Black Dopers, what do you think of this blog post? (White people "stealing" Black music, etc.)

As a 42-year-old white guy, I see White privilege and how it relates to the power structure in America more clearly than ever. So when I read this blog post, I get and agree with with a lot of it:

He’s a really smart guy with lots of insightful things to say about pop culture. The question in my mind is whether he crosses a certain line–not so much into offensiveness but into a perspective that would be fatiguing to maintain and whose truth value is questionable. Some quotes:

He also embeds a Gil Scott-Heron spoken word piece that is, at the end of the day, hate speech against whites (I totally get where it comes from, but I don’t think returning racist fire for fire is ultimately productive).

Then in this post:

Again, I’m picking more of the stuff I don’t agree with–a lot of what he says I do agree with.

But I’d like to take issue with his approach with respect to how people of different races and cultures influence each other in the musical realm. I haven’t been able to divine from reading a bunch of his posts whether he likes “white music” (whatever that might be). He seems to have had a white trumpet teacher at one point that he greatly respects.

My overall take is this: An unprecedented musical chemical reaction happened when the African musical tradition and the European musical tradition met in the United States (under the deplorable circumstance of slavery). Once that chemical reaction occurred, it was no longer possible to sort out the chemicals that went into the reaction. There was no longer African music or European music, white music or black music.

For example, is country music “white” just because most people who play it are white? No way. That music was born of collective Southern culture which was steeped in African influence. Country music is plenty “Black” too (as is evidenced by country songs easily being turned into R&B hits, such as “I’ll Always Love You” by Dolly Parton becoming a massive hit for Whitney Houston).

That said, African-Americans were just so good at music, that they had (and of course still have) a proportionately huge influence. They were so good that egregious racism couldn’t contain that influence.

And everyone, white and Black and all colors, made music in the US and around the world based on that influence. To me, that’s a good thing. That’s Love. That’s the way it should be.

To be sure, there were cases where a Black guy would perform a song, it wouldn’t be a hit, and then effin’ Pat Boone would do it and it would be. There were cases where racism still did its ugly work. For the most part, however, it seems as though the dam broke and the water flooded out. White people were listening to and enjoying records by Black performers. Dancing to them at the sock hop, and all that.

So I’m uncomfortable with the last of the above quotes in which Elvis, the Beatles, and the Bee Gee’s are denigrated. Because they did their own thing very well. In particular, groups like the Beatles and the Stones in England were not caught up in American racial politics and simply loved Black music and just made their own tunes with that influence acknowledged. Heck, the Beatles were covering Black girl band tunes like “Mr. Postman”! It was truly honey badger don’t give a ****.

To me, worrying about who is “stealing” what is a fatiguing exercise. If you were a white supremacist and wanted to avoid all things Black and thus thought country music was pure enough for you, you’d just be wrong. There is no such thing non-Black, non-African American music. By the same token, however, there is no such thing as purely non-white, non-European American music.

Anyhow, of course everyone is free to weigh in, but I’m particularly curious as to how our Black/African-American Dopers process the above. Thank you!

He’s a racist piece of shit. Blacks don’t own hiphop, no more than whites own the novel.

You can’t “steal” a culture or music in any meaningful way. It is nonsense.

I agree. You can hold individuals responsible for plagiarizing specific works. But the forms and genres themselves are universal and open for anyone’s use. And there certainly is no race-based ownership. If, for example, you argue that the Sugarhill Gang invented hip hop and “owned” it from that point on, then Public Enemy had no more right to use it than the Beastie Boys did.

This is less controversial when you replace “White” with “mainstream” and “Black culture” with “any subculture”. And it’s true. The mainstream version is always going to be diluted and deformed.

But the “switch gears and regroup” advice…I dunno. This makes sense if we consider Black culture to be homogenous–as if every black artist and performer has been putting out nothing but hip hop all these years and now they need to come together and create a new genre that represents the True Black Soul. Well, no. There are tons of black artists who don’t do hip hop, who are still holding things down in their own respective realms and genres, and they don’t need to do a damn thing but keep doing what they’ve been doing, because what they do works for them and their fans. Maybe it’s time to stop defining Black Culture as if it can be adequately represented with one microphone or one catchall term.

“Stealing” made sense back when black artists weren’t credited or compensated. Little Richard was ripped off. All those white jazz performers who tried to pass jazz off as a white invention–they were thieves. But it’s hard to see hip hop as a victim of anything but commercialization, and black folks are just as responsible for this as the white mainstream.

Topics like this are ONLY interesting in looking historically how cultural exchanges lead to the origination of various styles, followed by their popularization, followed by their commercialization. Other cultures are engaged at each stage and stuff evolves. So it goes.

It is cheap and easy to look at how the art emerging from oppressed peoples - African American culture; Gay culture; Jewish culture; etc. - is exploited by Oppressor cultures. Cultural exchange doesn’t fit easily into an Oppressed/Oppressor model because of the universality of Art.

I haven’t read the blog post.

I’ll summarize:

He’s also a fantastic trumpet player and people should check him out.

I think these are very good points. In the early days of musical crossover between white and black Americans, you had some white people who ripped off black artists in a major way. Then again black artists were also ripping each other off left and right, and without the work of producers who didn’t fairly compensate the artists, the music might not have become embedded in our culture the way it has been and that benefited the artists at the time (just not enough) and the ones who followed them. Today it’s not reasonable to talk about one group of people stealing an art form from another group or to define black culture only as stuff white people don’t do.

I think if you’re going to describe something as appropriation it has to be more than just working in an idiom that was invented by someone else. If you talk about Maclemore - and I don’t really know his music and I know how fashionable it is to bash the guy, so I’d rather not go there - I can at least understand how that gets called appropriation: you have a guy who isn’t gay presuming to speak for gay people and at the same time he’s making very broad generalizations about hip hop that aren’t completely wrong but also aren’t totally true, and he’s presumed to be making those statements for the benefit of an audience who doesn’t know better. When you have someone presuming to speak on behalf of other people perhaps that can be termed appropriation.

I don’t have any particular perspective on the OP, but I always like to relate this story from when I was teaching first grade.

The subject of Elvis Presley came up somehow, and a little (white) boy raised his hand. “Me and my sister hate him,” he said, “because he stole black people’s music.”

Thought then and think now that it was one of the more unusual comments I had ever heard from a first grader!

(One other thing just occurred to me–I do hear disdain for Elvis and for white hip-hop artists for this basic reason, frequently from white liberals. But I never hear anyone dis certain other white composers and singers, George Gershwin for example, for stealing black people’s music. I wonder why not? (Serious question))

Many blues songs are clearly descended from British folk songs. The 12 bar format didn’t exist in African music, it came from European folk. And so on. Yet you never hear these idiots claim that black American musicians “stole” their material from white culture.

Anyone who actually knows and cares about old timey music knows that American music came from a synthesis of African and European folk music. It would not have happened without musicians from both cultures listening to and learning from each other.

Racist idiot who either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that he’s talking racist bullshit.

Thanks for your perspectives!

I don’t think he’s racist per se but certainly has a way of processing history in which white artists can’t “win,” at least for the most part, since they are automatically deemed inauthentic.

You’re right that people often overlook the European aspects of the blues. It wasn’t all stolen from black people; it was a synthesis of musical traditions from two continents. But I’m going to go ahead and say that Payton knows that since he’s an accomplished jazz musician.

I may be splitting hairs here, but I think Payton is making two different claims in this paragraph. One is that white youth flocks to black culture, and that’s indisputable (arguments about the origins of that music to one side). The other is about marketing. He’s saying that white artists are often used as the face of musical styles that originated in black culture because the music industry knows that they can sell more stuff and make more money if they’re marketing white artists, white people being the majority and the “default” in this culture while some people are reluctant to touch stuff made by black people. And there’s truth to that, too. We all know what Sam Phillips is alleged to have said about Elvis, right? That he could make a fortune if he found a white man who sang and played like a black one? And America’s racial history would seem to be one of the reasons white British people picked up on the blues before white Americans did. But that stuff isn’t universally true and today it’s probably less true than ever. On the one hand it’s hard to believe Vanilla Ice would have been a big deal if he hadn’t been white, but I’m not sure you can make the same claim about Eminem. There were plenty of successful black rappers between Vanilla Ice and Eminem and there have been more since, and it’s not like their music is similar. (Of course Eminem was open about the fact that being white helped his album sales.)

To an extent Payton is saying appropriation isn’t worth getting upset about: he says it happens, but the thing to do is just move on and create something new. The blog post is mostly about hip hop, but he says the same thing about jazz.

The problem comes along (in my opinion) when modestly talented White American artists are held up as being the “progenitors” of an art form or the “greatest” of all time. European artists at least have the humility to admit the their Black influences; White American artists rarely do.

When I hear people state that Eminem’s success ( or Justin Timberlake’s or Pat Boone’s or Elvis Presely’s) aren’t the direct result of their being White, then I just laugh as I know that this person is:

[li]Woeful misinformed about the racial history of the United States[/li][li]An idiot[/li][/ol]

Did Black artists “steal” or “borrow” from White artists?
Did then they allow themselves to be labeled as the “King” of anything?
Other than the sobriquet hung upon Michael Jackson, which is another story entirely.
No, they did not.

The problem , at least to me, isn’t theft.
Everybody “steals.”
It’s giving credit where credit is due.
And it’s not pretending that things were as they were because of anything other than the racist past of this country,

I bet you could find a few in here:

Suppose whites decided to give back everything musical they had appropriated from black culture.

Would blacks really* want *to get the banjo back?

They are “honorifics”
Only a few of them are true.
Elvis’ isn’t

Right. So there are lots of black artists who were marketed as Kings and Queens and Princes and things, and a lot of them were working in styles with black and white progenitors. And to name two of the guys you mentioned, it’s not hard to find Eminem and Timberlake talking about the black artists who influenced them.

I know a fair amount about the history of jazz. The only white performer I know of who might be fairly accused of claiming that jazz is a white invention is Nick La Rocca of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. I’m curious as to who you think made (or makes) this claim.

Or tap dancing, for that matter?

I understand what this post (and thread) is about, but I gotta take a little issue with this part. I can certainly think of a non-Black, non-African American, non-white, non-European American music. You may or may not agree depending on what you think America is referring to.

It is, however, fairly non-commercial and generally only experienced at pow wows and fancy dance competitions. Heavy on drumming (!), lots and lots of vocables and what words there are in it are in a … non-English language. (Nope, not gonna say “foreign language”)