At last week’s MTV Video Music Awards, Miley Cyrus continued her journey to adulthood, aided by proximity to popping black female asses. The former Hannah Montana star sparked a national dialogue about rich white girls borrowing empowerment from "low" black culture. The conversation we need to have about cultural appropriation is thorny and complicated—and necessary. But in the heat of a pop-culture moment, the significance is trivialized, reduced to the mere shock of a wiggling, latex-clad derriere pressed against Robin Thicke’s manhood. And ideas that support useful dialogue get lost in the scrum. It is impossible to have a meaningful discussion about cultural appropriation without first understanding the difference between inspiration and minstrelsy, the diversity of American racial experiences, and what we have a right to expect from white artists influenced by other cultures.
One thing glaringly absent from last week’s breast-beating was recognition of the richness of black culture.
Absent was the realization that there is truly no such thing as a single black culture. There are, however, black cultures. The African diaspora is huge. There are African-descended people all over the world and those peoples are diverse. Of course, “black culture” is usually used as shorthand for black American culture, but even black people in this melting pot, seasoned with countless different classes and backgrounds and ethnicities, are far from monolithic. Miley Cyrus is indeed borrowing an element of one black culture—that of some young, urban, lower- and working-class American blacks, specifically, in the case of last week's performance, the black women who work at strip clubs and from transplanted dancehall culture, where gluteus maximus-centered gyrations are de rigueur. And it is often in the borrowing from the most marginalized of black Americans that the hypocrisy of some cultural homage is revealed.
Appropriation lies at the nexus of history and power. It is about a majority culture co-opting an element of a group it has historically oppressed, misunderstood, and/or disdained, while simultaneously reinforcing stereotypes. We spent a summer being told that Trayvon Martin’s gold grille helped mark him as a frightening degenerate. Meanwhile, America’s latest pop princess, Katy Perry, and its grande dame, Madonna, sported sparkling dentistry as harmless accessories. Gwen Stefani, in her 2004 video for “Luxurious,” adopted the high, arched eyebrows and lined lips identified with Mexican American culture without bearing any of the stigma that actual Chicanas do. (Stefani has also employed the use of a giggling Japanese posse; South Asian forehead decoration; and, most recently, faux Native American regalia. Is there a Hall of Fame for pop culture racial malfeasance?) In the video, Stefani uses Latino men and women to foreground her own whiteness and the implied coolness that comes from dabbling in the ways of exotic others.
Not every white artist who appears influenced by people of color is a cultural tourist. There are as many ways to be white as there are to be black or Latino or Asian or Native American. While working on her latest album, Miley Cyrus reportedly told her songwriters, “'I want urban, I just want something that just feels black.” But hip-hop artist Eminem, for instance, grew up as one of only three white families in a largely black section of Detroit. It is not surprising that he would be influenced by the style, cadences, and rhythms of his environment—just like a poor white kid from Tupelo, Mississippi might be, or the late white soul singer Teena Marie, who was reared in a historically black neighborhood in Oakland, California. Charges of cultural appropriation that strip artists like these of a right to make music informed by their experiences are bankrupt.
That is not to say that only white artists raised in black communities can be influenced by African American creativity. Art is predicated on an exchange of ideas, textures, and styles. To mark the creativity of people of color “off-limits” is to create a different sort of problem. Without cultural sharing, we would have neither The Rolling Stones nor Valerie June. But a black woman adopting the country twang most associate with white cultures is not the same as a group of young white men trying on the music of black Delta bluesmen. History and power, remember? No matter how sincere the homage, white artists necessarily carry their racial privilege with them.
It is tempting to make individual artists lightning rods for society’s racial problems. It is easier to try to “fix” Miley Cyrus than the jumble of American racial biases that created last week’s spectacle to begin with. But we can only hold artists responsible for the sins they commit. We can censure Miley for using black women as props and modern-day Hottentot Venuses and for fetishizing elements of urban black culture. We can call The Rolling Stones on their classic ode to the rape of enslaved black women, “Brown Sugar.” We can justifiably question white Australian rapper, Iggy Azalea, about her song, “D.R.U.G.s,” which includes the line, “When the relay starts I’m a runaway slave ... master.” It is deeply offensive to get wealthy and famous thanks to black influences, while simultaneously perpetuating racial stereotypes, glorifying brutality against black people, and carelessly poking old wounds.
But we cannot blame individual white artists for the inequitable way they are received by the American public—the way their performance of black cultures is made more palatable by their whiteness while the same things are disdained and penalized in actual black people. That is a much larger problem that will take a village to solve. In a Rolling Stone interview, Ben Haggerty, better known as Macklemore, recipient of this year’s VMA for Best Hip Hop Video, deftly articulated what we can ask of white artists who borrow from blackness:
“If you’re going to be a white dude and do this shit, I think you have to take some level of accountability. You have to acknowledge where the art came from, where it is today, how you’re benefiting from it. At the very least, just bringing up those points and acknowledging that, yes, I understand my privilege; I understand how it works for me in society, and how it works for me in 2013 …
"We made a great album, but I do think we have benefited from being white and the media grabbing onto something. A song like ‘Thrift Shop’ was safe enough for the kids. It was like, ‘This is music that my mom likes and that I can like as a teenager,’ and even though I’m cussing my ass off in the song, the fact that I’m a white guy, parents feel safe. They let their six-year-olds listen to it. I mean it’s just … it’s different. And would that success have been the same if I would have been a black dude? I think the answer is no.”
Racial inequality in artistic interpretation doesn’t stop being important when it moves from the streets to a stage at the Barclays Center. And it is the racial inequality that undergirds cultural appropriation, and sometimes even innocent inspiration, that we still need to talk about once the “sexier” issue of a young artist using “ghetto realness” to get some dirt on a Disneyfied reputation has faded. It is a complicated debate that requires more than a superficial understanding of race in America, and it calls for artists who make their livings “appreciating” black culture to also be held accountable to the communities that inspire them.