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Joel Hoard: Fa shizzle dizzle, it's cultural appropriation-izzle

BY JOEL HOARD: OH YEAH?

Published April 18, 2004

Ever since the time that Adam and Eve
snatched a few apples from God’s tree of knowledge, one thing
has been clear: White people love to steal. Although we often try
to give it different names such as “colonization,”
“slavery” and “insider trading,” in the
end, it still amounts to theft.

Every major white culture throughout human history was guilty of
at least one large-scale theft. Some were sneaky about it, like the
mighty British Empire, which once spanned the globe in search of
economic gain. Others stole because they felt like it and
didn’t bother offering reasons for doing so, such as the
ancient Romans, who established an expensive empire out of sheer
boredom.

Others claimed it was their right — nay, their destiny
— to steal, such as the Americans of the mid-19th century,
who expanded ever-westward under the slogan “manifest
destiny,” much to the chagrin of the indigenous peoples of
the continent — it’s not that we wanted to steal, per
se; it’s that we had to steal.

But what of the modern white man? Certainly his lust for that
which is not his has been checked by contemporary notions of
property and civil rights.

For the most part, it has. But you have to remember: The white
man is crafty and should not be trusted. Take away his ability to
steal land and freedom, and he’ll just find something else to
steal.

And in the case of the modern white American, that something is
culture. Culture is not as easily defined as land or freedom, so
it’s not explicitly protected by any current laws.

It all started with Elvis Presley, the one and only King of Rock
‘N’ Roll. No one can argue that Elvis wasn’t a
talented musician and an engaging performer, but by no means did he
invent rock ‘n’ roll. Simply stated, what Elvis did was
take an art form that was deeply rooted in black American culture
and make it his own without acknowledging the source. He
essentially passed on the opportunity to turn on his legions of
young, white, suburban fans to the broader landscape of early rock
music.

Soon thereafter, the world of rock music came to be dominated by
white performers. Many pundits claimed it was happening all over
again with hip-hop when Eminem first entered the rap scene five
years ago. Like Elvis, Eminem indeed took an art form that was
rooted in black culture and made it his own, and like Elvis, most
of his fans were white suburban youths without any real knowledge
of hip-hop’s origins. The key difference between the two,
however, lies in Eminem’s constant acknowledgement of his own
race and his efforts to highlight his black influences to sign
several black rappers to his record label.

Rather than outright appropriating the culture, Eminem at the
same time shows an appreciation for it. In the process, Eminem
garnered much respect from his black colleagues. It would be
foolish to argue that Eminem has single-handedly opened the eyes of
his white fans to black culture, but he has certainly provided the
opportunity.

The real danger lies in more lighthearted fare such as Justin
Timberlake and films like 2003’s “Malibu’s Most
Wanted,” mass-produced appropriations that seek to capitalize
on a trend while doing little to acknowledge their sources.
Timberlake’s transformation from boy band icon to a Michael
Jackson-esque R&B star is a particularly egregious example.

Still other dangers come from some black artists themselves.
Slang popularized by the likes of Snoop Dogg on MTV and now in
America Online commercials seems made-to-appropriate. It
wasn’t long before white suburban youth began peppering their
speech with random “izzles.” In addition, much of
today’s hip-hop music is targeted at the affluent, white
club-going crowd rather than yesteryear’s hip-hop, which was
entrenched in the urban experience. Hook-laden, cookie-cutter
“hip-pop” has replaced the once vibrant and
socially-conscious genre. Nowadays, black artists with relevant
messages and innovative approaches are forced to the underground by
the likes of Nelly, Ludacris, J-Kwon and Chingy.

In the end, it would appear that hip-hop is going the way of
everything else the white man has interfered with. We take it, have
our way with it, then cast it off when we get sick of it.

Hoard can be reached at "mailto:j.ho@umich.edu">j.ho@umich.edu.


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