There isn’t a Black soul born who is foreign to the great cons against Black art, and most importantly, Black sound. It’s a right of passage, since most of us were raised on the stories of Motown and grown folk music. The era of Blues, Jazz, Swing and even Country music weren’t only times of glamour forming the necessary framework to an identity erased from 400+ years of marginalization and exploitation, but a cautionary tale of what Whiteness will do to you if you’ve the blessing of being young, talented and Black.
To understand the damaging history of cultural appropriation through music and how Whiteness has become entitled to the visions and development of Black people without compensation or the appreciation of the person behind the art, we must first begin to understand the context of what it means to be a Black American. African-American culture exists in an ethnic void that is fundamentally defined by a history of lacking. In one aspect, African-Americans have always been detailed as lacking the necessary privileges in America to be considered truly American. These privileges have been bartered for by many different cultures and races throughout American history by possessing a culture in many ways appetizing to the dominant forces at work in the U.S. because capitalism is a carnivorous creature and the gaze has to objectify you, before it can consume you whole.
Unfortunately, upon the moment African persons were gathered into foreign soil, the ethnic identity and existence of our people was systematically decimated until nothing remained to be written or recorded physically to remember the cultures from whence we came. Typically, this means that you have nothing to grow from to contribute to the beast of U.S. culture outside of the price upon your body. It was the expectation that the African perish under these conditions and only the blank state of the slave exist.
But yet, we proved that theory wrong because oral histories matter and pain is the muse of innovation. The oral history of African culture persisted. In the two-hundred years of emancipation, Black culture has developed its own existence within a vacuum celebrated by our reflection on the increasingly recent existence of pain popularized by our adaptation of western art form with the inheritance of the African spirit. Maybe it’s this adaptation of western art forms that gives Whiteness the opinion that Black art (most importantly, Black music) belongs in some way to them. However, this perspective is inherently flawed because of how it ignores the ways these creations were both inherited and then passed onto Whiteness forever and never returned or attributed to the culture who reformed it as an expression of an unending liminal existence.
For instance, the line of drum-based communication ancestrally used by African slaves in the old world evolved into the “banshaw” or “banjow” and would later become the Banjo, a popular instrument applied to southern sounds like Bluegrass and, later, country. Even the nature of country music, which has recently come under fire for resisting Lil Nas X’s cultural reinvention and hybridization that has defined the genre since the moment it was pried away from Southern Black culture into the hands of blue-collar Whiteness.
This is a recurring problem within music that has culturally erased Blackness or relegated the position of Blackness to the background of most musical genres. In Rap/R&B, particularly between the ’60s and the ’90s, Black sound became increasingly favorable when delivered from white people. The culture of Motown boy bands and sound like the clean-cut, synchronization of the Temptations and the Five Heartbeats would later transform into the soft, cookie-cutter image of *NSYNC, the Backstreet Boys with the nerve to erase the inspirations of Motown in lieu of bigging up popular appropriator Elvis Presley. But even this is merely the more benign appropriative tactics employed by the music industry.
We’ve heard of the unsavory mutation of the cover song by white musicians of the early 20th century into blatant profiteering over Black creative’s blood, sweat and pain. We’ve heard of the true colors of Elvis Presley and the seldom sung truth of the Beatles’ sound and the Benny Goodmans and the Rolling Stones, the Zootsuiters, the Blue-eyed souls and more, all the way up to Vanilla Ice putting a part in flaxen hair and hitting a bop to the sound of ghostwritten lyrics and antics to the amazement and wealth of a white corporation too greedy to see Black or White, save it as a demographic for exploitation.
The critically acclaimed Broadway production of Chicago details a very clear perspective of how whiteness observes Black music in a historical sense (particularly because of its historical roots of how two white women pinned the nefarious murders of their lovers on the corrupting influence of Jazz music). Black music is always less-than until it such time as Whiteness has had the opportunity to infiltrate the culture supporting it and figured out how to perform it themselves. Rap music’s “renaissance” in the ’90s hadn’t occurred until the rise of Eminem as the industry’s latest bad boy and residential Aryan, performing antics few rappers of the time had been able to dream of, let alone execute in full view of popular culture’s judgmental gaze. It’s a strange bit of leeway provided, one that many in Black media have taken the time to point out (even FX’s Atlanta wonders if Justin Bieber’s talent would be lauded if he were as Black as the sound and style he cultivates).
And it isn’t like the same can be said for Black musicians breaking into the “Counter” genres. As stated, though country music has roots within Black culture, Lil Nas X, along with a host of Black musicians — including Beyonce Knowles-Carter — have been penalized for attempting to reach into the genre and outright barred from it because of its label as a “White demographic.” Further, in the subject of Rock music, few Black musicians are invoked in the genre outside of Jimi Hendrix. And, despite the prevalence of Black musicians within Pop music, many Black female artists aren’t presented the accolades for their contributions to the industry.
Artists like Janet Jackson and Missy Elliott — with more than 20 years in the music industry and their hands in countless works that have revolutionized how we understand and absorb modern music — were for a long time bypassed by the industry, largely seeing those whose work stands upon theirs as a foundation claim victory over them despite the core value not surpassing the creative ingenuity originated by them.
Further, despite the relevant popularity of the many Black genres in music, the messages and meanings do not always carry themselves across to the transcultural audiences. How familiar are White people to the N-word they hear so prevalently in Black music? Or how involved are they with the messages of struggle and exploitation communicated within Blackness? Most of the Bible belt turning quick verses into a caption on social media or merch are foreign to the message capitalized on in any given moment. And yet, there is a sense of entitlement and ownership of both the messenger and the message itself when Black music is snatched as widely as it is. There isn’t a song from Beyonce’s “Freedom” to the entirety of the Black Panther soundtrack that doesn’t have a country music cover where the meaning is repurposed into purely entertainment and the emotion of the art is neutered for a sense of capitalistic claim.
The history of Black music and Black creativity as a whole in the U.S. has always existed both as a victim of a thirsty gaze that only exists to possess it without ever seeking to understand it, or the creator. However, what Black art often seems to do to defy this constant need to absorb Blackness —and destroy it — is its ability to constantly build itself all over again from within the void. As Country music became Jazz, and Jazz became the Blues, the hustle of Black music and sound is in making the best out of theft and erasure and continuing the work stolen from a past generation.
Even when the Power of today says that we cannot, we’ll continue to do so, and like Lil Nas X, get paid handsomely.