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Nels Abbey's cultural appropriation for BBC 1Xtra dummies

INFLUENTIAL: Ed Sheeran voted top by BBC1Xtra

HOW DID Elvis Presley become who and what we know him to represent today? How did rock ’n’ roll become ‘white music’? How did Ed Sheeran become the most influential man in black British music?

Simple: it’s a process known as cultural appropriation. ‘Cultural appropriation’ is defined as the ‘borrowing’ of the cultural traditions and customs of one group by another. Sounds almost benevolent, right?

In the unique and particular case of black people however, cultural appropriation is just a nice way of saying theft. For once borrowed, black culture is seldom returned. It is renamed, repackaged and re-sold usually for and by anyone other than black people.

The end result of this appropriation (theft) is normally everyone making money out of black culture other than black people themselves. It happened in rock ‘n’ roll, it happened with some elements of black cuisine (KFC is apparently a prime example), it is happening with the mainstreaming of African print cloth, and, of course, it is happening wholesale in various genres of black music.

As the great writer and rapper Sista Souljah once said: “if you don’t know what happened then you won’t know what is happening”.

I may be wrong but I suspect that the geniuses at BBC1 Xtra who recently hailed Ed Sheeran as the most influential person in black British music could do with a little help, in simple terms of course, to understand how cultural appropriation (theft) works in practice.

Consider this a public service fellas:

STAGE 1: a group of people with a shared identity (usually ethnicity) live a wretched terrible experience for a few centuries or decades. Examples of this would include: slavery, Jim Crowism, mass incarceration, extreme police brutality, apartheid, colonialism, etc.

STAGE 2: Whilst trying to preserve a degree of sanity in the experience listed in above the group begin to adopt different types of preservation and escape mechanisms - humming, singing, making lewd jokes about your oppressor and one another, dancing, etc.

STAGE 3: This preservation mechanism becomes a way of preserving history, telling stories, communicating in secret, entertaining each other, mourning, demonstrating humanity, soul and fashion. It essentially becomes part of the cultural identity and undocumented intellectual property of the oppressed people.

STAGE 4: The cultural tradition becomes a big phenomenon within the community and naturally everyone wants to know who is the best at doing it. Performances are set up in the cotton fields, the parks, the jail cells and so on.

For simplicity reasons, from here on black music will be used as the running example.

STAGE 5: Someone within the community or perhaps on the outskirts of it sees commercial potential in the art form. And works to take it to a wider (i.e. whiter) audience. He sets up a company (e.g. Motown), takes care of the artist, cares for and respects the culture. He makes money, so does the artist and so do the employees. Almost all of the people in the money chain are black.

STAGE 6: The audience grows and people are coming to shows and buying albums. It’s clear that this is a phenomenon that offers great financial opportunity. So, naturally major corporations see the dollar signs. They want a slice of the pie. In comes the pimp/culture vulture/Simon Cowell/Universal Records figure - politely referred to as the ‘visionary’. He sees gold. He sees potential in the black art form, but, more importantly he sees naivety in the eyes of the artist and the culture.

STAGE 7: Universal buys Motown (or another similar record label).

STAGE 8: Universal leverages its relationships with media outlets to take the music to another level. The BBC creates a dedicated platform to cater to the unquenchable demand for the music. The artist is now on prime time radio and TV. Things are going very well. The ‘visionary’ however still has increased and increasing sales targets. He has to find more edgy and unique ways to meet these targets. The visionary asks the black artist to make more radio friendly music to break into even bigger markets. He brings in a Calvin Harris figure to help out.

STAGE 9: The penny drops: “Eureka!” The visionary realises that many people may like black music but would feel more comfortable hearing it from the lips of a white artist. Good old racism to the rescue. So he goes out to find a little ‘blue eyed soul’. He finds it. He programmes it. It sells like crack cocaine in Reagan’s America. And he is the toast of the industry.

STAGE 10: Very carefully selected, eager to please ‘influential media’ types who happen to be black in the main (sound familiar?) lavish praise on ‘Blue Eyed Soul’ as an artist and as a concept. The visionary and the eager to please types agree that relabeling ‘black music’ as ‘urban music’ would make it more marketable and ‘less divisive’.

STAGE 11: Attempting to repeat these successes the visionary scours the earth to find the next ‘Blue Eyed Soul’. And the next after that. Ultimately finding and breaking the next Blue Eyed Soul becomes formulaic. Then it becomes cultural. And then it becomes the norm.

STAGE 12: Blue Eyed Soul is labelled the most influential person in ‘urban music’ by the same eager to please media types. ‘Urban music’ becomes an orgy of white privilege. Almost all of the people in the money chain are white.

Final Stage: In response to objections from black artists Blue eyed soul responds “shut up and listen with your ears.”

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