Opinion: Bruno Mars and the issue of cultural appropriation in pop music


Photo courtesy of GRAMMY

Story by Isong Maro / Contributing Writer

Bruno Mars has recently come under criticism for a perceived appropriation of black culture following his most recent project “24K Magic,” an album that was commercially successful and swept the 2018 Grammys in most of its nominated categories. The album itself was a throwback to ‘80s soul and funk music, ’90s R&B and new jack swing and was laced with numerous themes originating from the predominantly black artists that carried this wave in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The crux of the argument against Mars is that he is “racially ambiguous” because he is not necessarily considered black or white; he was born in Hawaii to a Puerto Rican/Ashkenazi Jewish father and a mother of Filipino descent. Consequently, to the average music consumer, Bruno Mars is able to fit into both the stereotypical white and black categories he is being accused of heavily exploiting in his music.

The term “cultural appropriator” and it’s less tasteful adjacent “culture vulture” have been thrown around quite a bit in recent times to describe a number of artists in contemporary music. In 2016, following the release of his album “Views,” Canadian artist Drake was criticized by Jamaican dancehall artist Mr. Vegas for appropriation. Vegas argued that the clear dancehall influence on Drake’s album was not being highlighted properly and credit was not being given to dancehall artists on the album. He was not alone in this point of view as dancehall legend Sean Paul also opined that Drake, Justin Bieber and Major Lazer were guilty of taking elements of dancehall culture and not shining a light on the culture itself. Suffice it to say, a lot of these dancehall-infused tracks were being branded as new genres, such as tropical house, which could be interpreted as a means to further distance the music from the dancehall genre. Another of Vegas’ arguments was that dancehall artists based in Jamaica and the Caribbean had a difficult time entering the American market. He felt it was hypocritical that the same big radio stations that refused to play dancehall songs by artists from the Caribbean would have songs of the same genre by pop artists on heavy rotation.

In the music industry today it is often difficult to separate the music from the artist. Musicians aren’t expected to simply make music, they have to embody ideas as well as have interesting backstories. While there are obvious positives to this, the downside is that music consumers have come to expect a certain kind of music from certain artists. A black artist making country music may have a more difficult time entering the country market, and a white artist making hip-hop music may have a more difficult time being accepted in hip-hop circles. This is because these are considered stereotypically white and black genres, respectively. Artists themselves will tell you that this is possibly the biggest insult to their craft—being placed in a box creatively. British artist FKA Twigs once stated that people didn’t start labeling her as an R&B singer until they knew what she looked like. Twigs is of mixed race descent—her father is Jamaican and her mother is an English woman of Spanish ancestry. She noted that while she only had music out her work was considered eclectic and unusual, but immediately after her face became known, she was suddenly an R&B singer for the “urban” market.

Cultural appropriation is, however, a genuine issue that needs to be discussed. I do not believe that Bruno Mars is a cultural appropriator, a quick dive into his music catalog will reveal nothing short of an incredibly talented, original pop artist. Not to mention Mars has stated on multiple occasions that growing up he was heavily influenced by a lot of the artists he’s accused of appropriating. While I do not believe Mars to be guilty, he is thriving under a system that is failing to truly reward originality. It is important to note that in most instances of appropriation the culture or the style being taken from is often a minority, so it shouldn’t be difficult to understand that these individuals might feel aggrieved that their art and way of life is being exploited, especially when the artists from said minority are not receiving the same exposure and acclaim for the music that they grew up on and understand better than anyone else. I believe that, as an artist, if you are going to actively take elements of a culture that you are not familiar with to put in your music, making the effort to give exposure to the culture and maybe even giving a little shine to the artists from that culture goes a long way and takes nothing away from your craft. Of course, not everyone might be privy to the necessary information or have the patience to do the research, which is why artists, consumers and everybody involved in the chain of music consumption should actively listen when such instances of social missteps are being called out. Much like the #MeToo movement, exposing a range of individuals in the entertainment industry, there are so many wrong practices that might be occurring in terms of cultural appropriation in music, and until somebody cries foul there is no way of bringing them to light.

This is an opinion, written from the perspective of the writer and does not reflect the views of Sidelines or MTSU.

To contact Music Editor Hayden Goodridge, email lifestyles@mtsusidelines.com.

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2 Comments

  1. mtsuamjspring2018
    April 4, 2018
    Reply

    The problem of “cultural appropriation” has been in the public eye for a few years now, and the topic is ripe with people’s opinions. Although there are serious and legitimate claims to why this behavior is problematic, I don’t think that the ideology can be applied the same way to every situation. Specifically, the philosophical approach to cultural appropriation must change when discussing art, music, film, and the like.

    Each culture around the globe has developed its own unique kind of folk music. Probably the most well-known folk genre in the U.S. is jazz, having been born and developed entirely within the nation’s borders. It is common practice among jazz musicians to “borrow” licks and melody lines from other artists, to use in solos and the like. This was even a form of sport among musicians, to see if they could figure out someone else’s musical idea. Furthermore, as jazz evolved, it took influences from rock, reggae, and Latin styles, resulting in some truly original pieces and styles of music.

    My point in saying all this is that, under the right artistic circumstances, I don’t think cultural appropriation is inherently harmful. Sure, a musician/artist can give credit to their influences and discuss other cultures, but creative collaboration between cultures is how art progresses and changes. Especially today, in our constantly connected global society, cultural interaction is more present than ever. Personally, I am a Bruno Mars fan, and I applaud him for interweaving all his influences so successfully.

    Obviously, the branding and marketing of music (such as Bruno Mars’s) as an entirely new genre is an unfair practice, and positions other international genres and artists at a disadvantage. While I don’t think that this disadvantage is by any means deserved, I also don’t think we should discourage artists from allowing their influences to bleed over into their own art. Again, this is how we keep music and art fresh and relevant.

  2. dtcmtsuspring18
    April 30, 2018
    Reply

    In a world that is driven by creativity, everyone is inspired by everyone. So where do we draw the line when considering appropriation? We have seen the issue with Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams in relation with Marvin Gaye. Unfortunately, the music industry is a very gray area and issues such as these have changed the way we think about musical creation. Now, we are in the danger of constricting creativity with the ruling of the Thicke vs. Gaye case essentially allowing Marvin Gaye and his estate to copyright a musical style. This really affects the future music creators because now they have to take extra precautionary measures when going through the musical process. Our country’s constitution needs adjustments and reconsideration as far as intellectual property is concerned.

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