This week’s feature is a resource from our Anti-Racism Music Resources page, by Ph.D. Candidate A. Kori Hill. This was originally published on October 28 as the tenth and final part of the Out of Context series on icareifyoulisten.com. You can read Hill’s full essay here.
“Out of Context” is a 10-part series that addresses the topic of cultural appropriation as it intersects with both Western European-based classical music and the broader social landscape. Commissioned by American Composers Forum and I CARE IF YOU LISTEN, the goal of the series is to offer information and diverse perspectives to those seeking to acknowledge historical context, honor cultural traditions that are not their own, and expand their sphere of knowledge with awareness and respect. A culminating collection of these articles and other resources will be shared for continued learning and dialogue.
Cultural appropriation is not a buzzword or hypothesis. It is a process where the creative knowledge and skills of marginalized artists are exploited by individuals and institutions with systemic privileges. Most often, this process manifests through a lack of adequate financial compensation and public acknowledgement. In U.S. history, cultural appropriation’s most popular representative is the racist, 19th century genre minstrelsy and its continued manifestation in modern popular culture. But where popular music is often the setting for these discussions, Western classical music has too often escaped the necessary call-ins.
There are many examples of appropriation in our [Western classical musicians’] history: Claude Debussy’s use of ragtime elements and racist caricature in “Golliwog’s Cakewalk” from Children’s Corner; the exotification of Roma culture in Pablo Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen; and more recently, Roomful of Teeth’s use of Inuit throat singing. But what makes these examples different from, say, Nina Simone improvising a fugue in “Love Me or Leave Me,” Margaret Bonds composing the cantata The Ballad of the Brown King, or Kronos Quartet featuring Inuit throat singing? The difference is the relationship to power. Simone trained and deeply desired to be a concert pianist; but her aspirations were diverted by racist practices. Bonds also studied classical piano and, thanks in no small part to the communities she lived within, built a successful career as a composer. Kronos Quartet’s Tundra Songs album is a tripartite collaboration between the ensemble, Inuit experimental vocalist Tanya Tagaq, and Canadian composer Derek Charke. The album is the Quartet’s, with all music composed by Charke and Tagaq as a featured artist. This citation reflects the group’s acknowledgement and respect for Tagaq’s skills and knowledge of Inuit throat singing, a technique that should only be performed by those with extensive community connection.
Music cannot be created, cannot be sustained, without the exchange of creative practices and ideas. But sometimes these exchanges are not equitable or respectful, leading one party to receive the praise and credit at the expense of another (or others). It is this power imbalance that sits at the core of cultural appropriation. As I read through the previous essays of I CARE IF YOU LISTEN and American Composers Forum’s “Out of Context” series, three themes stuck out to me that are essential to help us chip away at cultural appropriation’s stone columns: Acknowledge–Decenter–Care.