A Perspective on Music and Cultural Misappropriation

This month, and next, I’d like to offer this perspective on Music and Cultural Misappropriation from Rev. Jason Shelton. In April, I will share some of my own thoughts and perspective.

Rev. Jason Shelton
Rev. Jason Shelton

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 ONE
By the Reverend Jason Shelton (reprinted with permission)

I. Background

The question of cultural appropriation (sometimes called misappropriation) is a hot topic among ministers and other worship leaders in our time. I first remember hearing about it couched in a story of worship leaders who had adapted certain First Nations rituals for use in Unitarian Universalist worship without the permission of the tribe or nation with whom the ritual had been associated. The story raises complicated questions about ownership and rights, about race and race relations, and about who can legitimately participate in rites and rituals which have their origin in a cultural “other.”

As our congregations have begun moving into new musical directions in recent years, the question of cultural appropriation seems to be taking on a new shape. Namely, should people be making use of musical traditions which have a cultural heritage other than that of the musicians (or congregations) involved? It is a question that needs to be addressed carefully, especially as we welcome the wealth of diverse music found in our new hymn supplement, Singing the Journey, into our congregational worship experiences.

I would like to begin by questioning the idea that the rituals or musical traditions of any culture can ever really be “owned” by any person or group, no matter what their cultural background might be. Cultural anthropologists have pointed out for many years that all cultures are profoundly affected and necessarily changed by interaction with the “other.” Cultural exchange happens under both positive and negative circumstances, in peaceful trade relations as well as in situations of oppression and theft.

This is not to say that rituals and musical traditions cannot be traced back to particular peoples or cultures. Rather, I am saying that the possibility that any one ritual or custom can be claimed by a people or culture as solely their own invention, without any influence from the cultural other, is remote at best. True, there are moments when peoples express their particular genius in a truly unique and unaffected manner, but these moments are rare indeed. More often, cultural traditions evolve over long periods of time through experiences of contact and exchange with others.

I want to make this point very clear not because I somehow wish to devalue the qualities that make our cultural traditions special, but because I believe that our tendency to guard those traditions with references to cultural appropriation or even accusations of racism (or at the very least insensitivity) cut off the possibility of dialogue and real learning that can come from the sharing and exchange of ideas and traditions which is possible in our world today as never before.

II. Who Owns It?

Who owns a particular musical or cultural tradition? Who has the right to invite others to participate? Once invited, must a person seek permission again and again in order to bring that tradition into her or his own life?

I once participated in a retreat which was focused on earth-centered spirituality and led by a Catholic nun. She had ministered among a group of First Nations people in North Dakota for many years, and as she had gained the trust of the tribe she was, with time, invited to participate in some of their most sacred rituals. After nearly twenty years she was reassigned to another ministry, and when she left the leaders of the tribe gave her permission to build, use, and invite others to participate in their traditional sweat lodge ritual. What’s more, she was given permission to adapt their ritual so that it fit within a more traditional Catholic framework. I had the privilege of participating in a sweat under her leadership, and it was a deeply transformative, life-changing spiritual experience.

However, when I have spoken of this experience with other persons of First Nations descent, I have been told that what the nun had done was totally inappropriate, that she had no right to build and use a sweat lodge, much less to adapt the ritual in any way. Further, the tribe which had given her permission to do so, they said, had betrayed their heritage by their actions.
I have also participated in various workshops on singing in the African American traditions. And I have seen non-African American participants in these workshops go forth from them and try to put into practice what they have learned—what they have, by all accounts, been given permission to use by the workshop leaders—and been reviled by some African Americans in their congregations who claim that the person had no right to lead or sing those songs.

Again, I recognize that these are extraordinarily complex issues. They bring up questions related to personal cultural heritage, and our differing levels of comfort in sharing these traditions with others. But we, as people of faith who claim to celebrate our diversity in all its forms, cannot afford to make assumptions about the legitimacy of a person’s participation in what seems on the surface to be a ritual or tradition which comes from a cultural tradition which is not his or her own. We cannot know whether a person making use of a particular musical tradition or religious rite has come to that usage through respectful, disciplined study or through haphazard, careless conscription simply by looking at the color of their skin.

So how can we approach this issue in a way that is both respectful and invites full participation from the whole community of faith? I would first look at the history of a truly great American musical art form—jazz.

The second part of this article will be published in the March issue of “CrossCurrents.”