What Do We Really Mean When We Talk About Cultural Appropriation

(Quartz) – Elvis lifted dance moves from Jackie Wilson; Eric Clapton presented himself as the heir to Robert Johnson; Miley Cyrus took twerking from black women. Meanwhile, Taylor Swift puts black women twerking in her videos and is lauded, but Nicki Minaj, an actual black woman who twerks, sees her video “Anaconda” passed over for an MTV Music Video of the Year nomination. White American (and not just American) art sometimes seems like it’s nothing but cultural appropriation, with all of music (and not just music) stolen from someone else.

That term, “cultural appropriation,” comes up a lot as an accusation. But what the accusation means, precisely, can be a little complicated. Does “appropriation” mean theft? If white people are taking culture from black people, then white culture would have to be clearly distinguishable from black culture—which isn’t always the case.

Take Elvis, for example. According to Joel Williamson’s recent biography Elvis Presley: A Southern Life, Elvis had a lot of black fans—especially black female fans. So were those fans consuming white culture? Was Elvis black culture? Do those questions even have any meaning?


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