One of the most widely used terms in discussions about race is the phrase “cultural appropriation.” And yet despite its frequent usage, cultural appropriation is one of the most controversial concepts. It is especially difficult to understand in conversation with the arts. The primary purpose of the arts is arguably to provide a medium for creative and emotional expression of the artist(s). The visual arts allow for creative expression devoid of auditory stimuli. The performing arts such as dance, theatre, and music allow for emotional expressivity with the added features of motion, sound, and/or words. Hans Christian Andersen once said “Where words fail, music speaks.” The same idea holds true for the other arts as well: that the arts have the uncanny ability to express the inexpressible (or at least to attempt it). So the question often gets raised as to where do we draw the line between an art form that is cultural appropriation and the artist attempting to express something uniquely felt by themselves?
The line is incredibly blurry and is never as clear-cut as we would want it to be; nonetheless, artists and performers walk that line with each and every performance they have. Every performer runs the risk of having their work be discredited. In this post, I hope to explain why the line is drawn and how to answer the question: is this cultural appropriation? To explore the topic, I am going to look specifically at cover songs. For example, can an all-White group of singers perform a song from Hamilton, a Broadway musical with an entirely diverse casting? Can a White person sing the song “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday?
For me, the answers to those questions lie in the context of the performance and the level of knowledge and insight that the performer has on the piece. First and foremost, one needs to recognize that in order to properly perform a piece of music, one needs to be well-educated on the history and cultural implications of the piece. After doing that research, one should be able to make an educated decision on whether to perform the piece or not. If they choose to perform it, then they need to figure out how to perform it in a way that acknowledges the matters of culture (such as race, gender, sexuality, etc.). There are many ways of doing this successfully. One option is using program notes. Program notes are a great way to write about the history of the piece and give the audience background information and information on what to expect and look for in the performance. Another option is consulting outside professionals to aid in the advisement of the performance. If you are performing a piece about Black history, it may be a good idea to ask some Black musicians, historians, students, faculty, etc. to help guide an educated performance.
Another important aspect to consider is the original intent of the piece. When performing a cover of a song, you need to make decisions that are still in line with the original intention of the piece (assuming you know what that is). For example, the directors of Hamilton explicitly have stated that they wanted a mostly non-White cast for the production. Therefore, if there is a group of White students that would like to perform a cover of a song, the make-up of the group, by nature goes against the wishes of the directors and is in direct conflict with what the directors were trying to accomplish. That would be an example of cultural appropriation; a piece was altered to fit a group consisting of a different cultural make-up.
Recently, I performed with 5 members of the Muhlenberg College Chamber Singers at the Allentown Art Museum to perform a concert to help open an exhibit on photographs from the Civil Rights Movement. We performed “If I Had a Hammer” by Pete Seeger and then we joined with several Black faculty, students, the Gospel choir, and the entire audience to perform songs like “We Shall Overcome” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing”. We had received background on all of the pieces from Professor Roberta Meek, a history and media & communications professor and the director of the Africana studies department. We also sang like a congregation, all voices together. Because of the context of the performance, the Chamber Singers were considered an ally to the overall concert, rather than a White group lending support.
There are ways to perform pieces without culturally appropriating them. However, this requires a great deal of thought and attention. Context, historical accuracy, and cultural implications mean everything. My hope is that this post clarifies a few things and provokes a few other questions or thoughts for discussion. One question I still have to work through is in regards to full art form reconstruction. Are certain art forms off-limits by nature? If White people take part in a step dance routine, is that cultural appropriation because the art form itself has a historical background rooted in race? Or is it okay because an art form itself can’t be entirely culturally driven? Is that last question even true?