At this point, writing an article about cultural appropriation and race in pop music, specifically within hip-hop, is nothing new. Images of Miley twerking, Taylor Swift attempting to twerk, and Katy Perry and countless other pop icons mainstreaming black aesthetics punctuate our recent cultural consciousness. Arguments about “blackness” in hip-hop populate the Twittersphere, blogosphere and the far reaches of the Internet as the socio-culturally minded voice their views on the sounds dominating the airwaves and trends in music videos. You could say that we, in 2015, are fairly desensitized to this culture of borrowing and synthesizing musical influences; after all, American pop culture is a conglomeration of stylistic exchanges stemming far beyond the great British invasion of the 1960s. But not all cultural exchanges are equal. And the biggest unequal relationship of them all is dominating Billboard charts nationwide. So why did it take a 16-year-old actress to elevate the conversation of appropriation to national news?
First, timing is everything. Amandla Stenberg, the teenage actress who played Rue in “The Hunger Games,” is making waves with her history class video “Don’t Cash Crop my Cornrows: A Crash Discourse on Black Culture.” Like many of the other socially conscious works circulating the Internet, the video discusses black culture and its appropriation by the mass media. But Stenberg brilliantly takes it a step further, drawing parallels between the prevalence of black culture in the American mainstream, specifically within the broad expanses of pop music ruling the radio, and the current politically charged debate of police brutality and racism in America.
Stenberg’s video, published on her Tumblr page months after she presented the project to her high school history class, comes at a time when America is going through a brutal racial reality check. The sun has not set on Ferguson or on the institutionalized racism and racial prejudices it revealed to the nation. The paradoxes of our time are shockingly clear: we live in a nation marred by the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and countless other black men, yet we equate the sounds, look and aesthetic of “blackness” as “cool.”
Stenberg rips this paradox wide open with her question, “What would America be like if we loved black people as much as we love black culture?” Instead of rattling on about the current battered state of the union, she astutely leads the conversation on the black struggles in hip-hop and the meaning of contemporary appropriation and (often times) misappropriation. By tracing the dual lineages of black hairstyles, such as the titular cornrows, and hip-hop and analyzing their intersection through appropriation in today’s popular culture, she reveals that the past is never really past but rather a powerful force in the present. Stenberg reaches back in history, explaining how hip-hop stems from a black struggle and from jazz and blues, which were created by African-Americans in the face of adversity. In similar Twitter posts, rapper Q-Tip reiterates Stenberg’s point of the power of history in less than 140 characters, proclaiming, “You have to take into account the HISTORY as you move underneath the banner of hiphop.” We’ve been taught that education and understanding are key to making progress in the world. For her presentation, Stenberg puts this teaching into action, schooling her class and the World Wide Web on the dangers of appropriation.
Speaking about pop musicians like Katy Perry and Taylor Swift, Stenberg explains that many of these artists are labeled as “cool” because of their use and interpretations of black culture, but they lack the historical context of the struggle from which many of these black styles sprung. This is Miley Cyrus surrounded by twerking black women or Katy Perry dawning cornrows and a fake grill or Taylor Swift attempting to rap. This, according to Stenberg, is where the lines between cultural exchange and cultural assimilation blur. These “white musicians that adopted blackness … failed to speak on the racism that comes along with black identity,” Stenberg says. Seemingly harmless actions such as performing a dance developed by the black community, wearing “black” hairstyles, or taking up “black” musical styles forsake historical and contextual understanding in an effort to be cool and hip.
Taking a deep breath, Stenberg explains, “Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated, but is deemed as high fashion, cool or funny when the privileged take it for themselves. Appropriation occurs when the appropriator is not aware of the deep significance of the culture that they are partaking in.” The perpetuation of such stereotypes in pop music, without greater cultural and contextual understanding, only furthers the cycle of cultural appropriation. Stenberg’s viral video is a great step for millennials in raising awareness and stopping the cycle.
Margie Fuchs is a junior in the College. This is the last appearance of Face the Music this semester.