On African Culture and Misappropriation

On African Culture and Misappropriation

What exactly is cultural appropriation?  Wikipedia describes it as a situation in which members of a dominant culture adopt elements of a minority culture. As such, it is different from cultural exchange, where both cultures are equal and neither is subjugated to the other. A controversial topic, cultural appropriation has recently come into the spotlight through the work of activists and celebrities like Adrienne Keene and Jesse Williams.

The idea of cultural appropriation has sparked ongoing debates about the ways in which African cultural products are used, borrowed, and imitated by others. In fashion, art, music, and so on, some have argued that certain African symbols and products are off-limits to non-Africans. Yet the trend of adopting such symbols and products continues, especially in the world of fashion and art.

During the colonial era, imperial powers extracted not only natural resources but also cultural treasures. The contemporary debate thus reflects a justified discourse about this historical legacy of plunder, evidence of which can be found in various museums outside of Africa.

Cast brass plaques from Benin City at British Museum. Photo credit: Andreas Praefcke

The theft of the renowned Benin bronzes is just one example of this cultural looting. These artefacts were seized by the United Kingdom in 1897 during a military expedition against the Kingdom of Benin. British soldiers invaded, looted, and ransacked Benin, setting buildings on fire and killing numerous people. They then deposed, shackled, and exiled the oba (king), which sadly led to the end of the independent Kingdom of Benin.

An estimated 3,000 bronzes, ivory works, carved tusks, and oak chests were looted. These artefacts of Benin’s cultural heritage were then sold to the European art market to offset the cost of the expedition. Today, the Benin bronzes can be found in museums and collections worldwide. In 1990, one single Benin head was sold for 2.3 million dollars by a London-based auction house.

In 2010, a looted Benin mask with an estimated value of £4.5 million was withdrawn from sale by Sotheby’s auction house following protests over the sale. The mask was due to be sold by descendants of a participant of the Benin expedition. In contrast, the descendant of another participant returned looted artworks in their possession.

Benin Bronze Mask. Photo credit: carmenmccain.com

This colonial treasure was taken without permission or compensation. And some have argued that a similar dynamic exists in the contemporary use of African cultural symbols, creations, and products.

Africans are not the only ones whose culture is often appropriated. In the 1950s, white musicians borrowed the musical styling of their Black counterparts. African Americans weren’t widely accepted in American society at that time, so record executives chose to have white artists replicate the sound of Black musicians. As a result, music like rock ‘n‘ roll is mainly associated with white people, while its Black pioneers, like Ike Turner, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry are largely overlooked.

This was the situation until the rise of hip-hop. For many, hip-hop remains strongly tied to Black cultural expression. Even today, many in the African-American community closely identify with the genre. Hip-hop was originally used to combat systemic oppression in the post-civil rights movement era. It was also wielded as a form of resistance against unequal power structures, particularly in a white-controlled record industry.

Madonna at the VMAs. Photo credit: teenvogue.com

In the early 21st century, musicians such as Madonna, Gwen Stefani, and Miley Cyrus were accused of cultural appropriation. Madonna’s famous imitation began in Black and Latino gay communities. Gwen Stefani faced criticism for her fixation on Harajuku culture from Japan. In 2013, Miley Cyrus became the pop star most associated with cultural appropriation. During recorded and live performances, the former child star began to twerk, a dance style with roots in the African American community. For most of her career, American-based Australian rapper Iggy Azalea has also been accused of picking and choosing from Black culture but ignoring larger issues such as the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Two years ago, hip-hop star J Cole performed at the Castle Light Unlocks concert in Lagos. This sparked a debate on how Nigerians barely pay any attention to Nigerian hip-hop. One has to wonder if this really is the issue. Should we be borrowing from African American culture rather than promoting ours? Shouldn’t we be promoting artistes like Brymo, Asa, Lagbaja, and Femi Kuti, who have stayed true to their uniquely African sound and style?

Cultural appropriation is a cause for concern for a variety of reasons. For one, it is exploitative because, in most cases, it robs minority groups of the credit they deserve for their creations. The question of whether adopting a group’s style is an homage or an insult is at the core of the debate. What one person perceives as a tribute might be seen as disrespectful by other members of the group. As such, it is a delicate subject that needs to be carefully considered.

In addition, a marginalised culture will adopt aspects of the more dominant culture in order to fit in, not stand out. Black women, for example, frequently report that they feel unable to leave their hair in its natural state. Many have been told by employers that natural Black hair looks unprofessional. These women have been compelled to spend time and money to make their hair more like white hair. The Black women in this example are not adopting elements of another culture for fun or by choice. They do so in order to avoid discrimination by the dominant group.

Lupita N’yongo. Photo credit: celebrityhaircolorguide.com

In the end, it all comes down to individual sensitivity toward others. A member of a majority group may not be able to recognise harmful appropriation unless it’s pointed out. This requires awareness of one’s motive in making use of a product from another culture. The intention behind such use is at the heart of the matter. So it is important to ask questions like: Why am I borrowing this? Is it out of a genuine interest or is it simply to follow trends? Am I being respectful of the culture? Would someone from that group feel offended by it?

Genuine interest in other cultures is not to be discounted, of course. The sharing of ideas, traditions, and material items is what makes life interesting and helps diversify our world. It is the motive behind the interest which remains most critical. And this is what we can all pay attention to as we learn from one another.


Read more: Colourism through the Lens of History (Part 2: Not So Different)

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