One of my rock heroes died this week. Jack Bruce was the bass player for the super-group Cream from the 1960’s. When I was an undergraduate, my floormates and I had endless conversations about who was the essential member of the group. The obvious choice was Eric Clapton with his soaring guitar solos. Others argued for Ginger Baker, a brilliant drummer – amazingly athletic despite looking like he was on his death bed. I – and others – argued for Jack Bruce, whose inventive and pulsating bass lines seemed to me to be the real heart of Cream’s music. Cream’s favorite musical genre was blues-based rock, often covering the songs of black blues artists such as Robert Johnson. By the late 60’s there was no controversy about white Brits playing such music. That was not the case earlier in the decade, however, when British invasion bands like the Rolling Stones were not just playing blues songs but imitating singing styles from black blues singers. What right did privileged white boys have to play music born out of the life struggles of poor black singers? To be fair, Mick Jagger and others recognized and admitted their debts to blues and R & B singers like Muddy Waters and helped in some cases such singers to be appreciated by their young white audiences. But the issue still remained for some critics that young whites had no right to appropriate the cultural capital of the African-American community.
Such controversies re-appear with some frequency. White rap singers like Eminem initially faced similar criticism. Now that hip hop has representatives all over the world and has in effect become indigenous to a wide variety of cultures, such views seem irrelevant. Still there are arguments to be made about cultural appropriation, such as Brittney Cooper did this summer in a piece in Salon about Australian white teenage rapper Iggy Azelea:
I resent Iggy Azalea for her co-optation and appropriation of sonic Southern Blackness, particularly the sonic Blackness of Southern Black women. Everytime she raps the line “tell me how you luv dat,” in her song “Fancy,” I want to scream “I don’t love dat!” I hate it.
For Cooper, Iggy’s use of black vernacular English is an affront to the struggles of the African-American community – and specifically black women – to be accepted by the white mainstream:
She does not understand the difference between code-switching and appropriation. She may get the science of it, but not the artistry. Appropriation is taking something that doesn’t belong to you and wasn’t made for you, that is not endemic to your experience, that is not necessary for your survival and using it to sound cool and make money. Code-switching is a tool for navigating a world hostile to Blackness and all things non-white. It allows one to move at will through all kinds of communities with as minimal damage as possible. But it is also rooted in a love and respect for one’s culture and for the struggle.
Rather than seeing Iggy’s popularity as a sign of the irrelevance of race in today’s society, Cooper sees it as an indicator of the different kinds of treatment of white and black women in US society.
The ability of Blackness to travel to and be performed by non-Black bodies is supposed to be a triumph of post-racial politics, a feat that proves once and for all that race is not biological. Race does not have any biological basis, but I maintain that there is no triumph and no celebration when we embrace a white girl who deliberately attempts to sound like a Black girl, in a culture where Black girls can’t get no love. How can I “love dat,” when this culture ain’t never loved us? Iggy profits from the cultural performativity and forms of survival that Black women have perfected, without having to encounter and deal with the social problem that is the Black female body, with its perceived excesses, unruliness, loudness and lewdness.