Contrary to the popular cliche, a person never gets too old to learn something new. I’m old, and this week I learned that I may have over many decades inappropriately appropriated African-American culture.
As a teenager growing up in the 1960s, I listened to Elvis on my transistor radio and 45 rpm vinyl discs. I picked a jazz album as my first purchase through the Columbia Record Club. And later, I devoured the music coming out of England by The Rolling Stones, The Animals and The Beatles.
All of these musicians had one thing in common: They were white people who appropriated musical styles unique to African-Americans.
Blues and jazz originated in the American South among the slaves and descendents of slaves picking cotton and other crops. Blues, and to some extent also jazz, was a mash up of African chants and drumming, church hymns and Appalachian folk music, which itself evolved into what we call ‘country’ music today.
Blues and jazz music inspired me. I understood it and naturally felt the underlying rhythms. This music formed the core of my own musical journey playing in jazz and blues-rock bands for over 40 years.
Did I unknowingly participate in cultural appropriation? Based on the events of the last few weeks, it’s a question I am pondering.
First, a Toronto gallery cancelled the upcoming show of a white artist, Amanda PL, who paints in the 1960s Woodlands style, which is unique to the Anishinaabe people. She discovered the style while living and taking Native studies and art education stories in Thunder Bay, Ont.
Aboriginal people protested the show because they say the artist appropriated indigenous culture and art. She says the style simply speaks to her.
But there’s no doubt that the content of many of Amanda’s paintings closely resemble — perhaps, too closely — the work of famed Anishinaabe artist, Norval Morrisseau.
To put it bluntly, the pieces of Amanda’s work that I have seen appear to copy the style and also the content of Anishinaabe artists. There’s little-to-no attempt to apply the style to new content.
And this is what bothers Chippewa artist Jay Soule. He says:
“What she’s doing is essentially cultural genocide, because she’s taking his stories and retelling them, which bastardizes it down the road. Other people will see her work and they’ll lose the connection between the real stories that are attached to it.”
Second, the editors of two Canadian magazines resigned over separate middle-school level personal columns about cultural appropriation.
Hal Niedzviecki, the editor of The Write, a writing trade magazine, wrote a mind-numbing introduction to an edition dedicated to indigenous writing that encouraged white people to write about “what they don’t know” and “people who aren’t like you.”
He concluded by suggesting a prize for the best example of cultural appropriation in Canadian literature. Other people joined the frat house fun, including the editors of the National Post, CBC and Maclean’s, who all later apologized. The editor of The Walrus resigned after writing a column support Niedzviecki.
Most writers have a measure of regret over something we have written. But Niedzviecki’s piece should win the Dumb Award. You don’t achieve greater understanding of indigenous culture from writers who don’t know anything about it. For that, he should have encouraged the publication of more indigenous authors.
Serious issues often arise from thoughtless actions. And that’s the case here. Whether Amada PL copied Morrisseau’s work or was simply inspired by it, and despite the inane ramblings by editors of two obscure publications, it’s worth having a conversation about cultural appropriation.
Artists in all mediums have always taken inspiration from other artists and cultures. Van Gogh and Gauguin influenced each other. The Beatles early work appropriated the styles of Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins.
So, how far do we want to take the concept of cultural appropriation? Should we boycott a Ramen noodle shop because a white guy is cooking this unique Asian dish? Must all sushi chefs be Japanese?
I’m not sure where the hard lines get drawn in this debate, but when, as a friend put it, “people of an exploited/excluded group complain about those of us who pack around all the privilege that our society conveys,” we had better listen closely.