Cultural Appropriation and African American Music

This article discusses both appropriation within African American music, and the appropriation of African American music (by white artists, publishers, promoters, the public, etc).

The degree to which popular culture in the United States has been impacted by African Americans is often neglected. This has become increasingly clear in the last 100 years as black people have gradually seen their status in society and their visibility in mainstream culture increase. Like everything that has been experienced by black people in what Malcolm X called “the American Nightmare,” the progress toward African Americans having control of their own representation in mainstream culture has been agonizingly and shamefully slow.

Minstrel Shows, Travesty, and the Politics of (Self-)Representation

From the very beginning white people wanted something from African American people (apart from their unpaid labour and servitude), and working class white Americans built the earliest pop culture America had on their appropriation of the fantasies and perverse misunderstandings they had of what African American culture was. These were the minstrel shows, in which white performers put on blackface, and – under the pretense that they were now black – put on popular variety shows that featured songs and comedy routines. The Minstrel Shows are discussed in Ken Burns’s PBS documentary series Jazz (2001):

Minstrel shows are an example of the form of cultural appropriation known as travesty, when someone dresses up like a member of a culture to which they don’t really belong. When men dress as women for the sake of humour (as opposed to authentic transvestism) they are practising travesty. This kind of travesty can be seen in much British sketch comedy as well as in American and Canadian series such as The Kids in the Hall (a skit show that was highly popular in the late 1980s).

Technically, anytime someone dresses up as someone with a different position in society, a different gender or sexuality, or a different ethnicity it is travesty. It used to be common to have popular white actors portray people who were indigenous, Mexican, Asian, etc in movies, for instance, or to have a “brown” actor like Omar Sharif play everything from a Russian to a Turk to a South American revolutionary. Some of these were intended to be humorous, others just to make people from other cultures more “relatable” to white audiences.

Travesty is most usually intended to be humorous, though. When members of Monty Python’s Flying Circus dress as women, the caricatures they perform are often more funny because of the incongruity (and the nervousness it causes some people) of someone who is obviously a man in drag.

The Minstrel Shows were arguably the most deeply offensive and destructive form of travesty in American history. Yet the people who performed In them, like the members of Monty Python, would no doubt have said they were “just having some fun” and that the results were a positive celebration of life, laughter, and song. Perhaps some of them would even have said they were presenting a “positive” portrayal of African Americans, or at any rate a portrayal that the white audiences “loved.”

In his groundbreaking study of minstrelsy, Love and Theft (1993), Eric Lott shows how the minstrel shows were created by and for working class white Americans. It provided a way for the underprivileged white people to ridicule and feel superior to someone else, and also a way to secretly enjoy desired aspects of (supposed) black culture or nature (unbridled sexuality, childlike spontaneity, honesty and realistic speech, etc).

I think in most examples of this kind of “fun” travesty at least three things are going on:

  1. The identity being travestied is being denigrated and mocked
  2. The representation of people with that identity in culture is being taken away from them by someone with a privileged identity
  3. The imagined “fun” side of that identity is being explored by those who don’t really have it and don’t have to live with the rest of the implications of having that identity

For instance, when a man in the Monty Python troupe dresses as a woman, he is allowing himself to play with and enjoy the identity of being a woman, perhaps even truly exploring his own “feminine side” on some level, in the best of cases maybe even learning something about what it’s like to be a real woman. But he is also taking away a woman’s right to represent herself in culture (the only real women who appear in Monty Python skits are sex objects), and he is (mis-)representing women through his warped view as a man of what being a woman is like.

I tend to think that the white performers who blacked up were excited by what they saw as the paradoxical “freedom” of African Americans (even though most of them were slaves!) – freedom to be sensual, freedom to move their bodies, freedom to be half-naked, freedom to say what they think, freedom from the constraints of the highly uptight white society of the day. Black people may have been seen as more in touch with reality, more honest, more immediate in their feelings, more real. Also more fun, more funny, more sensual. Some of these qualities are at the heart of the humour and songs in the minstrel tradition.

We may never know to what extent, if any, real elements of typical African American culture in the 19th century are reflected in the distorted mirror of the minstrel shows.

Minstrelsy seems to me to provide a particularly painful example of cultural appropriation and why it is now so heavily frowned upon. For a hundred years, the true experience and personality of African Americans were unavailable to the American public (unless they actually knew black people). Instead, their “understanding” of African Americans came largely from the caricatures of white people. Some would say that this situation continues in milder forms among some white Americans to the present day.

Today people talk about this in terms of identity politics or the politics of (self-)representation. The idea is that whether we like it or not, you have an identity that is socially and culturally defined by some of our differences. You are a man or a woman, white, black, Asian, straight, gay, indigenous. We might be working toward a world where these identities are not considered so decisive anymore and/or are more universally respected and appreciated, but in the meantime who has the power to represent a given identity is important. Typically, those with a privileged identity have the cultural power to represent those who are marginalized, as we can clearly see in the minstrel shows, but as you also might notice in the portrayal of “Indians” in westerns, women as men’s sex objects in ads, and on and on and on.

In terms of the politics of self-representation, the Minstrel Shows were one more way in which black people were used by white people in America. It wasn’t as obviously cruel as slavery, but it is a kind of “cultural slavery,” echoes of which can still be seen today in the white male-dominated culture industry of the United States.

I don’t want to end this discussion of these Minstrel Shows – the most popular form of entertainment in the United States before talking pictures – without pointing out again how even at the level of the Minstrel Shows, which were obviously disgusting abuses of power and privilege, American popular culture owes much to African Americans. The popular culture of America, its songs, language, and humour, and the things we still love about it today, would simply not have developed in the way they have without African Americans.

This is true in many ways and on many fronts, and perhaps most familiarly in terms of popular music.

Appropriation in Blues and Jazz

Blues starts out in the late 1800s as an organic folk creation of African Americans. Songs have their origins in the cotton fields and taverns, though church music also has some influence. Amateur musicians trade lyrics, music, and ideas around freely. No one is wholly responsible for any particular song. No one owns any song or can claim sole authorship of it. At first, nothing is published or recorded. Music is transmitted in performance alone. Each performance is a re-creation.

  • Authorship and ownership are not clear-cut or considered that important
  • Every performance is unique; little is published or recorded; songs are not “fixed” in an “original” or “authorized” version
  • what you do with the material is what’s important; not who created the original or who “owns” it

In an episode that has been much repeated and commented on, the legendary blues performer Muddy Waters was interviewed by musicologist Alan Lomax about how his song “Country Blues” came about. The response was analyzed by Siva Vaidhyanathan in his very original book Copyrights and Copywrongs (2001). Vaidhyanathan’s discussion is largely repeated in Jonathan Lethem’s clever and diverse article about appropriation, “The Ecstasy of Influence” (2007):

In 1941, on his front porch, Muddy Waters recorded a song for the folklorist Alan Lomax. After singing the song, which he told Lomax was entitled “Country Blues,” Waters described how he came to write it. “I made it on about the eighth of October ’38,” Waters said. “I was fixin’ a puncture on a car. I had been mistreated by a girl. I just felt blue, and the song fell into my mind and it come to me just like that and I started singing.” Then Lomax, who knew of the Robert Johnson recording called “Walkin’ Blues,” asked Waters if there were any other songs that used the same tune. “There’s been some blues played like that,” Waters replied. “This song comes from the cotton field and a boy once put a record out — Robert Johnson. He put it out as named ‘Walkin’ Blues.’ I heard the tune before I heard it on the record. I learned it from Son House.” In nearly one breath, Waters offers five accounts: his own active authorship: he “made it” on a specific date. Then the “passive” explanation: “it come to me just like that.” After Lomax raises the question of influence, Waters, without shame, misgivings, or trepidation, says that he heard a version by Johnson, but that his mentor, Son House, taught it to him. In the middle of that complex genealogy, Waters declares that “this song comes from the cotton field.”

Blues and jazz musicians have long been enabled by a kind of “open source” culture, in which pre-existing melodic fragments and larger musical frameworks are freely reworked.

The recording of Waters and Lomax was then used in an animation sequence in the 2008 documentary Rip! A Remix Manifesto to support the argument that musicians have always “remixed” one another’s material.

Jazz is generally considered to have arisen out of the “creole” culture of New Orleans, where many black musicians had traditionally been trained to play European music. Ragtime – a parallel creation and influence on jazz – was essentially an adaptation of European light classical piano music and Sousa’s patriotic American marches with African polyrhythms and “swing” and was largely written and performed by African Americans. It was the first music made by African Americans to be consumed by a broad white audience. This mix of European instrumentation with African American elements then led to jazz, which incorporated many elements of the blues, and often involved the adaptation of blues songs for bands and orchestras.

Jazz: the first remix music?

As jazz progressed, the free appropriative methods of blues became part of the culture. One of the most common practices in “classical” jazz is improvisation on “standards” – popular songs that survive the test of time and become part of the jazz repertoire, for instance  “Bye Bye Blackbird” or “Stormy Weather.” A jazz artist will add “swing,” syncopation, “blue notes,” ornamentation, and sometimes play their instrument in a way that imitates the expressive characteristics of the human voice (including its imperfections).

Around the time that jazz was emerging as an art form, the most popular music in America was a form of upbeat and stirring patriotic march that we associate today with the composer and bandleader John Phillip Sousa’s. Sousa’s marches are still popular today, and they were among the first popular music recorded. Here is part of an old wax cylinder recording of Stars and Stripes Forever:

Ragtime, the first jazz heard by white people, took the elements of Sousa’s marches, among other Euro-American creations, and added swing and blues to them, as in this demonstration by Jellyroll Morton, recorded later in 1930:


In Ken Burns’s Jazz (2001), Wynton Marsalis talks about Buddie Bolden, one of the very first jazz musicians, and demonstrates early jazz technique with Sousa’s march:


A main formula in instrumental jazz is to improvise in these and other ways on such well-known themes, often taking them very far away from the pop originals. For a more contemporary example, check out this performance of Nirvana’s “Smells like teen spirit” by Brad Mehldau and Joshua Redman (thanks to the student – whose name I don’t know – who suggested Mehldau to me as someone doing jazz on the pop music of recent years.

The appropriation of blues and jazz songs through publication

James Weldon Johnson, one of the earliest black literary figures in the Harlem Renaissance after World War I, wrote about how blues tunes and lyrics motifs were latched onto and turned into commerical hits by white arrangers and publishers in the Jazz Age. In his Preface to The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), he writes:

The earliest Ragtime songs, like Topsy, “jes’ grew.” Some of these earliest songs were taken down by white men, the words slightly altered or changed, and published under the names of the arrangers. They sprang into immediate popularity and earned small fortunes. […]

Later there came along a number of colored men who were able to transcribe the old songs and write original ones. […] I remember that we appropriated about the last one of the old “jes’ grew” songs. It was a song which had been sung for years all through the South. The words were unprintable, but the tune was irresistible, and belonged to nobody.

By “unprintable,” Johnson means the words were dirty. The white appropriaters cleaned up these songs and turned them into popular hits for white audiences. The songs had developed in this organic “Jes’ Grew” collaborative way over decades in some cases, but then got standardized, “vanillized,” and published for sale, with credit often given to white men.

Jazz did ultimately bring added legitimacy to African American culture in white American minds (and certainly for white Europeans, who loved it) and it also moved a segment of the white population into closer alliance with and understanding of the black population.

As much as cultural appropriation is a distortion it is also a rapprochement.

Appropriation in r&b, rock and roll, electric blues

Mid-twentieth century appropriation was characterized by white musicians appropriating black styles and songs and capitalizing on them. White-owned music publishers picked up the rights to black songs, white-owned record companies recorded black artists, and white musicians adopted elements of African American style and popularized them with white audiences, sometimes making fortunes.

A number of record labels, notably Chess Records, were white-owned and -controlled but featured a stable of black musicians. Because of the general racism of the day, these musicians were generally uneducated and unrepresented, and were thus frequently exploited in various ways.

  • Often paid musicians in hooch, or a one-time fee, if at all
  • Black artists were frequently not paid their back royalties and and kept ignorant of sales information
  • They were often offered unfair contracts
  • The authorship of songs was frequently mis-represented, so that white promoters could cash in on the sales and royalties.

Chuck Berry, Chess Records, and Alan Freed

Here’s a non untypical story of how a black artist’s music was appropriated and marketed to white audiences in the 1950s.

  • Black musician Chuck Berry wants to break into the mainstream (white) market, and brings his version of a traditional country song “Ida Red” to Leonard Chess. Berry calls his version “Ida May.”
  • Chess suggests a bigger beat, new lyrics, and a new title, “Maybellene.”
  • Chess records Berry doing the new version and takes it to New York radio disc jockey Alan Freed.
  • Freed plays it on the air and it becomes a hit.
  • Rock and roll is officially born (this is one of many stories of “the first rock and roll record”).
  • In the 1950s, some record companies assigned co-composer credits to disc jockeys and others who helped “break” a record, a form of “payola” via composer royalties. This accounts for disk jockey Alan Freed receiving co-writer credit for “Maybellene.” Russ Fratto, who had been lending money to Chess, also received credit. The Freed and Fratto credits were later withdrawn.

Cover records: vanillization

When a black r&b or rock and roll tune started to become popular in the subculture, white labels would put out cover versions of the song by white artists who could be marketed to the white audience more easily. Black artists made little profit, white artists and labels cashed in.

Compare Little Richard’s original version of “Tutti Frutti”

with Pat Boone’s vanilla version:

The “British Invasion” (1960s)

In the 1960s, English rock musicians like the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin and many others were discovered by American listeners – largely because of the Beatles – and became a smash hit with American teenagers.

Many of these UK groups had been listening closely to African American roots blues and electric blues – black genres that ironically most white Americans didn’t have direct experience of – and were emulating the styles and methods of these African American artists quite consciously. They also often created songs that incorporated motifs and music from the work of these black artists, following the practice common in blues and jazz of appropriating freely from the stew-pot of 20th century African American creativity (much of the material was anonymous in origin, unpublished, out of copyright, etc).

American audiences often assumed that the styles and methods of the British artists were original with these musicians, not recognizing the native roots of the music they were now able to appreciate in its new, white format.

Because of the political situation in America – the Civil Rights movement was just now having an effect and many white Americans still lived in isolation from any of their black fellow citizens, and in some cases looked down on them – the white English artists were able to achieve fame and fortune while their black influencers and sources remained obscure and in comparative poverty.

In a few cases, the British artists were actually sued for plagiarism. Although they were arguably just trying to imitate the practices of their heroes, the fact that they were white gave them commercial advantages. So even if the plagiarism was debatable, it would have been a good gesture on their part to acknowledge the influence, and perhaps even give writing credit and royalties in some cases. The Rolling Stones are generally thought to have been better in this regard, while Led Zeppelin have often been taken to task for failing to give credit (and royalties) where credit was due.

For instance, as Wikipedia notes, “In December 1972, Arc Music, owner of the publishing rights to Howlin’ Wolf’s songs, sued Led Zeppelin for copyright infringement on ‘The Lemon Song.’ The parties settled out of court. Though the amount was not disclosed, Wolf received a check for $45,123 from Arc Music immediately following the suit, and subsequent releases included a co-songwriter credit for him.”


One can no doubt overstate the reliance of all American popular music on black artists, but certainly African Americans invented the Blues; there would have been no Jazz or Ragtime without them; and R&B, rock and roll, and thus rock music generally are heavily indebted to them. And they obviously invented hip hop, arguably the most popular form of American music in the early 21st century. Many people would say that jazz, blues, and hip hop are the only purely American musical forms to have made an impact in the world. Certainly, without them American music would be a far different thing.

Johnny Otis, a white R&B singer and music promoter, made a succinct statement in a 1974 interview:

Black  artists have always been the ones in America to innovate and create and breathe life into new forms. Jazz grew out of black America and there’s no question about that. However, Paul Whiteman became the king of jazz. Swing music grew out of black America, created by black artists Count Basie, Duke Ellington. Benny Goodman was crowned king of swing. In the case of rock and roll, Elvis Presley – and in this case, not without some justification because he brought a lot of originality with him – became  king. Not the true kings of rock and roll – Fats  Domino, Little Richard, Chuck Berry … What happens is black people – the  artists – continue  to develop these things and create them and get ripped off, and the glory and the money goes to white artists. This pressure is constantly on them, to find something that whitey can’t rip off.

The moral wrongness or “human rights” aspect of cultural appropriation can be witnessed clearly in this history, in the unfair ways in which the political inequality in racist America allowed white people to control and capitalize on what were rightly African American creations in three crucial ways:

  1. Monetarily (as white were in a position to capitalize on black creations and market them to white audiences)
  2. In terms of recognition,  as white people often got the credit for black creations
  3. In terms of the politics of (self-)representation,  as white people long controlled how black people were portrayed in mainstream culture and therefore could shape what was considered “black identity” by other whites – and possibly even to some extent by some blacks themselves