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In defence of cultural appropriation

Our cultures show that we can select who we are and who we want to be – but can they also be misused?

Kim Jong-il may have been the Dear Leader but Elvis was the King. On a visit to North Korea, the English journalist Michael Breen found that few ordinary citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic had ever heard of Presley (or even Charlie ­Chaplin). Yet there in one of the 17 palaces and mansions owned by the dictator, among his collection of 20,000 DVDs that included Friday the 13th and Rambo, was a prized cache of Elvis movies – mostly cornball romances. Elsewhere were littered Elvis records. Kim liked to wear ten-centimetre platform shoes and had a fondness for American-style shades. Clifford Coonan, writing for the Independent, was not alone in comparing his “bouffant hair” with that of the King.

For all Kim’s possible (and laughable) debt to Elvis when it came to his personal appearance, his regime was unenthusiastic about North Koreans’ adoption of “foreign” fashions. “People who wear others’ style of dress and live in others’ style will become fools and [their] nation will come to ruin,” the state-owned Rodong Sinmun newspaper warned in 2005, during a months-long government campaign to halt the infiltration of “corrupt, capitalist ideas” into communist hearts through shoes, hairstyles and clothing. Your “ideological and mental state”, said the host of the radio show Dressing in Accordance With Our People’s Emotion and Taste, was manifested in what you wore and the way you wore it. So choose your trousers wisely – or else.

The policing of appearance is nothing new. In the mid-1920s, the then Mexican president, Plutarco Elías Calles, forbade Catholic priests from wearing clerical collars outdoors; more recently, on 14 September 2010, the French Senate passed the Loi interdisant la dissimulation du visage dans l’espace public, better known in the English-speaking world as “the burqa ban”. What is curious, however, is that the latest round of strictures on how individuals can present themselves comes not from repressive, dictatorial regimes or panicked politicians but from those who consider themselves progressives: liberals united against the menace of “cultural appropriation”.

In August, a student committee at Western University in Canada announced a ban on the wearing of cultural symbols such as turbans, dreadlock wigs and ethnic headdresses by white volunteers during orientation week. The sale of Native American headdresses has also been proscribed at Glastonbury Festival, after an online petition that garnered just 65 signatures persuaded organisers that offering them as a “costume” was insensitive. (The Canadian festival Bass Coast has similarly issued a prohibition on guests wearing the war bonnets.) Pharrell Williams came under fire on Twitter when he posed in a feather headdress for an Elle cover in 2014 – a striking image that the magazine initially boasted was the singer’s “best-ever shoot” – and was forced to apologise. “I respect and honour every kind of race, background and culture,” he said. “I am genuinely sorry.”

From Katy Perry’s adoption of geisha garb at the 2013 American Music Awards to Lena Dunham’s cornrows and their supposed flaunting of racial identity theft, all cultural cross-pollination now seems to be fair game for a drubbing at the hands of the new race activists. Recently in the Guardian, Julianne Escobedo Shepherd denounced the adoption of the Mexican-American chola style – dark-outlined lips, crucifixes, elaborate fringes, teardrop tattoos – by fashion labels and the pop star Rihanna as a “fashion crime” that amounted to an “ignorant harvesting” of the self-expression of others; she then mocked Sandra Bullock’s admission that she would “do anything to become more Latina”. Back off, whitey.

At a time of heightened racial tensions across the world, with police shootings of black men in the United States and Islamophobia (and phobias of all kinds) seemingly on the rise, this rage against cultural appropriation is understandable: no right-minded liberal wants to cause unnecessary offence, least of all to minorities. Yet simply to point out instances of appropriation in the assumption that the process is by its nature corrosive seems to me a counterproductive, even reactionary pursuit; it serves no end but to essentialise race as the ultimate component of human identity.

I’m Japanese but I felt no anger when I read that the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston was holding kimono try-on sessions to accompany its recent exhibition “Looking East: Western Artists and the Allure of Japan” – after all, it was a show that specifically set out to examine the orientalist gaze. However, some protesters (carrying signs that read “Try on the kimono, learn what it’s like to be a racist imperialist today!” and “This is orientalism”) evidently did. Their complaints against the show, which was organised in collaboration with NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster, swiftly led to the cancellation of the “Kimono Wednesday” sessions. “We thought it would be an educational opportunity for people to have direct encounters with works of art and understand different cultures and times better,” said Katie Getchell, the justifiably surprised deputy director of the museum.

“Stand against yellowface!” the protesters declaimed on blogs and on Facebook. Elsewhere, the white rapper Iggy Azalea – like Elvis and Mick Jagger before her – was accused of “blackfacing” her way to stardom, after she became the fourth solo female hip-hop artist ever to reach the top of the Billboard Hot 100 with her 2014 single “Fancy”. At the end of that year, the African-American rapper Azealia Banks suggested that Azalea’s “cultural smudging” was yet another careless instance of cross-racial stealing; that white adoption of a historically black genre had an “undercurrent of kinda like, ‘Fuck you.’ There’s always a ‘fuck y’all, niggas. Y’all don’t really own shit . . . not even the shit you created for yourself.’”

Many of those calling out cultural appropriation of all kinds – from clothing and hair to musical genres – seem to share this proprietorial attitude, which insists that culture, by its nature a communally forged and ever-changing project, should belong to specific peoples and not to all. Banks is doubtless correct to feel this “undercurrent” of racial persecution by an industry that prefers its stars to be white and what they sell to be black, yet there is also truth in the second part of that undercurrent: “Y’all don’t really own shit.” When it comes to great movements in culture, the racial interloper is not wrong. None of us can, or should, “own” hip-hop, cornrows, or the right to wear a kimono.

Speaking to the website Jezebel, the law professor Susan Scafidi of Fordham University in New York explained that appropriation involves “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions or artefacts from someone else’s culture without permission”. Yet such a definition seems to assume the existence of mythical central organisations with absolute mandates to represent minority groups – a black HQ, an Asian bureau, a Jewish head office – from which permissions and authorisations can be sought. More troubling is that it herds culture and tradition into the pen of a moral ownership not dissimilar to copyright, which may suit a legalistic outlook but jars with our human impulse to like what we like and create new things out of it.

Elvis, Kim Jong-il’s hero, liked black music. While other kids dashed around at school picnics, the juvenile Presley would sit off by himself, “plunking softly at that guitar”, as one teacher later recalled. He shared with the Sun Records founder, Sam Phillips, the opinion that African-­American music was of that magic kind in which “the soul of man never dies”, and when he launched into a hopped-up version of Arthur Crudup’s blues “That’s All Right” at the tail end of a recording session in 1954, it was a natural, uncalculated act of cultural appropriation. “Elvis just started singing this song, jumping around and acting the fool,” remembered the guitarist Scotty Moore, who played on the single that many credit as the foundation stone of rock’n’roll.

It wasn’t the first of its kind. Rock’n’roll grew organically out of the miscegenation of rhythm’n’blues and hillbilly music, and other contenders for that title include Goree Carter’s “Rock Awhile” (1949) and Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket ‘88’” (1951). Both Carter and Brenston were black – but they are now largely forgotten. The smoking gun in the periodically revived argument that Elvis should be condemned for having participated in interracial plundering is Phillips’s often quoted remark: “If I could find a white man who had the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.” Yet the studio owner’s remark was, if anything, more a groan of exasperation than the blueprint for a robbery. He had tried to make a billion dollars before he recorded Elvis, with B B King, Howling Wolf and other black musicians; indeed, it was Phillips who recorded Brenston’s song. The racism wasn’t in the studio or cut into the record grooves. It was out there, woven into American life in the 1950s.

That tainted life was altered for the better by the emergence of rock’n’roll, whose enormous popularity forced many previously white-oriented labels to sign African-American artists and changed for ever the social interactions of black and white teenagers. It gave them a common culture based less on skin colour than on the spirit of youth, frightening reactionaries who were perturbed precisely by what they viewed as an unnatural cultural appropriation. After Elvis performed the “Big Mama” Thornton song “Hound Dog” on national television on 5 June 1956, Congressman Emanuel Celler stated disapprovingly, “Rock’n’roll has its place: among the coloured people.” Many white fans of the music, appropriators all, could not help but realise that their place and that of “coloured” fans were one and the same.

What was so with rock’n’roll goes also for rap, fashion and even that packet of tortilla chips you ate at the movies or the shish kebab you had on the way home. Appropriation tests imaginary boundaries. It questions them and exposes, just as Judith Butler did in relation to gender, the performative aspects of our racial and cultural identity: much of our yellowness, brownness, blackness or whiteness is acted out and not intrinsic to our being. It shows that we can select who we are and who we want to be. By opposing it unilaterally under the banner of racial justice, activists often end up placing themselves on the side of those who insist on terrifying ideals of “purity”: white and black should never mix and the Australian-born Iggy Azalea should leave rap alone. She should stick to performing . . . what, exactly? Perhaps she should consult a family tree. But how far back is she expected to go? And should we impose some sort of one-drop rule?

It is true that cultural appropriation can hurt those whose traditions, religions and ways of life have been lifted, taken out of context and repackaged as a new aesthetic trend or exotic bauble. The feather headdress, for instance, has deep symbolic value to many Native Americans and to see it balancing on the wobbly head of a drunk, white festivalgoer might feel like an insult. Yet is it a theft at all, when that original value is still felt by the Native American tribe? Little of substance has been taken away. To the white reveller, those feathers probably signify something as simple as: “I am trying my best to have fun.” There is no offence intended. If it channels anything of the headdress’s origins, it is no doubt a distant echo of some ancient myth that placed “Indians” as the other, the sworn enemies of the “cowboys”.

Appropriations of this sort can, if unchallenged, entrench negative racial mythologies. But such myths are part of the language of human culture and their potential for harm can only truly be diffused by putting forward stronger, newer narratives about ourselves and by tackling the systemic injustices that oppress us: in law, in government, in the workplace. I can live in the knowledge that the Mikado myth continues to have some currency and that films, songs and books still toy with the orientalist fantasy of Japan. That is partly because their sting has been dulled by an ever-increasing understanding in the west of what real life in east Asia is like. I accept that our culture can be transformed and absorbed into the folklore of another people – and when this happens, we have only a limited claim on that folklore. Like it or not, it becomes theirs as much as ours. Sometimes, we have to let culture do its thing.

Yo Zushi’s latest album, “It Never Entered My Mind”, is released by Eidola Records

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis

Terry Notary's simian appearance as performance artist Oleg in The Square
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Ruben Östlund’s film The Square hammers home the point that we are all still animals

 Each thread and simian guest star shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, about three friends whose closeness is threatened when one of them spends a fortune on an entirely white painting, offered audiences a series of packaged talking points (Does objective taste exist? What is art?) for their post-theatre meal. Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, serves the same function. Before the first scene is over, the Stockholm curator Christian (Claes Bang), a vision of metropolitan spiffiness in his red-framed glasses, has already wondered whether an ordinary bag placed in a gallery would qualify as art. In his current exhibition is a room filled with piles of gravel. A visitor pokes his head in, decides there’s nothing worth investigating, then leaves. We’ve all done it.

Like the canvas in Reza’s play, there is a catalyst for disorder here: the blue neon square set into the gallery’s courtyard. It is conceived as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” but its arrival throws everyone’s behaviour into sharp relief. A woman screams for help as she is pursued by an unseen aggressor, prompting everyone around her to become more than usually engrossed in their phones. Charity workers ask commuters whether they would like to save a human life, only to be given the brush-off. Christian’s relationship with poverty is squeamish. He buys a sandwich for a homeless woman. “No onions,” she says. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, incredulous to find that beggars can also be choosers.

His downfall, which starts after he hatches a cockamamie scheme to retrieve his stolen wallet and phone by leafleting the housing estate where he believes the thieves are hiding, is the thread on which the film’s provocative episodes are hung. Each one, such as the gallery chef flying into a rage because no one wants to hear about his balsamic reduction, shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive. A series of simian guest stars, real and pretend, make cameo appearances to hammer home the point that we are all still animals, no matter how many private views we attend. These include the performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), whose confrontational appearance imitating an ape at a black-tie dinner – not just scene-stealing but film-stealing – exposes the instincts of the herd to conform, even if that means ignoring violence taking place at the next table.

That sequence crystallises ideas that in other parts of the film feel distinctly wishy-washy. Jibes about pretentious artists (a cameo from Dominic West) or crass advertising executives smack of the contrived bugbears of clickbait columnists – what next, jokes about quinoa served on slates? And a section of the film about a bad-taste campaign to promote the neon square will seem penetrating only to viewers who have never considered that ad agencies might stir up controversy for publicity purposes.

Östlund is sharper when he focuses on the discord beneath everyday social interactions, using sound and camerawork to disrupt supposedly simple scenes. He prefers when shooting a conversation, for instance, to linger too long on one participant, rather than cutting back and forth between them, so that we begin to interrogate and mistrust the face we’re looking at. Stand-offs between Christian and the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), including an excruciating argument over a condom, show this technique at its most blissfully torturous.

He is a director who is never more comfortable than when he is making audiences squirm, as he did in Force Majeure, in which a man neglects his family but not his phone when fleeing danger. But the situation in The Square, which escalates to the point where Christian must ignore a child’s suffering in order to safeguard his own existence, would have greater moral force if the film showed any interest in its poorer characters as something other than lightning rods for middle-class complacency.

The Square is undeniably entertaining, though its lasting use may be to demonstrate that movies can have the same effect as popping a coin in the collecting tin. Having seen the film, you can rest easy knowing you’ve already given. You’ve done your guilt for this week.

The Square (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game