Cultural Appropriation: It’s a Stone Gas, Honey!

by Michael Potemra

One of the most controversial articles in recent Interwebs history was the Salon piece titled “Why I can’t stand white belly dancers.” The author accused white women who do belly dances of “playing at brownness” and asked: “How did this become acceptable?” (Note the peremptory tone: I don’t like this work, so how could it possibly be accepted? Salon may consider itself a progressive or liberal website, but this particular writer sounds as reactionary as the villains in Footloose.)

My own view is that one of the most important aspects of multiculturalism is precisely that it allows people in different cultures to learn from each other. (Yes, I know “multiculturalism” is a hate-word for a lot of people, shorthand for such policies as reductionist racial bean-counting. I use the word instead in the etymological sense, to mean openness to many cultures. Incidentally, the author of the Salon piece seems to view “appropriation” as a similar hate-word. Check out the subtitle: “Whether they know it or not, white women who practice belly dance are engaging in appropriation.” The negative connotation is clear.) I have little interest in belly dancing as an art form, but the glory of a free country is that people have unlimited opportunity to pursue their own tastes — and who knows which among them might end up bringing joy to millions of people? If we were to say that the joys demographically preponderant among white people should be limited to white people, wouldn’t that be the essence of segregation? The same principle, I think, should apply across the board.

I happen to be reading a book that provides an example of a healthier approach than the Salon writer’s. Music historian Nelson George has just published the fascinating book The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture & Style, which includes the following anecdote:

Gino Vannelli’s performance on episode #128 in February 1975 is a signature moment for so many viewers. The Canadian is kind of the Jackie Robinson of white singers when it comes to Soul Train. He arrived on the show from the unlikely soul-music mecca of Montreal, Canada.

Vannelli claimed that “the club scene in Montreal in the mid Sixties, you would think that you were in Harlem. You know it was really deep R&B. They had the esoteric Isaac Hayes records when they weren’t out yet. All those seven-minute records. Everybody wanted to emulate that. Everyone was listening to Little Anthony, and all those groups you know in Montreal in the mid Sixties. . . . It was a real strong influence on my life.”

The influence was also reflected in Vannelli’s hair. Though he was Italian, Vannelli sported a circular Afro as recognizable as his resonant vocals.

As it happens, I too was in Montreal in the mid Sixties, albeit as a toddler; but by the time I was in elementary school I was noticing how much black music was present in our culture, in which there were so very few black people. (And I can even testify, now, to the truth of Vannelli’s observation about the mid Sixties club scene. Once the Internet was invented, it wasn’t long before old issues of the Montreal Gazette became available online. Look at the ads in the arts-and-entertainment section from a few random issues from the mid Sixties: You’ll be amazed how many black music acts performed in that white francophone city.) But — irony of ironies – even as the Italian-Canadian Gino Vannelli was finding inspiration in the black musical and cultural styles, a number of the Irish kids in my school were imitating . . . the Italians. Their takeaway from the runaway-hit Godfather movies was not primarily about the gangster stuff, but about the colorfulness, depth, and richness of Italian working-class culture. In a schoolyard in Seventies Montreal, Italian was the summit of cool. Sure, a lot of this kind of appropriation is superficial, but why discourage it in principle? You never know what kind of benefit might result, in the life of the individual or the culture.

Another part of the book I’d like to draw attention to: Soul Train founder and host Don Cornelius was an old-school R&B guy who never really got into rap or hip-hop. George includes the text of Cornelius’s testimony before Congress in 1994 about gangsta rap and its cultural impact. Cornelius said the government should certainly not attempt to “curtail hard-core or gangsta rap” or “clean up rap lyrics,” but that a rating system, along the lines of what we do with movies, “may well be worth considering.” (Such a system exists today, albeit on a voluntary basis; the MPAA film-rating system, by contrast, is effectively mandatory.)

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