Culture  We built this city on theft ’n’ fraud

The moral ramifications of cultural re-appropriation in pop music

Commercial break: we see a lonely Jaguar S-Type, calmly cruising the desert highway to the sounds of Algerian Raï chants, when – out of fucking nowhere – comes a shot of ex-Police bassist Sting, blankly staring out the window, singing about a movie he made in the eighties. Quickly, the Jag commercial ends. You register the song as “Desert Rose,” and God knows what did it but you’re sick to your stomach and feel the violent urge to piss off law enforcement.

Rest assured, this seething contempt for Sting – shared by all those currently above drinking age – is nothing but a biological response to one of the most glaring instances of cultural appropriation in pop music history. That said, I regret to tell you that if the perpetrators of such crimes were always this ham-fisted, the entirety of pop music would likely drive us into a murderous frenzy.

The long and the short of it is: modern music is an edifice built from the un-credited violation of cultural boundaries, often with exploitative intent. But the theft goes both ways: while old colonial powers serve themselves to the developing world’s musical innovations, minority groups re-appropriate the resulting genres. Rock was appropriated from African-America in the fifties; Brazilian tropicalia, from Great-Britain in the sixties; techno, from Germany in the seventies. No nation on Earth has successfully kept its cultural traditions free of foreign footprints – not even seven-year-old East Timor.

But wait: surely I can’t be equating the mere enjoyment of a pop song – a gut pleasure if there ever was one – to Cecil Rhodes-ing all over Africa, Latin Amerca, and possibly even the Mississippi. After all, pop music – more than any other art form – functions as a common language; how could something as vague and arbitrary as one’s cultural identity tread all over humanity’s shared pleasure?

If anything, pop music’s power as a uniting force actually hinges on this cultural inbreeding. But I’d drive the point even further: had our ancestors been any more timid about pillaging each others’ cultures, we’d be left clubbing to the stilted sounds of modern classical. So let’s thank our lucky stars that morality rarely gets in the way of art; our music certainly stands richer because of it.

Still, there’s something intuitively wrong about Presley and McCartney making millions off the African-American invention of the boogie-woogie. Worse yet, it’s no isolated incident. Dominant cultures have repeatedly exploited minority groups’ musical innovations, sanding off their sharp edges, hiding them behind familiar faces, and running them into the ground. Elvis is one example, Sting is another, and – God almighty – so is Vampire Weekend.

But further complicating the issue is the fact that, for each act of exploitation, there are dozens more of genuine artistic (and occasionally humanitarian) impulses. It’s a long list, one in which we find Paul Simon, Brian Eno, the Beastie Boys, Eminem, and countless others. Peter Gabriel, love him or hate him, is almost single-handedly responsible for all our parents’ obsession with “world music.” So are we to indict all of them the same way we’d condemn the King of Memphis?

Of course not! And therein lies the middle ground: there’s nothing wrong with the crossing of boundaries in itself. By no means does my lack of African heritage determine whether it is right for me to dance to Afrobeat rhythms. By that same token, in no way is it wrong for an artist to appropriate cultural traditions whose meaning he cannot properly understand. The fact is, as art outlives artists – along with the culture that birthed it – these meanings dissipate, along with questions of cultural appropriateness.

The issue only becomes morally loaded as we begin to consider the artist’s intent. And when the latter consists of exploitation for commercial purposes – as can be said of Sting – then we can’t blame our gag reflexes for acting up. Put simply, it indicates a thorough lack of respect, and serves only to obscure where the real credit is due.

But don’t feel bad if the sight of white men getting jiggy with it fails to get your dander up. Artistic intent is a vague, muddled thing, forcing us to withhold judgment in most cases. And evil as artistic exploitation is, there’s very little we can do to stop it. If our unwitting enjoyment of exploitative acts breeds moral reprobation, so be it. If Missy Elliott’s irresistible, bhangra-aping hit “Get Ur Freak On” proved anything – and it certainly hasn’t – it’s that we’re quite better off sinning than living as saints.