A Perspective on Music and Cultural Misappropriation – Part 2

Caryl Tipton, Director, Music Ministry

Last month I offered Part One of this perspective on Music and Cultural Misappropriation from Rev. Jason Shelton. Next month, I will share some of my own thoughts and perspective.

Rev. Jason Shelton is an award-winning composer, arranger, conductor, song- and worship leader, workshop presenter, and coach for clergy and musicians looking to deepen their collaborative relationships. In 2017 he stepped down as Associate Minister for Music at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, which he served since 1998, and is now engaged in a music ministry at-large, focused on serving the musical resource needs of UU (and other liberal) congregations around the country.

A Perspective on Music and Cultural Misappropriation
Racial Justice & Multicultural Ministries – PART TWO
By the Reverend Jason Shelton (reprinted with permission)

III. What is Appropriate?

The popularly accepted theory that Jazz stemmed from a simple combination of African rhythms and European harmony is in need of a little revision. Both African and European rhythms were employed. African music supplied the strong underlying beat (absent in most European music), the use of polyrhythms, and the idea of playing the melody separate from or above the beat. European music provided formal dance rhythms. Combined, these rhythms give Jazz its’ characteristic swing. Likewise, the harmonies and musical ideas of both continents are present, the blue notes derived from the pentatonic scale, “call and response” and unconventional instrumental timbres of African music together with “conventional” harmonies and, most important, the formal structure of European music. The multiplicity of ethnic, cultural and musical conditions needed to spawn Jazz was thus unique to the United States, and specifically to New Orleans. The necessary philosophical impetus for Jazz, i.e., democracy and freedom of individual expression supported by group interaction, are also American institutions.

What’s more, the history of jazz is rife with stories of ways in which racial barriers were broken down long before the Civil Rights movements made national headlines. Integrated bands toured the country and confronted segregationist policies both directly and indirectly, often making dining or lodging decisions based on the maxim, “if we’re not all welcome, then none of us is staying here.” Yes, racism is a part of jazz history, and that cannot be overlooked. But there has also been an underlying sense among many jazz musicians—especially bandleaders—that the important thing was not the color of the musician’s skin, but whether or not he or she could play. In jazz, if you can play, you’ll get the gig (until someone comes along who does it better than you—so you’d better practice!).

As jazz has spread throughout the world, it is impossible to know the ethnic or cultural heritage of the players one might hear on the local jazz radio station just by listening to them. The music itself has transcended it particular cultural origins to become something in which dedicated musicians the world over can participate, regardless of cultural heritage. To be sure, there are some who consider themselves “purists” who might say that persons of non-African American descent should not play jazz, and so we find ourselves revisiting the question of permission giving and who has the right to speak authoritatively on behalf of all persons of a particular ethnic heritage. But the cultural norm which seems to be taking hold at this time is to say that the people who should be playing jazz are those who are dedicated enough to invest the time and effort to learn to play it well.

What if we were to apply this norm to our situation regarding what is appropriate when using the traditions of the cultural “other” in worship?

IV. Conclusion

I have, on several occasions, gotten myself into trouble by using what seems to be a very small word—we. We is a problematic term because it can be used to describe a group that is related in many ways, and yet is quite different in many others. We are Unitarian Universalists, but we may have very little else in common. Groups of people who share a similar tone in their skin are not necessarily of the same ethnic or cultural background. And even if you and I did share this background in common, my experience of being a Jewish/Italian/Thai who is 1/8 Cherokee has most likely been vastly different from yours.

OK, so that is not my heritage. But you wouldn’t know by looking at me that my musical background includes being a jazz trumpet player, or that I learned most of what I know of the Gospel music tradition by singing and worshipping in predominantly African-American Catholic congregations for several years. You wouldn’t know that I play bluegrass mandolin, either, or that I sing in a Renaissance vocal ensemble. You wouldn’t know that I have been commissioned to write music for GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender) choruses. You wouldn’t know that I am a nut for old Stevie Wonder tunes and shape-note hymns, or that my current favorite song is the silly ditty I made up for my three week old daughter when she was in the hospital. And it would certainly be a mistake to assume that anyone else who looks like me shares my particular combination of musical background and tastes.
So, when I use the term we, I have to acknowledge that I am making a certain set of assumptions about the group I am addressing which may or may not be correct. We don’t sing very well. We can’t clap on 2 and 4. We have to read ahead to make sure we agree with the words to the hymn. Sound familiar? How about this one: we shouldn’t be singing African-American spirituals, or Venezuelan folk tunes, or Native American chants, because we don’t have the right to sing their music. What assumptions are being made about who it is that is a part of the picture when we say we?

My experience has been that some people will start talking about “cultural appropriation” when what they really mean to say is that the musical offering or ritual just experienced was done poorly. Many Unitarian Universalists, it seems to me, are not comfortable making a judgment about the quality of a presentation, but are somehow OK with raising cultural or racial issues instead. I have been a part of numerous worship situations where the songleader has bounced and shimmied through a poorly sung African-American spiritual. Do I think that what they did was cultural appropriation? No—I have seen songleaders from many cultural traditions, including African-Americans, do the same thing (please do not assume that every African American can sing or lead spirituals well—stereotypes are very dangerous). I think what happened was that a person who was not really familiar with a particular musical style tried to lead a congregation in something that was beyond his or her particular musical skill. Such a situation is not only disrespectful to the musical tradition which has just been trampled upon, but also to the whole congregation, regardless of personal ethnic background, all of whom deserve better.

If I were going to conduct my choir in a performance of a Bach cantata, you can bet that I would spend an enormous amount of time researching the work, checking on stylistic and performance practice issues, so that I could present the piece is a way that was respectful and as “authentic” as I could make it. If I didn’t, there would certainly people in the audience who knew better, and who would be very disappointed that I had not made adequate preparation for the performance. They would not, however, accuse me of cultural appropriation, even though I am not of Germanic descent. A reviewer might say that I should do more homework the next time I chose to present such a work. Or perhaps I should listen to a recording made by a reputable ensemble.

This, I believe, is sage advice for the musicians in our congregations who have been moving in new musical directions (as evidenced by the incredible musical diversity in Singing the Journey). Rare indeed would be the church musician who is equally well versed in Bach’s and Luther’s hymnody as they are in 60’s R&B and the music of the Salvadoran liberation movement. But you will find such music within these pages, and much more, all composed and arranged by people who are leaders in their particular genres and who have given their permission to have their work included in this collection.

But for the collection to be used most effectively, our musicians must take seriously the music of the “other.” Many of the styles of music found in this collection will be largely unfamiliar to the conservatory-trained musician. To help, we have provided stylistic and interpretive markings which should be carefully observed. And we have collected a list of recommended listening examples for further study and deepening familiarity.

All of this to say that while the question of cultural appropriation may never completely be resolved, our musicians can go a long way toward alleviating many of the most obvious concerns by committing themselves to respectful, dedicated preparation of all music that is to be used in worship. Moving in these new directions with quality and integrity will speak volumes about our collective musical experience, and encourage more new music from our authors and composers. This, in the end, is my greatest hope for Singing the Journey—that it will move and inspire us to create even more new music which reflects our diverse musical and experiential backgrounds while resonating across our communities as songs that speak to the heart of our faith.