation when white people play “our” music, wear “our” hairstyles, and use “our” slang?

I don’t know…is it cultural appropriation when Scott Joplin uses the European diatonic and chromatic scales, the AABBACCDD compositional structure, and the distinctly Italian fortepiano to create ragtime? Is it cultural appropriation when musicians like Louis Armstrong use European instruments like the trumpet and saxophone to create jazz? Is it cultural appropriation when black women straighten their hair, and avail themselves of the additional style choices that come with it? Or when they dye it colors not found in nature? Is it cultural appropriation when a black person uses Yiddish terms like klutz or chutzpah? Or are all of these simply more cases of the cross-fertilization that happens when one culture meets another?

And lest you try to say that those cases are different because we were simply absorbing what was in the culture we were brought into against our wills, consider Hawaii. Was it cultural appropriation when Hawaiians took the ukulele that was brought over by Portuguese traders, and made it their own? And what about Asia? Is it cultural appropriation when young people in Japan, China, and Korea copy American or European music and styles? And is it cultural appropriation when we copy theirs?

My answer is “no.”

Sometimes we see something in another culture that we hadn’t thought of before, and like. That’s normal cross-fertilization. We’re not Monsanto here, trying to make sure that no one else uses our patented genetically modified soybean seeds. This is the way it is…we get ideas from others, they get ideas from us, and we spread them around like manure, helping new things grow.

So the next time I hear someone use the term “cultural appropriation”, I’m going to appropriate a 2x4 and smack them upside the head with it.

No comments:

Post a Comment