Cultural Appropriation in an Age of Globalisation

Apart from Syria justifiably dominating the world news recently, one of the stories that got a lot of attention in the media was Miley Cyrus’s twerking performance at the MTV Video Music Awards. I am not going to bother repeating all of the rubbish that was spouted against her – although I should point out that it was ridiculous that she was getting the backlash for what was (in my opinion) simply a bad performance in a show that has a history of controversy and outrageous acts. What did catch my attention however was the shocking suggestion by many people on social media websites that Cyrus had somehow committed an unforgivable act of cultural appropriation. Even journalists got in on the action, with Vulture‘s Jody Rosen stating that Cyrus “is annexing working-class black ‘ratchet’ culture, the potent sexual symbolism of black female bodies, to the cause of her reinvention.”

To this, all I have to say is a word I would rather not put down in writing. Expletives aside, however, how could anyone suggest that a dance move that had already spread throughout clubs around the world being used by a young woman of a specific ethnicity amount to racism? Twerking can trace its roots back to a very distinct and multiracial cultural sphere – it originated in Jamaican dancehalls by way of New Orleans hip-hop clubs. To suggest then it ‘belongs’ to someone and to then try and demean a public performer on a popular show by that same logic, is ignorant at best.

The entire argument revolves around the fact that twerking and hip-hop culture in general is assumed to be ‘black’, and the problem was that Cyrus was ‘white’. But hip-hop culture has always been pan-racial. One of its first great institutions, Def Jam, was founded by a black man (Russell Simmons) and a white man (Rick Rubin). Similarly, two of the biggest acts in hip-hop today are a white man (Eminem) and a black woman (Nicki Minaj).

This is not to say that hip-hop did not have its origins in Harlem or that black hip-hop artists did not initially use the genre to express themselves in a music industry dominated by whites. But the point is that culture is fluid. By suggesting that it belongs indefinitely to any one group of people is detrimental to its transformative nature, especially in an increasingly globalised world. For the record, a large number of the posts about Cyrus were made by white bloggers and tweeters, so the notion that culture does belong to someone is not only propagated by the supposed ‘owners’ but by a much larger, and worryingly ignorant, population.

This is not a problem that was faced by Cyrus alone. Ask any Indian what they think of non-Indians attempting to dance Bollywood on shows such as So You Think You Can Dance and chances are they will be outraged that anyone else is even thinking of taking ‘their’ style of dancing and commercialising it. Never mind that Bollywood itself is a bastardised combination of multiple Indian classical styles, hip-hop, belly-dancing, street and contemporary.

We are living in a world where borders have never been more porous. I don’t just mean with groups like the EU and increased physical accessibility to the whole world – I mean with the advent of the internet, with the ability to share videos, audio and writing in mere seconds, it is impossible for people in my position – the same people who kicked up a fuss about Miley Cyrus – to claim that they have been exposed to only one culture or cultural identity. Add to that the inevitable mixing of cultures that preceded our era due to colonialism (from the 1500s to the mid-1900s) and you can no longer justifiably attempt to blame someone for doing something that is not ‘theirs’. To have pride in your traditions and history is one thing. To deny that experience to others – or to deny yourself the experience of a different culture through a false sense of guilt – is a completely different ballgame. And trust me when I say that it is not worth playing.

UPDATE: Some of my readers have pointed out that the criticism aimed at Miley Cyrus was related to the fact that she used black dancers as props. I want to point out to anyone reading this that my intent was not to defend any of the tastelessness in her act, but to respond to the tweets and articles I read which did not specify this or, worse, targetted Cyrus simply for being white herself. I also want to add that, although I use her as a major example, I did not mean for this post to be solely about her or her performance. Thanks for reading!

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