The Difference between Appropriation and Appreciation
“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” is an old 19th century expression suggesting that a person should be flattered if someone imitates or copies them because, the imitator is actually heaping a “type” of adoration upon them and/or their work. But, is that what is actually happening, really? Or, has the imitator seized something, a method, style or essence of something originated by someone else and decided to make it his or her own? Do they genuinely appreciate the creator and creation; and, in attempting to copy the “original”, they are only testifying to the sincerity of their admiration? When we look at the music industry before the establishment of rights and royalties there was a lot of outright thievery going on. Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton first recorded “Hound Dog” in July of 1952 (the song popularized by Elvis Presley in July of 1956) and within a day it became her biggest hit. It was Elvis Presley’s biggest hit too, topping the charts as number one for 11 straight weeks; a record that held for over 36 years, selling over 10 million records worldwide. Elvis’ rendition of the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1988 and Big Mama Thornton’s original recording wasn’t inducted into the Hall until 2013 – 25 years AFTER Elvis.
Pete Seeger, the Godfather of Folk, “borrowed” his signature song “Wimoweh”, which was originally written as “Mbube” by Zulu singer Solomon Linda, without giving credit or acknowledgement to the original artist. It was common practice for white artists to take old Negro spirituals or African songs and revise and/or adapt them to their own purpose and use them without so much as mentioning the black artists from whom they drew their inspiration. Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” sounds a lot like “No More Auction Block for Me”, which was originally done by Odetta. Taking something that does not belong to you and ascribing it to yourself, while giving no credit or acknowledgement to its place of origin or creative source is, most definitely, not appreciation. It more aptly fits the definition of appropriation, the action of taking something for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission. Legalized segregation, racial discrimination and exploitation of artists by the industry and its producers allowed Black artists to be subjugated for decades and then further insulted under the guise of promoting their talent and artistry by imitating their sound, style and aesthetic without remuneration, accreditation or acknowledgement of artistic achievement as in awards or celebration.
In contemporary times, we see the hip-hop culture as the newest battlefront in the struggle for recognition, appreciation and autonomous self-identity. Nikki Minaj as compared to Iggy Azalea, or Macklemore and Ryan Lewis as compared to Nas or Lil Wayne. Again, we are faced with the culture in which we live, where women do not earn equal pay for equal work and institutional racism inserts itself into the economics of every part of our society. It’s all about the bank! Appropriation of culture and content continues to challenge the definition of what hip-hop is and why so many white artists get the recognition, remuneration and accolades that Black artists do not. There are some white artists who are beginning to address the question. Recently, Grammy Award winning Macklemore said, “Just because there’s been more successful white rappers, you cannot disregard where this culture came from and our place in it as white people.” Now that is what you call recognition and appreciation. In interrogating the difference between appropriation and appreciation, the answer can be complex but you learn a lot by following the money.
Up Next Week: Don’t Get Distracted!