This is our truth, tell us yours
One of the most common memes on activist Twitter is the one about cultural appropriation, the way in which items of a distinctive culture are co-opted as elements of another culture. It’s an assymmetric debate; it’s wrong when white folks steal from people of other cultures, but no-one either knows or cares about ideas that flow in the other direction, or the cultural appropriation that goes on within white societies.
The meme is often couched in terms of the evolution of rock and roll from Black American music; barely a week goes by without someone in my timeline having a rant about Led Zeppelin and some blues singer from the 30s or 40s; humorously, the name of Robert Johnson often comes up even though he’s one of the blues artists Led Zepp didn’t rip off. Even Eric Clapton’s many detractors who remember his half arsed and half hearted endorsement of Enoch Powell in the 70s have to acknowledge that he pays clear homage to the black artists he copies and works with – the problem with Led Zepp was not that they copied so much blues music, but that they were so dishonest about it. In the week that Pharell Williams and Robin Thicke got a thorough caning in the courts for stealing from Marvin Gaye it’s worth remembering that intention is part of the distinction between theft and respect. Bonnie Raitt’s guitar work and singing owes a huge debt to her heroes and friends, like Mississippi Fred McDowell, but Mcdowell and others were willing to work with Bonnie Raitt, and to teach her. Similarly with the big three of British blues; Clapton Beck and Page all cut their teeth in the Yardbirds, a band who learned about blues from backing visiting American black musicians.
Oddly, the same people don’t seem to give a shit when Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel is the latest in a long line of English attempts to co-opt pre-saxon ideas and icons in the service of redefining Britishness. Now, that may be partly because pre saxon history is such hotly contested ground, but it seems entirely acceptable for Ishiguro to fabricate a very twenty first century tale out of other people’s pasts, projecting our fears and concerns onto a past that he barely understands and has no concern for.
The only conclusion I can form is that, actually, as an idea, cultural appropriation is pretty much useless, because it’s ill defined, loosely applied and shallow. Better to deal with each item on a case by case basis. I think of this as the Richard Thompson approach; the problem with Sting’s cod Jamaican accent is not that it’s cultural appropriation, but that Sting is a self regarding arse of a man with no redeeming features and no excuse.
Such an approach lets us choose between Bonnie Raitt and Robin Dicke. Nothing else does. It also lets us ask of Kazuo Ishiguro why he needs to take huge liberties with the early history of his adopted country just to write an angst ridden novel about how he feels about our country today.