Music and Cultural Mis/Appropriation

Join the Racial Justice Initiative Steering Committee  on April 23 at 7pm to further explore this topic. RJI asks that you read Reckless Borrowing or Appropriate Cultural Sharing before the meeting. Email with questions and if you need childcare to attend.

by Caryl Tipton, Director, UUCWC Music Ministry

I’ve been singing African American spirituals since I was in middle school choir. In fact, without my wonderful music teacher, who shared the background and life experience of spirituals, I would not have known anything about the truth and the evil of slavery. It sure wasn’t taught in my all-white school or sanitized textbooks. I sang Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” as a professional musician in New York, and sang for a synagogue in Greenwich, CT because, in the Jewish tradition, their professional choir could not sing for high holy days, so they hired Gentiles. For over 45 years, I have loved learning about the music I was singing. And, I’ve learned so much here at UUCWC and have changed the way I choose/schedule music of different cultures and direct the music program.

The music of indigenous people, African Americans, and other marginalized people is fraught with pain, resistance, sorrow and history of centuries of bigotry, violence and oppression. The music is also full of hope, joy, spirituality and faith. As a cisgender, heterosexual, white woman of white privilege, I can’t fathom what it’s like to walk in the shoes of those who have been oppressed. I move forward in this exploration with you in the spirit of listening, inclusion, love, care and a yearning to grow and continue this conversation.

For the last two months, I’ve shared an article written by Rev. Jason Shelton, a white, self-identified as a straight male composer, conductor and just-retired UU Director of Music in Nashville, TN. It was well reasoned; however, some people may have wondered why I’d use an article written about cultural appropriation by a white male. It was a starting point…

Rev. John Crestwell of the UU Church of Annapolis, writes Shelton told of an occasion when he casually started to play “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah.” Then, when ministers of color began to look at him uncomfortably, he realized he had not established the sort of relationship with them that would give him the right to evoke such painful associations.” Crestwell responded, “At first, I did not know Jason, I did not know if he understood. Now I know him, I feel differently.” Music, Crestwell said, is emotionally powerful. He pointed out that misappropriation of music is especially sensitive because music has a way of stirring up emotions. He admits that he feels angry when an all-white church misuses an African-American song when no history is provided and there is little attempt to understand the context within which the music grew.

The Rev. Sofia Betancourt defines the words:

Cultural appropriation happens when a group of people use customs, folklore, or traditions from another group of people. This definition is neutral; it carries no judgment.

Cultural misappropriation happens when there is a danger of the appropriation being misrepresented or is done without a willingness to engage in the struggles or pain that may lie behind the custom.

We can’t talk about cultural misappropriation without acknowledging white supremacy. Within the context of Western imperialism, cultural misappropriation has been a weapon used against people of color for centuries.

I’ve come to learn that the key to understanding the cultural misappropriation argument is the power difference between a privileged and a marginalized group. Critics object when a powerful group “borrows” (steals) the cultural elements of a powerless group without permission…making it “their own.”

For centuries, marginalized people have been exploited by white musicians (and other artists) who made thousands of dollars from their music while not sharing the history, credit or economic rewards. For example, Solomon Linda, a South African musician, wrote a song in 1939. A little while later, folk legend Pete Seeger and his band The Weavers recorded it as “Wimoweh”. The Brooklyn band the Tokens recorded the song, and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” went on to be a hit (and eventually The Lion King). In 2000, Rolling Stone wrote a history of the song aptly titled, “In the Jungle: How American music legends made millions off the work of a Zulu tribesman who died a pauper.” The original African lyrics were considered gibberish because none of the American singers could understand the words. American audiences wanted an exotic song without any of the political trappings. “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” is a perfect example of cultural misappropriation. The arrogance of the majority exploiting the music (art, fashion, etc.) of other cultures while still discriminating and stealing from the culture from which they are benefitting is, in my opinion, the worst form of misappropriation.

There are clear roots of systemic and institutionalized racism intertwined within this topic. While music is not exclusive to one person or group, it becomes a problem when there is a lack of understanding between the connection of the music and its history. Writer Anna John wrote on the opinion page, Mic:

“Advocates of cultural appropriation see the act as a benevolent, inspiring exploration of delicious foods, unique music and warm fuzzies. Its opponents find it problematic at best and infuriating and insulting at worst. Lost in these debates is what angers some marginalized people: the hypocrisy inherent in the “exchange” rather than the misappropriative act in itself. Where people in the majority culture see harmless “cross-pollination”, many communities see outrageous double standards. Our cultures and traditions – and often our skin color, physical appearance and language – are the source of our continuing marginalization, but white majority culture will occasionally take one aspect of those traditions and decide it’s “cool” to them in a certain moment. We’re not petty; we’re sick of hypocritical consumption that reminds us that we are still powerless and unwanted. We are ostracized for being ethnic and then forced to watch the looting of our traditions when the majority culture changes its opinion about some aspect of our lives. That is why it’s called appropriation, not simply engagement [or appreciation]”

An insightful 16-year old actress, Amandla Stenberg, asks, “What would America be like if it valued black people as much as it values black culture?”

African American songwriter and storyteller Courtney Ariel wrote a piece entitled, “How Not to Appropriate: A Guide for White People” for Sojourners magazine. Her last suggestion is:

“Listen. Lead with empathy, always. Be mindful of when appropriation becomes misappropriation and exploitation. You are human, lovely and amazing. You did not create these constructs and systems. But you might likely be in a position to affect positive change through awareness, greater understanding and meaningful action. I pray you choose to do so, knowing that I thank you in advance.” She speaks about “holding these experiences outside of our own very carefully and lovingly, acknowledging that we are visitors within that space. Being a visitor is not only a great honor. It comes with a great responsibility.”

In “Cornrows, Kwanzaa and Confusion: The Dilemma of Cultural Racism and MisappropriationRev. Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley, who served Unitarian Universalist congregations in New York City, Austin and Tampa shared:

Our first task in approaching another people, another culture is to take off our shoes, for the place we are approaching is holy. Else we find ourselves treading on another’s dream. More serious still, we may forget that God was there before our arrival.

I think the real danger is fostering a perception that the only music (or art, or literature, or history, or…) that matters (or exists at all!) is what comes from the Anglo/European tradition. What we take the time to study and perform is an expression of what we value. African-American spirituals (just to take an example) are an important part of the American musical tradition and of history in the United States. So, what does it say when a majority-white group completely omits material from that history? What does it say when a majority-white groups only casually dabbles in or tokenize that part of our musical heritage?

There is no one answer in dealing with issues of cultural misappropriation. However, as a movement committed to a responsible search for truth and meaning, it is imperative as Unitarian Universalists to try to answer some of the difficult questions and to act accordingly. In affirming the UU directive: “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life”, we are called to discern how to “draw from many sources” while not misappropriating them. Our congregation does not have an alternative diverse choir nor the option of hiring many outside artists to provide music on Sundays. We explore cultural diversity by occasionally performing pieces from other cultures and backgrounds as best we can. Instead of just performing the beautiful, yet emotionally laden music, we must also engage with the painful parts of its history and engage with the material without sanitation.

Like Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley, I’ve struggled with this sensitive subject for years. Is it OK to sing the “Chichester Psalms” or “Let My People Go” if you’re not Jewish? These pieces are also born of suffering, pain and oppression. Is it appropriate for a choir to sing a song with lyrics written by victims of hate and implicit prejudice without having been victims themselves? Can a white choir fully relate the horror of the way African Americans have been enslaved in so many ways in America by singing spirituals.

Rev. Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley asks,

“So, the question then generalizes to: Is it appropriate for a person of one culture to sing songs of another culture if those songs were expressions sprung from cultural oppression? Did you know that African-Americans co-opted Jewish songs and psalmody in some cases? “Let My People Go” comes not from New World slavery but is Egyptian. The words resonate NOW even though the story is millennia old – because they express real human emotions that we can feel and identify with today. The African-Americans felt the Jewish pain of thousands of years before as their own pain, and we can also feel it on behalf of BOTH cultures.

As a solo musician, I would never presume to sing the song “Strange Fruit. It’s a powerful piece of music which can be painful to listen to once you realize the ‘strange fruit’ Billie Holiday sings of are the bodies of lynched African Americans hanging from the poplar trees of the South. Did you know that the song was written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish-American New Yorker? He had no experience of being a black person in the American South but reacted to this horror through his music which then spoke to an entire society.

From an American Choral Directors Association forum:

“There is essentially no American music that isn’t drawing heavily from the African American tradition. It’s maybe more obvious to the lay person when it’s a spiritual or gospel song, but I challenge anyone to point to a genre of music that you can legitimately call American that doesn’t owe an enormous debt to African American music. To sing American choral music now, you’re already standing on the shoulder of a huge number of African American singers, writers, poets, composers and congregants.

At a recent conference I attended entitled, “Christianity and White Supremacy: Heresy and Hope”, I listened with a church musician’s ear to people from many different heritages, religions and experiences:

  • An African American pastor at a predominantly white church in Denver shared how his church choir addresses this question: “Cultural pollenization is different than Cultural Misappropriation. As long as we acknowledge the gifts given by the marginalized culture to our society and church, and not homogenize the music…we should be able to receive and partake of their gifts graciously, with humility and respect.”
  • Bringing music from other cultures and traditions into our services, giving credit where credit is due, brings us to imagine how worship might be, bringing the best of other traditions to our worship. We can show what’s possible…. with wholeness, heart, love…and we can experience a different way of worshipping.
  • Do your research, ask other peoples’ opinions, have a dialog with the musicians about what they are singing, as long as we remember that no one person can represent one culture. There are as many diverse opinions on this subject as there are cultures from which to draw from.
  • One pastor shared a joke with me about a white choir singing “Negro Spirituals”: After singing a spiritual, the white people in the choir/congregation say, “That was great!” Black members say, “At least they tried.”
  • A major theme of the conference was addressing the need to grapple with our whiteness as a predominantly white church and to “harness prophetic wisdom” which is not from within the context of that whiteness only. One person said, we as people of faith, need to break out of our “straitjacket of imagination” and worship/sing/pray not to oppress and perpetuate that oppression but to address the needs of the congregation, everyone, and to broaden the human experience. Music provides something that words, traditions and rituals which are confined in that straitjacket may not. The music from many different styles, genres, cultures or faith traditions may not speak to everyone, however, it may reach someone to whom it will speak at any one moment.
  • The panel and breakout session leaders encouraged leaders in the church to model risk-taking and exploration of difficult topics even when it’s uncomfortable and/or emotional. One pastor said to “lean-into” your uncomfortableness in order to build relationships and trust.

As the Director of Music for UUCWC’s small, limited-resource music program, I actively try to incorporate music from diverse sources into our repertoire in as many ways as we can:

  • I choose the music for each service very thoughtfully and intentionally. When we do pieces in a different style or from a different culture, I spend time in rehearsal talking about the text, context, history and significance of including it in the service. Sometimes these points are woven into the sermon.
  • A lot of less common hymns get sung, not just the same twelve over and over, and I always suggest them in support of the message and theme of the service.
  • We might use different styles of diction (not as much with the crisp consonants that we use while singing Vivaldi as when we sing popular, shape note songs or spirituals) but we don’t use “dialect” pronunciations of lyrics. (This is a controversial issue as some African American scholars and composers feel that spirituals should only be sung with the original dialects and style of spirituals to maintain their authenticity.)
  • I always encourage the choir or other musicians to perform the music as themselves and not mimic or try to sound like somebody they’re not. We don’t want to parody a culture’s music but rather honor the heritage of the music…and, not as one choir director said, “Sing more “black!”
  • As budget and opportunity permits, we include guest musicians of different backgrounds and cultures in our services.
  • I choose music based on the content/message of the song and deliberately spread out the resources – we might do a folk song, something by Bach, a spiritual, a song in a different language or a Broadway tune all within a few weeks.

I take the approach that music from all sources are equal and sung for the spiritual edification of the church, as long as it is done thoughtfully, with a sense of history behind the music and with the respect that the music, and culture, deserve. This is one reason I started to produce “Our Music Today” for our Order of Service inserts last year. I hope you read these to learn more about the background, culture, history and sense of the music, composer, lyricist or performer of the music. This explores the intentionality of the music chosen and the broader context within which it was written.

As I continue to “lean into” this complicated issue, I welcome your thoughts and feelings …with love and care. Tell me about music that speaks to you, or causes you pain, so that the choir or individual musicians might offer music in a service with more mindfulness. The most important thing is to continue the dialog and to listen to everyone at UUCWC with compassion and an open heart.