Recently Twitter has been abuzz with the beef between white rapper Iggy Azalia and black hip hop artists Azealia Banks, who accuses Iggy of being oblivious of hip hop’s roots and exploiting black culture. Others have come to Iggy’s defense and said that culture can’t be “owned” by any one group. This particular argument is an old one, going all the way back to the Elvis days, but it got me thinking about what people don’t think about before they wrap themselves in a cultural cloth they weren’t cut from. I won’t take a side in this, because both sides have valid points and it’s more enlightening for us to find ground we can agree on instead of dispute. I think a key way to do that is to discuss cultural celebration vs. appropriation. Celebration is inclusive; appropriation is exploitative. Sometimes it’s obvious which is which, and sometimes it’s hard.
Is Wu-Tang Clan paying homage to Chinese cultural history, or appropriating it?
When RZA, a black man, stars in Man with the Iron Fists, which is full of Asian themes, is that appropriation or celebration of culture?
When Hollywood remakes Asian movies/TV series with all white casts, is that exploitation or celebration?
When Americans get Chinese/Japanese tattoos of characters they don’t even understand, is that appropriation or idolatry?
When Nicki Minaj wears a kimono in a video full of Asian themes (“Your Love”), is that appropriation or homage?
When Japanese manga/anime creators make a franchise called Afro Samurai, starring a black lead character (who much later ended up being voiced by Samuel L. Jackson in the English dub) inclusive or exploitative?
When Korean hip-pop and dance is basically just a copy of African American music, is that a cultural movement helping young people to defuse South Korea’s racism against blacks, or just appropriation to help Korea’s otherwise bland music scene?
In all of these cases I specifically used Asian examples because it’s important to realize this is not just a Black-White thing, and it doesn’t just happen in America. As the world has become more globalized, we all borrow from each other. But “borrow” is the key word. When you borrow, you give something back. When you steal, however, you’re just taking and you’re not giving back. We should all be happy when a culture has elements borrowed and they get benefit from it. We should all feel the injustice when culture is stolen. When a people’s culture is used by others and then those same people are excluded from the benefits of that use, that is a horrible thing.
Case in point: Avatar: The Last Airbender. The original cartoon was created by two white guys, but it is deeply rooted in Asian culture and history, and most of the cast is portrayed with darker skin. It’s pretty obvious that the vast majority of the cast are meant to be non-white. The cartoon was a celebration of Chinese history, culture, and martial arts, even including Asian voice actors. The animated series exposed American children to wonderful themes rooted in another culture, and even though the creators didn’t come from that culture they respected and portrayed it genuinely. The series gave back by showing that yes, you can have a non-European cast and setting and still sell to American kids. The movie directed by M. Night Shyamalan, however, was a tragic whitewashing of the lead cast (except the bad guys) and insult to all the good will and education the cartoon brought. It was not inclusive, it was not fair, and it was not done in good spirit. The cartoon was a celebration, the movie was appropriation. One borrowed, one stole. In all of these cases that raise questions, simply ask a basic question: What are they giving back?