Culture Vultures: Hip-Hop’s Long History of Cultural Appropriation

With hip-hops recent exponential growth in popularity, many pop artists are stealing aspects of its culture to keep themselves relevant in todays cultural conversation

Throughout hip-hop’s long and storied history, a great deal of acts and artists have entered the genre, often pushing the music forward in highly creative and innovative directions. But just as the genre continues to rise to exponential heights, there have been more than a few mainstream artists who’ve posed as “down with the cause,” using hip-hop’s platform as a marketing tool to appear edgy, badass, and relevant; when in reality, they embody exactly none of those traits at all. 

Thieves in the light

The term “culture vulture” has often been used to describe one who swoops into the scene and “steals” the marked traits (often stereotypical ones) of ethnic and social groups in order to formulate their own superficial identity and status. A particularly notorious example of such a vulture is Miley Cyrus, America’s former pop music darling, who was once at the forefront of the pop scene, topping charts and winning the hearts of millions of angsty preteens across the country.

But in 2013, things took a drastic turn for the worst. Many saw it as the reoccurring story of a child star trying to become an edgy adult in an attempt to dirty her once clean image. Miley traded her long brown hair for a chopped pixie cut and started sporting chains and gold grills with baggy basketball jerseys over girl-next-door OOTDs. Many saw her new look as a caricature of black culture; only utilizing hip-hop as a fad to grow her legion of rabid fans. Hannah Montana had become an edgy, faux “hip- hop star,” riding off the coattails of a culture that never belonged to her and never will.

 Miley Cyrus embodying cultural appropriation in a corny dress made from basketball jerseys. Photograph courtesy of YouTube.

Miley Cyrus embodying cultural appropriation in a corny dress made from basketball jerseys. Photograph courtesy of YouTube.

It’s easy to claim cultural appropriation on the basis of someone being a minority within a certain social group, but it’s not just minorities who are guilty of this figurative thievery. There are thousands of rappers out there who have posed as “thugs” and written songs that perpetuate gangster narratives of inner city perils, even though they grew up in much more financially and socially stable circumstances and have never truly lived the lives they claim to have come from. No one bats an eye at these artists because they “look” the part based on their gender, race, and even sexuality; but if taking from culture is based on the colour of one’s skin, rather than the content of one’s character, there are whole lot more influential artists out there that are guilty as charged.

Be for real, B

Culture has and will always be malleable and transformative - after all, it is but a construct of the people. However, those who choose to be a part of a culture should always be informed of its past, present, and future. It is not something to be taken and disposed of, but rather something to treat with respect and dignity. It is less about what a culture can do for you, but what can one contribute to the culture itself.

Eminem, Detroit’s acclaimed rapper, endured a long and strenuous road in his journey to becoming one of hip-hop’s most loved and revered artists because he was white in a predominately black musical landscape. However, he became a student of the game, and being from a culture that coincided with that of hip-hop, he worked his way to success, as a talent beyond compare. However, if one were to solely regard him as an oddity within the specific genre; only attributing his success to his seeming privilege, the value in his success story would be diminished, and he might be reduced solely to the result of his biological makeup and heritage.

 Eminem has often been accused of cultural appropriation. Photograph courtesy of DoD News, via Flickr

Eminem has often been accused of cultural appropriation. Photograph courtesy of DoD News, via Flickr

Being influenced by various cultures is unavoidable in such a diverse and global community, but there is a difference between being subconsciously influenced by culture and using the plight of certain cultures for one’s personal gain. It’s up to the community of listeners and artists who appreciate the message, heritage and culture, to let it be known that hip-hop is not a construct that can be simply chewed up and spit out –  rather, it’s a culture to be respected and cherished as much as any other.