Mars and the culture of appropriation debate

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Each week represents a struggle for this writer, a struggle to write something profound and worthy of my followers and the readers of this publication.

By Admire Kudita

My struggle is always to balance the need to offer moments of lightness in the business of entertainment, culture, society and the need to present enlightening discourse on society in general. This always means that I have to be as relevant, prescient as well as analytical as I can be.

Last week I used Bruno Mars, a United States pop star, as my focal point for a discussion about cultural appropriation and allegations levelled against him by some aggrieved persons.

The debate (Part II)

Bringing it closer home, Zimbabwe’s dancehall musicians owe a huge debt to Bob Marley and the Jamaicans. Are they also guilty of cultural appropriation? Winky D, Killer T and Soul Jah Love would not have a career without the music that originated in the West Indies. What of Alick Macheso and Simon Chimbetu without kanindo music from East Africa?
This week I want to wind up the discussion because a colleague suggested we tackle feedback from Bruno Mars’s industry peers. I thought that was fair comment.

Celebs defend Bruno Mars

It is common cause that new great artistes stand on the shoulders of past giants. Thus as the likes of Michael Jackson ascended to the top of the music pile, he liberally borrowed from the late godfather of soul James Brown’s stage act and others such as Jackie Wilson and Sammy Davis Jr. Jackson was quite open about his sources. He paid open homage.

Similarly, Bruno Mars cited Teddy Riley as one of his greatest influences. The famed Grammy winning producer has come to Bruno Mars’ side: “First of all, it (Bruno Mars’ tribute) brings our stock up — Babyface, Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis and myself— and that puts us even more in the game and helps to sustain us. It’s a known fact that God blesses us to bless others, and then sometimes, you get the blessing.

“But, I’m more of a giver, I like to give. So, him giving … sometimes we don’t understand receiving a gift. But, the most incredible gift to be given, for me, is someone paying homage. So, I feel wonderful about it.”

Dicy business

The music business is a business of fads. Fads can last from one to five years. Globally, we are in the age of a genre called “trap” pushed by major record labels and of course Naija Afrobeat is making gradual inroads into the mainstream. Strangely, as if on cue, local radio stations play the latest music from overseas as prescribed by the opinion makers and marketing people.

Local radio stations seem mindless generally. The playlists reflect the “hottest” music in the US, good or bad. The artists we are not hearing currently from are only obscured by the fact of an industry whose gatekeepers are the arbiters of what gets popular.

Good for business

The rise of Bruno Mars is good for business. Ironically, what has been lost on the critics is the sheer fact that Bruno Mars has created opportunities for African American musicians. His band is largely black. His songwriters and producers are also black. Check the following tweet from one Carl Martin who is a co-composer on Bruno Mars’ 24Kmagic title track on Twitter:
“Do these clowns recognise that most of the credited songwriters and producers of Bruno Mars’ album are African American? I know because I am one of them. Get a life people.”

The comeback

“Real” music is making a comeback. The likes of Teddy Riley and Babyface may have a second coming in terms of business. As a matter of fact, Babyface collaborated with Bruno Mars on one of the songs Too Good To Say Goodbye on the Grammy award-winning album 24Kmagic.
What this means is that payday for producers such as him and Teddy Riley is looming on the horizon again. Not that they were not getting paid as they have royalty cheques from past production and songwriting credits. But these producers tend to fall by the wayside in terms of commission for work on new artistes’ records.

As an example, Babyface returned to the charts in 2016 with the album Love, Marriage and Divorce which he shared with his long time muse Toni Braxton. The lead single off the album Hurt You was an adult and contemporary chart hit which showcased Babyface’s unfailing songwriting and music production gifts and spoke to mature people’s relationship issues.
The infantile and vapid music that is standard fare on radio today is highly forgettable. But that is a grown man’s opinion admittedly.

In his own defence

“When you say ‘black music’, understand that you are talking about rock, jazz, R&B, reggae, funk, doo-wop, hip-hop and Motown,” he explained in an interview with of the South American magazines in February.
“Black people created it all. Being Puerto Rican, even salsa music stems back to the Motherland (Africa). So, in my world, black music means everything. It’s what gives America its swag. I’m a child raised in the 1990s. Pop music was heavily rooted in R&B from Whitney, Diddy, Dr Dre, Boyz II Men, Aaliyah, TLC, Babyface, New Edition, Michael, and so much more … I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for these artistes who inspired me.”
Other defenders

“So is it Bruno Mars’ fault that … he was influenced by BabyFace, Teddy Riley, Jimmy ‘Jam’ Harris and Terry Lewis … around the same time from a hip-hop side I was influenced by DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and The Beatminerz? This is a sociology study on influence and exposure …,” hip-hop music producer 9th Wonder has weighed in
Charlie Wilson: “Bruno Mars is a genuine talent pure and simple. In fact, he is one of the best we have had the privilege to enjoy in years and is already destined to be one of the greats. He is cut from the same cloth as myself and many other artistes before him who work extremely hard on their craft.

“For the current haters I say this: Bruno with this album helped bring back that classic New Jack/R&B sound to the masses when it was left for dead years ago and hard for artists to get that sound back on the radar.”

Parting shot

The drum, to use a metaphor, journeyed from the African continent on slave ships and was carried in the hearts of Africa’s offspring and into the rest of humanity. Africa’s gift to the world is the art and music of her progeny.
Profiteering aside, the rest of the world is right to embrace the gift without regard to race or ethnicity. But they must acknowledge the gift and not take it for granted by not rewarding it.

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