Several of the creative and artistic organizations I work closely with have been talking recently about how to create and sustain the kinds of projects that matter to us most, and which we feel will be most empowering for our collectives. The things we need to provide for ourselves and our communities, and by contrast the opportunities to perform or do workshops for foundations and academic institutions which provide a lot more money, tend to be the two inevitable sides of the coin. Some think of it as a betrayal to the community to take our traditions elsewhere for financial gain, while others feel this is the best way to gain the resources we need to do the kind of work our communities most need. Cultural appropriation, and the ability of the resourced to create their own access to our traditions, is at the crux of this debate. The conversation always seems to revolve around who has the power to claim access, and whether acknowledgement or resistance of that power is what is called for.
These debates hold important lessons, not just about unequal access in a capitalist society, but how the traditions of oppressed people often point out to how that access needs to shift. Within these conversations I have thought often about the n word’s use in Black popular culture, and the difficult discussions it has raised as elements of that culture have been absorbed by the mainstream over the last decades. As complex as its usage is for our communities, I am even more interested in the reactions it evokes for others. I am always fascinated by how incensed it makes people of privilege when they are told they cannot say the n word. It seems to strike many as inherently unfair that there be a word which only some people can say, and that those who can say it have the right to decide who else can and cannot along with them. The idea seems especially difficult to stomach for those who are not used to being barred, banned or limited, who expect entrance and access wherever they go, whatever their needs are. Though this is an old controversy, it is the perfect place to start looking at cultural appropriation as a real and legitimate political issue, not solely because it deals with the agency of oppressed communities, but because it reminds us all that universal access–be it social, cultural, political, geographic or economic–is not a reality for the majority of our planet.
The question of cultural and creative appropriation goes deeper than licensure, copyright and compensation. It points to how access in our society is delineated on a larger scale, and the deep contradictions oppressed communities are expected to comply with. As dancers, poets, artists, spiritual leaders, musicians, teachers, and the carriers of our people’s traditions, we are often lectured by outsiders that culture is fluid, that it is no ones place to tell others how to relate to it, that it is impossible to control access to it. Yet when film distributors make millions off documentaries, when record labels decide what and how to package as a musical genre, when elitist universities offer workshops on street dance, or when communities are treated as the backdrop for a music video or advertisement, isn’t that exactly what’s happening? Moreover, why are our cultures understood to be fluid, public, easily accessible to whomever desires them, while healthcare and education are commodities whose availability to oppressed communities shrink daily? Why is our slang, our spirituality, our food, our moves, expected to be constantly available to others, while housing and a living wage are not available to us? Why, on the whims of the elite, is our culture allowed to be taken places from which our bodies are banned, because of boarders, national boundaries, and racist and classist law enforcement? How does power give itself permission to dictate our access to basic rights and resources, yet find it impertinent and ludicrous when we demand self-determined ways to control access to the few things in this society we can claim as our own, the traditions we have meticulously cultivated through generations of imbalance and marginalization?
I am not the first to raise these questions by any means. Yet often when they are brought up, the point attempting to be made is that our communities should become the sole benefactors of their traditions, that we should copyright, we should profit, we should be able to limit access to the cultural resources which we have created. This is not the statement I am hoping to make. While I believe strongly, returning to the question of the n word, that oppressed communities do have the right to decide when and how others participate in the traditions they have generated for their survival, my hope is that these decisions will not be ones which lead to further alienation and limiting of access. Exclusivity is the status quo in a social and economic order which believes value to be derived from scarcity, and further commodifying our cultures, forcing them out from where they exist into systems in which only a select will be able to benefit from their power, is only bolstering that value system. In many ways, our traditions are fluid, flexible, and able to adapt to and draw from a host of difficult scenarios and realities. Instead of determining who can access them, I propose we determine and fight for how they are accessed. What the traditions of oppressed people point out is not that we need to do a better job of packaging, marketing and controlling our art forms as products, but that the systems which commodify that which is most necessary and sacred need to be abolished.
Our traditions are beautiful, and all people should have the right to understand, benefit from, and actively participate in them. We have the right to demand what that participation looks like, and that it take on forms which defer, give control over to, and honor the collectives which have generated them. I suggest that this cannot happen, that our traditions cannot be honored so long as our communities are deprived of the basic resources which all people have a right to. Therefore, a real respecting of our traditions requires the dismantling of the nation-state, of patriarchal power structures, requires a commitment to public access to quality education and an equal distribution of resources. How can the blues be everyone’s music when the profits it has generated are rarely seen by its original musicians? How can hip hop know no bounds, when its architects know the boundaries of their cities all too well? How can our language be universal when our collectives are segregated on race and class lines? Our absconded traditions remind us that there are different levels of access for the different tiers within our economic order, and that the self-determination we seek must go deeper than social and cultural entrepreneurship.
To fight against cultural appropriation is to fight against capitalism, gentrification, the degrading of our communities by those who simultaneously make hollow use of their beauty. To cherish our traditions is to demand the systems which disenfranchise our collectives be immediately terminated, and that oppressed people be allowed to make their voices heard in every venue which silences them.