Happy St. Patrick’s Day weekend, everybody!
I’m saying this despite the irony that next week’s Curated Chicago Weekend post will fall on the actual St. Patrick’s Day. By then, though, the river will be back to its normal muddy bluish-brown, the participants in the St. Paddy’s Day Parade will probably be sitting behind various desks, left only with wondrous memories of the previous weekend, and the super-drunk people at the bars will just be drunk people at the bars. More proof for the theory that holidays are arbitrary and humans hold ultimate definitive power over their world.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk a little bit about cultural appropriation. Bear with me…this transition will all make sense, eventually.
If you’re not a huge Harry Potter fan, you’re probably oblivious to the fact that J.K. Rowling is spending this week putting out a series of pieces–they’re more like encyclopedia articles, really–on the history of magic in North America. As I write this late at night, she’s published the first two works in the series on Pottermore (by the time you’re reading this, the third will be up). The first of them attempted to explain the magic of Native Americans, discussing their expertise in potions and lack of wand usage and depicting the mythical Navajo skin walkers–shapeshifting demons–as Animagi, wizards who can turn into animals.
Native Americans were not happy.
A horde of people took to the Internet to express their displeasure with Rowling taking elements of Native American history and culture and, in their view, using them as what amounts to set design in the American wizarding world she is creating. Native American scholar Adrienne Keene was particularly vociferous in her response to the British author: “It’s not ‘your’ world. It’s our (real) Native world. And skin walker stories have context, roots, and reality. You can’t just claim and take a living tradition of a marginalized people. That’s straight up colonialism/appropriation.”
I’ve grappled with the idea of cultural appropriation for a solid year and a half, first really coming into contact with the term when my alma mater booked Iggy Azalea to play our annual fall concert. There was a lot of opposition from black students on campus to Iggy’s presence, based upon the claim that Iggy had appropriated black hip-hop culture and was profiting from it without paying proper respect to the community from whence it originated. Everything about her act, from the twerking to the cadence of her rapping to the subject matter of said raps, has its roots in Southern black culture. And here she was, a white Australian model who had to change her voice for performances, seizing that culture, repackaging it in her whiteness, and selling it to the adoring masses while similar black rappers were entirely dismissed. It’s the sort of thing that white artists have done for decades, and across genres, but the modern racial consciousness of America was not about to let this slide. The Daily Dot ran a nice piece explaining all the problems with Iggy’s persona in greater detail, if you’re curious.
Interestingly, Questlove of all people stepped up to defend her from some of the criticism with some wonderfully nuanced arguments, eventually arriving at the crux of the issue: “we as black people have to come to grips that hip-hop is a contagious culture,” he said.
I grappled a little with both sides of the argument and, being a philosophy major, eventually came to some sort of compromise that will probably raise more questions than it answers. But here’s my multifaceted answer to cultural appropriation:
- Good culture will spread, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. There’s a reason rap has taken off over the past twenty-five years–something about the medium of expression has resonated with the zeitgeist of America, and especially American youths, no matter what race. It’s the same thing that happened with rock and roll in the late 1950s, and with soul and Motown in the late 1960s. The fact that these forms of art became so widespread in their time speaks volumes about their importance not just to the creators of the culture, but to its consumers–all of its consumers. For example: as a white, Jewish guy, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly certainly doesn’t mean the same thing to me as it does to any black person in America (or anyone else at all), but it means something. “Fancy,” as awful as I think that song is, means something to everyone who hears it. To keep that art limited to its creator’s distinct community is a disservice to the art and its potential to abet societal change, which is one of the most important possibilities presented by art.
- That said, total appreciation of the art can only be attained when you understand the full story behind it. It is, of course, impossible for any one person to trace the roots of a genre back to every single person who influenced its creation, but at the very least, some measure of that comprehension is necessary. A real understanding of the Beatles requires knowledge of artists like Chuck Berry and Smokey Robinson, the original rock and rollers who never had the chance to become worldwide superstars because they were black in America. A real understanding of Iggy Azalea, similarly, requires knowledge of the Southern black rappers who preceded her. Too often, this knowledge is not pursued to sufficient depth, and as a result the creators of a particular art form are denied the public respect they deserve.
- Creators of culture should be held even more strictly to this standard of acknowledgement and respect. Culture doesn’t spontaneously appear in the world; it’s built slowly, a beautiful, fluctuating, grand synthesis of thousands of years of human experience that can never be comprehended in its entirety. Any new creation is necessarily going to be birthed from some mishmash of existing works and presented as novel. But in the same way that it’s selfish for one group to guard a particular culture against any outside practicum, it’s selfish for an artist to swipe the culture from a group of which they are not a part and present it, without commentary, as an original work. This was (and is) the major problem with Iggy: she “tried to be black” without acknowledging that she was using a culture in which she did not grow up and without calling attention to the originators of that culture. Some critics described this as “vocal blackface,” a continuation of the minstrel shows in which white people literally pretended to be black for entertainment’s sake without actually having to endure the reality of being black in America. Yet had Iggy used her burgeoning fame to call attention to the women she was imitating and bring about positive change for these people, her act would have resulted in a net positive for society. White privilege isn’t fair–hell, any sort of privilege really isn’t fair, the world as a whole isn’t and will never be fair–but the conscientious artist uses his or her stage, whether or not it’s earned by racial factors, to pay respect to forebears and effect change in the community from which that artist’s work originates.
This is where Rowling went wrong: rather than collaborate with a Native American to produce a fictional wizarding version of Native Americans in concert with their own cultural heritage and that drew attention to its richness, she merely plucked various stereotypes and a single myth from a millennium of history and placed it in a piece that was utterly too short to pay proper respect to the indigenous peoples of North America. At the same time, though, the most effective reaction to this gaffe is not rage but the following: first, flattery at having inspired another artist from a different cultural background; next, an expression of the problems with the cultural appropriation at hand, seeking to educate the offender rather than chastise and potentially alienate; and, finally, a collaborative effort in which the originators of the culture are given the platform to display its beauty to the world, thereby inspiring the maximum number of people with the minimum amount of vitriol. The best way forward for Rowling would be not to retract her work thus far, but to add to it in concert with Native American writers to create a lush, magical Native American world from which all Harry Potter fans can derive even more enjoyment and knowledge.
Gee, do I sound idealistic.
Anyways, the final point I wanted to make with this, and the tie-in back to the long-forgotten St. Paddy’s Day parade from the beginning of this piece, is this: in the 1800s, when the Irish were an oppressed ethnic group in America, would celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day by non-Irish people have been considered cultural appropriation? Shoot me an answer in the comments.
Now here we finally are, at the weekend’s to-do list. It doesn’t include any St. Paddy’s Day stuff.
THURSDAY, MARCH 10
Standing Up: From Punchline to Spotlight @ Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark St., 5:30pm
WHAT: The history of LGBTQ comedy in performance and panel discussion, part of the Out at CHM series.
SO WHAT: Discussion on struggle of queerness in Chicago’s comedy scene by Second City’s Andy Eninger, comedy club owner Mary Lindsey and performer, scholar and author E. Patrick Johnson. Performances by the gay sketch comedy troupe GayCo. Reception at 5:30.
NOW WHAT: Buy tickets for $15 if you’re a museum member; otherwise $20.
FRIDAY, MARCH 11
Lumpen Magazine Release Party @ Co-Prosperity Sphere, 3219 S. Morgan St., 7pm
WHAT: Lumpen Magazine releases their 127th issue. It’s also the closing of the Typeforce 7 exhibit at CoPro.
SO WHAT: 25 years is huge for any type of publication, let alone one operating on DIY values. Issue 127 highlights “people and organizations that are engaged in activism and non-profit work to try to make this city a better place to live.”
NOW WHAT: Enjoy some art and drinks and, if you aren’t already, familiarize yourself with one of Chicago’s greatest underground magazines.
Dressy Bessy @ The Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western Ave., 9pm
WHAT: Denver-based garage-punks Dressy Bessy give the Bottle what it does best. Mope Grooves and The Injured Parties open the show.
SO WHAT: Dressy Bessy is part of the Elephant Six Collective, a creative crew known for putting out this sort of ’60s-nouveau music. But there’s not really any jangle in Dressy Bessy’s music–not that jangle is bad (it’s very good), but it’s sort of cool to hear a band that does the retro sound without the Byrds aesthetic.
NOW WHAT: Tickets are $10. Get ’em on the Bottle’s website.
SATURDAY, MARCH 12
The Annual SXSW Send Off Party @ The Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia Ave., 12pm
WHAT: Some of Chicago’s best rising bands, including Whitney, Al Scorch, and Lionlimb, are heading to Austin next week for South by Southwest! The Hideout is throwing them a send off party all day. Happy trails, y’all!
SO WHAT: While many other people in the city get drunk all day for St. Paddy’s Day, one-up them by getting drunk all day and supporting the local music scene! Whitney, in particular, looks poised to do some pretty big things this year. One of my personal favorite acts of the day: Crown Larks, who put on a goddamn hypnotizing show. Oh, and the proceeds from this show will help finance the bands’ trips to Austin.
NOW WHAT: Tickets are $10 and available at the door. Get there early!
SUNDAY, MARCH 13
Educating Rita @ Citadel Theatre, 300 S. Waukegan Rd., Lake Forest, 3:00 PM
WHAT: A staple of the British theatrical landscape using shades of Shaw’s Pygmalion, Educating Rita follows bored, married 20-something hairdresser Rita (Jess Thigpen) as she hires middle-aged, drunk and divorced tutor Dr. Frank Bryant (Jeff Award winner Si Osborne, AEA), under the direction of Mark Lococo.
SO WHAT: Listen, as someone consigned to living in the suburbs, I get it…they’re mostly boring. But they’ve got some redeeming qualities! Educating Rita looks pretty good, and it’ll be more affordable than shows in the city. Take a Sunday to do the pretty drive up Sheridan Road (maybe walk through the Baha’i Temple gardens for a bit? I took a girl there once, it was beautiful) and see some nonprofit Equity theater!