Geisha Today, Gangster Tomorrow: Cultural Appropriation in the Music Industry


The phrase Cultural Appropriation is being thrown around a lot at the moment. From Gigi Hadid wearing a hijab for the first ever cover of Vogue Arabia, to girls wearing Indian Headdress at music festivals. The music industry especially is notorious for musicians selectively borrowing from other cultures and utilising those characteristics for their own means.

So, what happens when we have a high-profile case of cultural appropriation? In 2012 Miley Cyrus made a shock turn in her career. From country singer, ‘girl-next-door’ vibes, the young actress and singer donned a new look. Channelling a hip-hop, ‘urban’, aesthetic, Miley’s change drew criticism and gossip. But why? There is already a huge pressure on young women in the public eye to look and act a certain way, so if Miley was finally breaking with that tradition and going in a direction fitting her personality, then power to you girl, gold grill in her teeth and twerking included. However, the lines are so blurred now as to where cultural appreciation becomes cultural appropriation, and it’s important to look at the context and intention in each case. Unfortunately, in her 2013 performance at the VMAs with Robin Thicke, it appeared as though Miley had done little more than ‘borrow’ aspects of black American culture without understanding it or crediting it. But what stung perhaps more than this was Miley’s careless shrugging-off of that persona when she tired of it.

In another case, Katy Perry, donning full Geisha attire and employing whatever tactics she could to sexualise her 2013 performance came under heavy fire for, as one critic put it, adopting a “flat, inaccurate, sexualised identity that has nothing to do with Asian cultures. She pandered to a white audience”. Although women of all races are routinely sexualised in mainstream media (who could forget the Daily Mail’s ‘Legsit’ front cover, in the a terrible attempt to reduce Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon to leg models) what is key here is the context. Perry, defending her performance as a “celebration” of Japanese culture, stated “I didn’t know that I did it wrong until I heard people saying I did it wrong.” That seems a little unlikely, coming from a grown woman with an immense social media following, and all the tools to access, say, Google. Perry has more recently come under fire for her cornrows, and her lack of understanding of black culture. It is cruel and ironic that braids and cornrows, often branded as ‘inappropriate’ or ‘unprofessional’ on black women, are celebrated as ‘edgy’ on young white women.

But Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus aren’t the only ones co-opting non-white cultures for their own advantage. It’s impossible to write about anything to do with culture in the music industry without mentioning Iggy Azalea, the Australian rapper who seems so keen on African American culture that she has adopted another accent, or ‘blaccent’, entirely. The context behind Azalea’s choice of image touches on a lot of sensitive issues. The systematic oppression of African American culture in the Western world has led to a diverse sub-culture in music, Hip-Hop being one of the most prominent examples. Azalea, having the option to pick and choose which aspects of black culture she adopts, may profit from it, whilst remaining unruffled by the discriminatory issues affecting the African American community. Azalea, for all her insistence of caring about and promoting black culture, remained silent on the Black Lives Matter campaign, after the shooting of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in 2016. Many fans and fellow celebrities were quick to criticise Azalea for building her career on appropriation of black culture and then remaining silent on issues affecting the African American community, claiming that she has an obligation to speak out.

But we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that cultural appropriation in the music industry is anything new, after all, Elvis Presley was the crowned the King of Rock and Roll, despite owning himself that “rock ‘n’ roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that kind of music like [people of colour- Ed.] Let’s face it: I can’t sing like Fats Domino can. I know that.” Of course, it’s ok to like Elvis’ music. But it becomes a problem when, as with Iggy Azalea, her popularity makes it significantly harder for black female rappers break into the music scene and be taken seriously. Perhaps Iggy, Miley, and even Elvis himself are symptoms of the problem, rather than the problem itself. If the music industry and its consumers were less biased towards white musicians and whitewashed music, it could highlight cultural appropriation for what it is: a cheap tool for success. Perhaps we wouldn’t have young women simplifying and sexualising other cultures for profit and then abandoning them without a proper understanding of the real value of these cultures.

Until there is equality in the music industry, we need to be aware of the intent of artists when they adopt characteristics from cultures other than their own. Not to say that we shouldn’t learn about other cultures and celebrate them, but surely there are better ways of doing this than twerking on Robin Thicke.

By Anya Brzeski


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