merica has been appropriating and profiting off Black art (and bodies) since the chattel enslavement of Africans on these shores. In the 1830s, minstrel performer Thomas Rice found fame and fortune by mimicking African American songs and dances, kinda like the modern era’s biggest corporations and pop stars do today (the list is long, but ya’ll know who and what we’re talking about). The only difference is that Tom was wearing blackface—although is it different? Cue fake, swollen lips and asses, and dark spray tans distorting so many of the popular white faces on our social feeds.
But “culture vulturism,” if you will, isn’t always so easily explained or understood. Certainly, in contemporary Western culture a racial dynamic is often central to the discussion, but it’s perhaps too simplistic to say that white appreciation of Black culture universally equals appropriation. And then there’s the fact in some instances Black people can appropriate, too (Intra-culture-vulturism. We kid.). In fact, culture vultures of multiple stripes lurk behind most every authentic trend and ‘hood-grown expression. Still, a quick survey of the CASSIUS newsroom proved that any earnest attempt to define the loaded phrase demands historical context coupled with contemporary cultural analysis—just to start.
Any earnest attempt to define the loaded phrase demands historical context coupled with contemporary cultural analysis—just to start.Considering this, we sought out an intellectual, eclectic group of writers and artists to help us dissect the term. We asked them, simply, to complete this sentence:
(This conversation is hardly over, but we’re off to an enlightening start.)
TARELL ALVIN McCRANEY, PLAYWRIGHT, OSCAR WINNER FOR MOONLIGHT (ADAPTED SCREENPLAY)
…come when things are carcasses.I grew up in the drag ball scene in Miami and the poor culture of Black and Caribbean people in Miami. And no part of my culture feels like it’s dead.
I grew up in the drag ball scene in Miami and the poor culture of Black and Caribbean people in Miami. And no part of my culture feels like it’s dead.It feels very much alive and like it’s changing itself.
When you go off to fight battles with others who may not respect what you or your culture may hold dear, you are also leaving your community unprotected in that moment. And so for me, hearing “tea” and “shade” tells me someone is listening in at our campfire. Cool. But how is my herd doing? How is my culture thriving? Am I doing enough to make sure the young people, the young homeless kids who are making up this language, who are creating this way of moving, who are on the edges of new expression, do they have a platform? Do they have food in their mouths? Are they protected at night? The queer kids of color need me here. I think it’s more important to make sure they survive so that we can continue to have a community that will create new movement in terms of language and expression.
WADE DAVIS, FORMER NFL PLAYER @Wade_Davis28
…are parasites with power. They often have complete disregard for the labor, dignity, humanity and brilliance of others. They usurp the work of others to maintain dominance and control. They shape popular culture by controlling the narrative, centering themselves, and rendering others invisible.
They shape popular culture by controlling the narrative, centering themselves, and rendering others invisible Images and stories matter—they allow people to dream with a plan and move beyond the state of wishful thinking. They impact the work of all Black and brown folks by making it harder to tell our stories. When you’re invisible and don’t have access to power—you don’t have the ability to make decisions about what, who, how and why your lives are portrayed and profit off your own intellectual capital.
REMBERT BROWNE, CULTURE WRITER @rembert
Early in my career, I had someone describe me slightly vulturously because I was writing about race and Black folk, but all they knew was that I went to a private high school and an equally nice—and white—college. But it was fine, because I set the person straight, and then everything was good. But not everyone has the opportunity to set their own record straight. So I do think you have to be careful who and how and where you assign labels.
Ultimately, I think it’s about discussing or attempting to show knowledge in, or use privilege to talk over or profit in a part of society that one has never been a participant in, but has decided to hop on board once it’s become cool and/or financially advantageous.
These people/organizations don’t shape popular culture—they often end it, or signal the moment something is “over.” The shaping and molding happens before. What this group does often is fossilize it. While their platforms may be large and do often take things to huge masses, it’s no longer the same thing.It’s kind of like a game of telephone—the longer the secret gets passed around the circle, the more each person hears something different
It’s kind of like a game of telephone—the longer the secret gets passed around the circle, the more each person hears something different,continuously changing the meaning and the message.
People can sniff out authenticity. And people can tell if you’re a product of the culture you claim to care about. So, for me, that’s all I can really care about. As his highness Big Rube said, “Take back your existence or die like a punk… Right on to the real, death to the fakers.”
RAQIYAH MAYS, AUTHOR OF THE MAN CURSE, VETERAN NYC RADIO HOST @RaqiyahMays
… affect my life in many ways. One, because I have a son. A tween. At 12, he’s affected by what he hears and sees. He lives in an electronic media world, where his mind can be subconsciously shaped. And as a parent, I have to clear up the misconceptions. I have to reshape his mind and save it from those making a “trendy” mockery of his culture.
as a parent, I have to clear up the misconceptions. I have to reshape his mind and save it from those making a “trendy” mockery of his cultureCulture vultures also give fuel to microagressions. When those who are not of a certain race (Black), feel they are “down” because they’re imitating their favorite pop star’s appropriated style, they can sometimes unwittingly act in offensive ways to Black people.
ROBERT JONES, JR., WRITER AND CREATOR, SON OF BALDWIN @SonofBaldwin
Generally speaking, I think culture vultures have the biggest impact on the mainstream (read: white people) as they are people who use their various privileges to mimic the style, art, movement, and je ne said quoi of the communities that create the content that they profit from. Because of how racially segregated countries like the United States are, this mainstream audience only becomes aware of these age-old cultural artifacts after they are stolen and re-presented as new. Because Whiteness also has its own desirability, these artifacts take on a new glamour for people who would have ignored them had they been presented by a black person.
Because Whiteness also has its own desirability, these artifacts take on a new glamour for people who would have ignored them had they been presented by a black person Cornrow hairstyles and wearing Timbs in the spring become “hot” when a white person does it, even though black people have been doing it for years. Whiteness is the impetus for this kind of popularity.
DANEZ SMITH, POET, PLAYWRIGHT, ACTOR, TEACHER @Danez_Smif
When I think of a culture vulture, I think of someone who only engages with some aspect of culture only after it’s been deemed as cool. I think of white girls who steal and rename styles from Black and brown women. I think of Deadmau5. I think of racist white gays and homophobic women running around talking about “SHAAAAAADE”. I think of trap rap blasting from suburban speakers. I think of people who thrive off Black culture, but don’t give a shit about Black people. I think Urban Outfitters. I think of every “new fad” that is actually something POC, usually Black and Latinx folks, have been doing since the dawn of weave.
I think of every “new fad” that is actually something POC, usually Black and Latinx folks, have been doing since the dawn of weave.
I roll my eyes at culture vultures and try to keep it pushing. Its too hard and probably impossible to keep culture all the way insular. You invite one white child to the function and, poof, it’s everywhere. Or someone actually in the culture figures out how to monetize it for the masses. And if it gets brown folks paid, maybe it ain’t the worst thing. Maybe we need culture vultures? I wonder how many folks have engaged with my work because it was cool to do so? Maybe a new question for the folks who create and invent culture is: how do we use culture vultures for the good of our people?
MICHAEL ARCENEAUX , POP CULTURE WRITER, SOCIAL INFLUENCER @youngsinick
I consider a culture vulture to be someone who consistently borrows from subcultures and groups that they do not belong to for no other reason than profit.
Their impact on shaping pop culture depends on select variables—starting with how popular they are. If they are a hugely successful mainstream artist, they do shape culture in that they serve as a conduit.
If they are a hugely successful mainstream artist, they do shape culture in that they serve as a conduit It’s how many people first gain access into subcultures and groups they otherwise wouldn’t know about. There is a trade off for that. While someone like Madonna has been criticized for incorporating aspects of ball culture into the mainstream for “Vogue,” many of the people from that scene were included in the video, on the tour, and in performances. There was at least some sincere effort in borrowing/being inspired and being inclusive.
That’s the difference between someone like Miley Cyrus, who used Black women as props, danced off beat, and tried to ruin twerking for all the real ones.
MILES JOHNSON, WRITER @BlackAndOutside
…is someone who takes pieces of already decaying cultural productions, usually made by marginalized people, and exploits it to profit. I think culture vultures do shape popular culture. They define what is almost on its last leg of relevance and inform what is profitable in the mainstream, which also on the opposite end defines what is cutting edge, underground, and not refined enough to be seen as profitable to people looking to exploit cultural productions.
I can not deny that culture vultures affect my work as someone that is a part of the culture, not looking to exploit the culture. I have to be aware while creating of who is looking to exploit my taste, thoughts, and viewpoints.
I have to be aware while creating of who is looking to exploit my taste, thoughts, and viewpoints However, I find solace and maybe a type of ambivalence in the fact that I create things without direction or permission. I chase my own creative impulse, whereas a culture vulture picks on the carrion of yesterday’s ideas and creative impulses. This brings me peace while working.
AKIBA SOLOMON, WRITER, EDITORIAL DIRECTOR OF COLORLINES.COM @akibasolomon
…are hackers. Hackers who rip other people’s traditions, struggle, language, beauty and passion. They pretend they made it up so that they can profit with a clear conscience. But they are exploiting the system of white supremacy that the culture is meant to resist.
they are exploiting the system of white supremacy that the culture is meant to resist A subset of culture vultures take bits and pieces and tries them on while simultaneously mocking or insulting Black people (Hey, Iggy!). Solange says this well, “don’t want to do the dishes but wanna eat all the food.”
Culture vultures change culture by devaluing the original makers, consolidating and renaming aspects of it to better exploit it and severing it from the originators. Individual culture vultures don’t directly affect my work, which is about systemic racism. But when institutions with more money and power create a strategy focused on cornering a market it never cared about, its frustrating to watch people fawn over it. That said, this work isn’t about me or my writing. It’s about the people. This is what I use to keep moving through the world.
ZAHIRA KELLY, ARTIST, SOCIO-CRITIC @bad_dominicana
We see culture vultures shape popular culture in many different ways: intra-culturally, for example, in Latin America the popular music genres are all of Afro-Latinx origin (Merengue, Salsa, Bachata, Cumbia, Punta, Tango, Reggeatton, Dembow, etc) while Afro-Latinxs who create it are erased and denied and degraded. The faces of the genres have become non-Black Latin Americans and any time it’s brought up, it’s excused away as, “It’s everyone’s, can’t I just enjoy it?” And yes, you can enjoy it, but not when you claim it as yours and refuse to pay homage to or even recognize Afro-Latinxs exist. If you love it, love the people who created it too.
If you love it, love the people who created it too
DAVID DENNIS, WRITER, ADJUNCT PROFESSOR AT MOREHOUSE COLLEGE @DavidDTSS
… pluck the pieces of Black culture they want, and take it back home, pretending like it’s something they came up with. And what often happens is that [mainstream publications] like Cosmo will actually give these white people credit for discovering the thing they stole. Thus Kim Kardashian invents boxer braids. Kylie Jenner invents full lips. And Macklemore is the first positive rapper ever.
These people shape mainstream culture, for sure. Usually by the time they’ve vultured something, we’ve already gotten over it and moved on to the next thing. So when iHop says its pancakes are “on fleek,” we’re already saying something else that they’ll tweet out in 2018.
when iHop says its pancakes are “on fleek,” we’re already saying something else that they’ll tweet out in 2018I’m not really bothered by culture vultures because they’re going to latch on to Black culture no matter what. What bothers me is when supposed journalistic publications give them credit for discovering something. That just reminds me how few Black people are employed, let alone listened to, in newsrooms across the country.
GERARD BUSH, WRITER, FILM DIRECTOR @gerardbush
… are thieves of ideas—operating in the shadows. They are either representing an institution or acting independently to deliberately misappropriate culture. I liken it to identity theft, only on a much grander and more nefarious scale.
I liken it to identity theft, only on a much grander and more nefarious scale “Culture vulture” in this context, is a pseudo culture in and of itself; steeped in the unabashed stealing of ideas as a sort of blood sport. Think Pat Boone, for instance. The corny, talentless, blond pretty boy who would steal music from Black soul singers in the 1950’s and 60’s, repackage and sell it back to white kids as if it were his own. But it goes much deeper. He was merely a minion working on behalf of a white collective that was determined to affirm their faux superiority, not only to themselves, but more importantly to their children.
ROYA MARSH, AUTHOR, POET @EssayAreOhWhyAy
…take the essence of what it is to be Black, to be hip hop, to be anything that is fashionable and reasonable and make it seem like they’re the coolest or the first ones to do it. The only popular culture they’re shaping is the one that they’re popular in. Like, if you don’t give a fuck about the Kardashians and Jenners then they’re not shaping shit for you…just scavenging the remains of whatever dopeness you left behind.
The problem is people don’t understand how to disassociate one thing from another. I can be the biggest Kanye fan and supporter and not give a fuck about his wife. Like Kanye and I aren’t friends. So I ain’t gotta care about her. I just gotta care about him putting out dope music and fly ass kicks.
There are so many [non Black] folks out here making you believe they are “down” and “woke” and it hurts when you come to learn that they’re in costume.
so many [non Black] folks out here making you believe they are “down” and “woke” and it hurts when you come to learn that they’re in costume Playing dress up with your culture. I’m pushing back against that for sure, in my work, my poems, my actions, but like…I can’t do this shit alone.
Q-TIP, ARTIST, MC @QtipTheAbstract
Culture Vultures are suckers.
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