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Mars and the cultural theft debate

Globally, as far as the entertainment industry is concerned, there is a developing story that got my attention. The matter involves one Bruno Mars, the reigning king of pop or the heir apparent to the throne left by the late Michael Jackson, if one is less effusive. The critics claim he is an impostor.

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King of pop?

Why is Mars king of pop according to my reckoning? Well, he has six Grammies and has been steadily churning our great pop ditties of the sort that, backed by a proper marketing budget, can become ubiquitous throughout the world.

Why do some view him as a mere pretender? More recently, it has been his album 24KMagic that has seen some critics accusing him of “cultural theft” because of its heavy and overt references to music of black origin.

The album won a coveted album of the year gong over the hip hop artistes Kendrick Lamar, Jay Z and Childish Gambino, courting the ire of the cultural vanguards. The cultural appropriation debate is unravelling some issues of sociological and cultural importance, which pervade not just the American society, but even here in Africa.

What is this animal?

Since Elvis Presley, the so-called king of rock and roll, artistes outside of the black race have been slated for cultural appropriation.

Today, it is Mars’s turn to receive the brickbats. He is a 32-year-old artiste of Puerto Rican, Filipino and Jewish extraction, who is winning in musical terms. But some are not happy and several commentators have latched onto the debate about the very idea of cultural appropriation, even versus the idea of cultural “borrowing” or appreciation. It is a fine line to walk.

According to the Cambridge dictionary, cultural appropriation is “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture”. Mars has not committed the sin of cultural appropriation, if one must use that definition.

He is on public record giving credit to the likes of Michael Jackson, Teddy Riley and others of the 1990s new jack swing era for his musical influences. He clearly respects the music of black origin and, of course, is winning at the game (decode this to mean awards and massive record sales). But this is where matters get sticky!

Tribute artiste?

The vicious among Mars’s critics such as one Serene Aishitemasu, a black woman, have slated him for being a karaoke singer. She drew attention on her YouTube channel to the fact that Mars has won Album of the Year Grammy, when the late Prince never won one in his career.

It is a big debate; the very idea of ownership and how art evolves or develops. What is originally black art is a matter of even further debate.

To accuse Mars of cultural theft is perhaps stretching it. Black art, the form which he is popularising in this case, RnB music, is getting a second look now that he has dusted it off.

Groups such as JODECI, Boys to Men and Bobby Brown, who have been wallowing in obscurity in the last decade, may see occasion to resurrect their careers. Mars may thus be seen as a useful ally in reviving music that relies on “real musicianship” and showmanship.

The banal

Today’s pop music is banal and anyone can really do it. You do not need to be an authentic singer in the tradition of a Lionel Richie or Peabo Bryson. Technology looms larger than talent.

Hence you find that auto-tune masks the vocal deficiencies of some of today’s trendiest popular artists. What matters now is the “machinery of the music industry” more than the human element. Which is where Mars comes in. He has so much musical ability and obviously comes form the same tradition as most of the greats that have gone before him. So what is the problem ?

He is not black. If he was, he most likely would not have as much traction as he does in today’s music industry. As mentioned before, there are millions of black artistes who are making the same music without the corresponding success. They are two a penny.

Saviour or con?

When Elvis Presley started out, he sounded black in the sense of imitating artistes such as Big Mama Thornton, a blues singer. He even went further to do a cover of a song she had originally done called Houndog.
The song was one of the songs that helped launch his career as a singer who made millions from a genre that did not reward most of its black originators. It is common knowledge that rock and roll music progenitors such as Chuck Berry never reached the financial heights of their white beneficiaries such as the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton.

Again, that is how the issue of cultural appropriation enters the fray. Money and fame lie at the centre of the controversy. How must one view the likes of Presley and Mars? Are they saviours of black art or mere cons?

The mixed up

If the critics of Mars are raging because of the race element, how does one understand the hooplah that arose over Rihanna, a black Bahamian female artiste’s performance at the Grammies, in which she, according to some shrill voices, “stole” a South African popular dance routine?

The sentiments about Rihanna’s “on-stage thieving” read as breathtakingly daft to me. I am wondering how it must have felt for black American listeners to tune into their radio stations and hear hip hop Cassper Nyovest speak to them with an accent that has a pseudo American twang. The waters get muddied. Interestingly, the late Michael Jackson was successfully sued by Manu Dibango for “borrowing” off his Soul Makoussa song in the making of his monster You Wanna Be Starting Something hit song. Admittedly, that is a different matter altogether, but it serves a point about this emotive subject.

Parting shot

Looking back, one begins to see just how complicated the subject of cultural appropriation tends to get when it comes to art.

Should it matter that a kid such as me could relate with Mark Twain’s story of Tom Sawyer’s Adventures or Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven stories growing and have my worldview influenced accordingly? Using this language, the Queen’s language, are we not all guilty of cultural theft or appropriation as one may call it?

Culture will forever be fluid and dynamic and cannot be shackled by the parochial constructs of the critical voices. With the advent of technology, homogeneity of popular culture is obvious. The internet has made it possible for people far away to seem like next door neighbours. The lines get blurred as regards who owns what elements of evolving culture. The matter of social justice, just credit and reward for black originators of art is undoubtedly valid as a cause in and of itself, however.

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