Appropriation is a multilayered term

2017-10-08 05:43
Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh. Picture: Leon Sadiki/City Press

Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh. Picture: Leon Sadiki/City Press

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In a recent article for local hip-hop cultural magazine The Plug, editor Caron Williams complains that South African hip-hop has floundered in 2017. She cites materialism, appropriation and monotony as the culprits of rap’s demise. Her views on materialism and monotony are appropriate but unoriginal. It is her argument on appropriation that’s the real problem.

Artists tackling political issues are not “appropriating hip-hop”, as she suggests. Instead, it is trendy youth publications that milk youth culture for advertisers, while claiming to be a “voice” for young people, that are the real appropriators. This is a trend where “brands” and political parties use “cool” to divert the attention of young people from pressing political challenges.

Emerging and “edgy” youth publications seem innocent and refreshing at first. But look closer, and you will see that some bow to the same political and economic emperors as their mainstream rivals. The ANC’s strategy for young voters relies on a sophisticated attempt to make itself look “cool” through “celeb culture”. The same goes for many alcohol brands. New, trendy platforms get to have it both ways: they sell culture back to a young black audience, and place misogyny and materialism on a pedestal, only to pretend to be critics of the problem they profited from in the first place.

Critical opinion is one thing, but we should all be very sceptical of those who appoint themselves as the legitimate voices of “culture” – especially when the self-appointment is tied to commercial aims.

When we speak about “our” culture, just who is the “our” to which “we” refer? How have we allowed self-appointed cultural messiahs to become hip-hop’s chief spokespeople?

“Breaking the outdated mould”

Williams reserves special ire for me, ridiculing my work as “pseudo-intellectual” and appropriative. But there is a difference between not conforming to a stereotype and appropriating a culture. When Jordan Peele directed the US social thriller Get Out, he didn’t “appropriate horror”; he just broke new ground. Going to Oxford University shouldn’t stop me from rapping, just like being a prominent celebrity shouldn’t stop Somizi Mhlongo from writing. We need to break the binary notion that black people can only legitimately do one thing at a time.

By doing so, we avoid the grave error of confusing “appropriation” with “breaking the outdated mould”. Besides, if being in a position of privilege bars one from rapping, then we would have to eliminate the voices of half the industry, and most of its consumers.

Questions of racial appropriation surrounding Die Antwoord are important. But who gets to say when a black artist can speak? Disagreement is one thing; arbitrating over who has a right to speak is another. Let’s not appropriate the language of appropriation.

Williams’ article also ignores women, while claiming to review hip-hop in 2017. Artists such as Dope Saint Jude and Rouge have made important interventions on questions of gender, corruption and media ownership this year. To imply that they “have not said anything” by leaving them out of the conversation is laughable.

Dope Saint Jude reflects on this point in our song We Don’t Care from my new album, Democracy and Delusion: “I’ve had it up to here and I’m feeling so damn betrayed/ They open up their mouths and I wonder who’s getting paid...”

Williams also mocks Riky Rick’s new song, Buy It Out. But it’s strange that she only singles out Riky. Why not other artists who have graced her magazine’s cover? Why did she not reflect on the way that “culture media” feeds materialism? Why didn’t she also investigate the role of brands? Perhaps this would reveal her own publication’s complicity?

The materialism debate is complex. Art can perform an emancipatory role without having obviously emancipatory aims. And treating black art as if it only has one possible layer feeds into the exact stereotype that must be avoided.

The importance of counter-hegemonic, confident black expression may help some listeners to escape from the constant social inferiority that comes with blackness. Rap’s audience is smart enough to decide which parts of a song they will endorse and which parts they will eschew, without needing to be spoon-fed. Williams missed these nuances.

There are exceptions. Platforms such as the website Slikour On Life play a crucial role in elevating the voices of young black artists, without belittling them. And some brands endorse braver, more complex messages.

But rap’s audience would do well to distinguish between political art and commercial journalism wrapped in trendy packaging. As I say in We Don’t Care:

“A diet is more than just what they’re feeding ya/

A diet is reading deeper than Wikipedia/

A diet is what you’re consuming in the media/

You’re on a diet diet, your diet is what’s misleading ya/”

Mpofu-Walsh is the author of Democracy and Delusion: 10 Myths in South African Politics. The book is accompanied by a rap album of the same name

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