Elvis Presley was the King of Rock 'n' Roll, right? He introduced the accentuated backbeat – something that had never been present before – to mainstream American music.
But where are the crowns for Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino and Sam Cooke?
These black artists who made innumerable contributions to the development of American music are largely forgotten by Americans today.
The King himself acknowledged these heavy influences of black culture on his music many times throughout his life. However, he still receives more credit than he is due.
Sociologists have labeled the adoption of one culture's elements by members of a different cultural group "cultural appropriation." At surface value, it seems benign; but examining the phenomenon within the scope of Western society – and its history of imperialism and white cultural dominance – exposes cultural appropriation's many faults.
Often, the appropriated element is unpopular or seen as worthless until a white person, in his or her adaptation of it, "legitimizes" it.
Did you really think Elvis Presley was the first to rock his hips like that?
Fast forward from Elvis Presley to Robin Thicke. Anyone in the U.S. who owns a car or stereo has probably heard his song "Blurred Lines" at some point this summer. It has been deemed Billboard Top 40's "Song of the Summer" and has received several award nominations. Thicke, as well as cohorts T.I. and Pharrell, has capitalized enormously.
In fact, Thicke has gained so much fame from this song that he felt the need to secure his success by preemptively filing a lawsuit against the family of the late Marvin Gaye. Gaye's family has alleged that "Blurred Lines" sounds too similar to the R&B legend's classic song "Got To Give It Up," and Thicke made the first move in solidifying the bottom line for his hit.
Artists often find influence in the work of others, but gaining popularity for someone else's style blurs the line between appreciation and appropriation.
Thicke's behavior might have rubbed off at the VMA's on Miley Cyrus, who reportedly asked songwriting brothers Timothy and Theron Thomas to write "something that just feels black."
In her quest to completely dissociate from her Hannah Montana days, Cyrus has decided to adopt the "ghetto" aspect of black culture. She is part of a growing number of our generation who want to be ghetto, fulfilling this wish by twerking, wearing hip-hop inspired clothes and using stereotypical black slang.
All the while, they usually never know – or care – about what it would truly mean to live in a ghetto.
I have focused on the white appropriation of black culture in music, but these are obviously not the only examples. Other contemporary artists who have done their fair share of appropriating include, but are not limited to, the bindi-wearing Gwen Stefani and the burqa-donning Lady Gaga.
One might say that minorities in the U.S. adopt "white" culture, and this is certainly true.
Let us examine this alternative form of cultural appropriation in the context of Western imperialism. The natives of conquered countries were forced to abandon their culture and heritage to instead adopt the norms of Western society.
That still happens today. In order to fit in, many minorities feel pressured into "acting white," because in America, whiteness is the default.
Personally, I feel like I've been slapped in the face when people wish to adorn some "exotic" element of my heritage, and society deems it acceptable – yet I cannot be taken seriously in the mainstream unless I leave my African-American culture at the door.
Tamara Winfrey Harris said it best in her blog, "What Tami Said."
"It matters who is doing the appropriating. If a dominant culture fancies some random element (a mode of dress, a manner of speaking, a style of music) of my culture interesting or exotic, but otherwise disdains my being and seeks to marginalize me, it is surely an insult."
I am not attacking anyone who appreciates different cultures. On the contrary, I feel that we all can and should learn about and appreciate cultural differences in order to foster unity, understanding and empathy for all humans.
I am simply saying we should all operate with respect and a historical awareness when we wish to "borrow" other peoples' cultures.
Andrea Richardson is a sophomore in anthropology. She can be reached at email@example.com.