Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Appropriative white men

This morning, Thomas Friedman wrote a piece in the NYT on the new 'Graceland' documentary, which rehashes, among other subjects, Paul Simon's conflict with the African National Congress over his collaboration with South African artists for the album. Friedman is his usual ham-fisted, squishy-jowled self, but the news of the documentary re-ignited a personal conflict: what to do about first-world (what people really mean when they use the code "developed nation," so whatever) artists incorporating third-world beats and motifs into their work?

This is a conflict I will never manage to shake because most of my favorite artists--Simon (& Garfunkel), the Beatles, Talking Heads, to name a few--are appropriative white men. The Beatles did it with rock n' roll, which was copied pretty much wholesale from black artists (not all by themselves, but I'm not a Stones or an Elvis fan, so), and then with raga. Talking Heads did it with Afrobeat and Afro-Cuban music, and then David Byrne did it all over again for his solo career. These artists were already head-and-shoulders above their peers at the beginning of their careers; it is exciting for me, the listener, to hear these genres push them creatively as I move deeper into their catalog.

But at the same time, neither raga, nor salsa, nor mbaqanga, nor the blues (least of all the blues) exist for the purpose of helping white artists push their creative boundaries. These genres exist, in their respective cultural contexts, for themselves--in the case of the blues, specifically as a form of resistance against white supremacy. When a white artist airlifts a nonwhite genre over to a US studio, that context is removed, and raga/salsa/mbaqanga/the blues are reduced to another loose bolt in the musician's toolkit.

I understand and appreciate a musician's desire to share sounds they find pleasing with a wider audience. I'm grateful to Simon; I can't think of a more personally significant album than 'Graceland.' (Except maybe the Buena Vista Social Club compilation, another brown-person album with white-man fingerprints all over it.) As I tap my fingers along to "Gumboots," though, I keep coming back to the idea that bringing South African genres to the US for our consumption has an impact on real bodies. After all, it isn't as though he dug up the rhythms on an empty beach somewhere.

In a cultureless, race-less, genderless vacuum, we could maybe claim this and sleep a little easier at night. Minor details like colonialism should give us pause, though. After metropoles and their descendants have stripped the brown world of its economic freedom, history, and dignity--ensuring that the playing field is tilted severely in our favor--it's an injustice to want to suddenly claim an even exchange.

But 'Graceland' is so good, though.

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