Inspiration vs. Appropriation: When Does it Cross the Line?
Earlier this week my family was packing up to head out of town for Thanksgiving. My kids were being goofy (a regular occurrence) and somehow the word pelvis came up. My youngest giggled wildly about the word pelvis and asked if there was anything that rhymed with it. “Elvis used to be called ‘Elvis the Pelvis’ ” I told her.
“Why?” she asked. And so I found her a YouTube video of Elvis performing on the Milton Berle show in 1956. While she watched and imitated Elvis’ famous pelvic moves, I scrolled down the list of videos to see if there were any other good examples of Elvis the Pelvis. In with the Elvis footage was a video of Big Mama Thornton singing “Hound Dog.” I played it for my kids who asked, “Which one came first: Elvis’ version or Big Mama Thornton’s?” My husband and I gave an impromptu little lesson about the history of black music, explaining that a lot of popular music has roots in black culture but didn’t become popular until a white, mainstream artist performed it.
Then at my parents house over the holiday, a similar conversation occurred. My mom and dad recently watched a documentary about famed songwriters Leiber & Stoller, who incidentally wrote the song “Hound Dog.” Leiber grew up surrounded by black folks in Baltimore. He was not just influenced by black culture, he was in it. He went to schools that were predominantly black, and helped his mom run a store that was in a black neighborhood. He said it was his experiences in black culture that allowed him to write music for black artists. Leiber and Stoller’s first big hit was “Hound Dog,” which they originally wrote for Big Mama Thornton; but it didn’t become popular until Elvis sang it.
Were Leiber and Stoller inspired by black culture? Or did they appropriate a style of music from black culture that didn’t belong to them? Were they paying homage to a culture by popularizing black music? or were they profiting from a culture that wasn’t theirs to profit from?
I’ve been thinking about the notion of inspiration vs. appropriation for several months. Conversations about the movie The Help over the summer, an interesting read on Racialicious, a spirited chat on the podcast Is That Your Child? about Halloween costumes, and an interview on the Mixed Chicks Chat podcast all left me thinking about the difference between honoring a culture and stealing/profiting from it. How do we decide the difference between inspiration and appropriation?
The book and movie The Help stirred up a lot of controversy because of the fact that it is a story about the black experience written by a white woman. Many negative responses to both the book and the movie centered on the question, “When do people of color get to tell their own story?” The author, Kathryn Stockett, states that her story is based on memories from her own life. Is she inspired by the black women from her past? Or is she appropriating the story of black women, telling a story that isn’t necessarily hers to tell?
Mixed Chicks Chat (a live weekly podcast about the mixed experience) episode 225 featured a man by the name of Phil Wilkes Fixico (read a story about him here.) His mixed experience involved an amazing story: at age 52, Fixico discovered through research that he is a descendant of the Seminole Maroons — slaves who escaped in the 18th and 19th century to live in Spanish Florida near the Seminole Indians. Their cultures intermixed, creating an African-Seminole cultural experience. Fixico discussed the fact that Seminole Maroon experience is a story that needs to be told, that more people should learn about this intersection of African and Native American history. His mission is to share this history, and he suggested that the best way to spread the word is to get someone from the dominant culture (i.e. someone white, European-American) to write about it. He argued that more people will listen if the story is told by a member of the dominant culture.
Since that episode aired, I have been thinking about his statement.
Will the dominant culture only pay attention to a story if it is told by one of their own?
Both Leiber & Stoller and Elvis brought a lot of attention to black music. Without their inspiration/appropriation of black culture, what would music sound like today? The Help started a lot of conversations about race that weren’t happening prior to its release. Many white women in particular who read the book/saw the movie are seeing issues of race from a perspective they had never before considered. Without that inspiration/appropriation, would those conversations have occurred? Will more people learn about the story Phil Wilkes Fixico wants to share, the story of Black Seminole Maroons, if it is told by a white/European-American?
I don’t have answers here, just questions. In fact, the more I think about it the more questions I have. When I talked to my husband about the concept of cultural appropriation he told me a story about walking to work and seeing a group of Japanese college students dressed in hip hop attire. He asked: are they appropriating black culture? Or is their expression of hip hop culture not considered cultural appropriation because they aren’t members of the dominant European-American culture?
What do you think? What constitutes cultural appropriation? What is the difference between inspiration and appropriation?
Will the dominant culture listen to a story that comes straight from the source? or does it need that inspiration/appropriation to happen before it can learn to appreciate other cultures?