To understand cultural appropriation, one must grasp that we are not equal. We live in a white-dominated world, and it is especially apparent within the music and entertainment industry, whether concerning beauty standards, roles or representation of race in Hollywood films, or barriers of entry for non-white musical artists within the industry.
However, there are white musicians who use their privilege and power responsibly when interacting with other cultures. In my opinion, Mumford & Sons such a group which seems to get it, as they showed an incredible amount of creativity and political maturity in their latest project and EP, "Johannesburg"
Defining Cultural Appropriation
Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal performing There Will Be Time (Live in South Africa)
As stated above, cultural appropriation occurs when one from a dominating group “borrows” or takes elements from a less-privileged group without proper understanding of its elements.
As Gwen Berumen states “if we were all equal and that culture's members were not mocked, ostracized and objectified for wearing the same things, then it would be okay. But, unfortunately, that’s not the case” (Berumen).
Thus, this debate begs the question – how do you differentiate between cultural appropriation and appreciation? Simple. Firstly, when the elements borrowed from a culture, they are used appropriately, with a relevant reference being made to its cultural significance.
Secondly, considerable effort and time is taken to understand the culture. And thirdly, ownership is not assumed of the borrowed culture. Instead due credit is given thereby allowing the artist to give back to the culture they are borrowing from – this is appreciation.
How Mumford & Sons got it Right, by passing the Trap of Appropriation
This idea of appreciation brings me back to Mumford & Sons, a particular music band whom I feel has succeeded in borrowing and celebrating elements of a culture foreign to them.
The British band, in June 2016, released a small mini-album titled “Johannesburg”, a by-product of touring in South Africa. The album itself was recorded in Johannesburg.
Baamba Maal of Senegal performs with Mumford & Sons on 4 of the 5 EP songs
The album features Baaba Maal- a Senegalese music legend, Beatenberg- a South African pop group, and The Very Best- a Malawi-inspired jazz/hip-hop act.
Marcus Mumford, the lead singer of Mumford & Sons describes the album as “marrying afrobeat rhythms, Esau and Baaba's voices and languages, over Western songwriting" (Hendicott).
What differentiates this musical endeavor to those of artists like Diplo of Major Lazer, Iggy Azalea, Coldplay and Beyonce, as stated in Part 1, is that these musicians actually used and harnessed elements of local African culture in making their music – the culture was part of the music-making process, not merely used as a background to display foreign flare and attract attention.
The Very Best, a London/England duo, performed on 4 of 5 tracks on Johannesburg
Moreover, the album is not only named after and recorded within the city that inspired it, but it also features important figures within the Malawian and South African musical community, along with lyrics in indigenous African languages.
The elements of South-African culture which are incorporated into the songs and videos are being performed by South Africans themselves; Mumford & Sons does not assume control of the culture, thereby giving credit where it is due.
This brings forth true collaboration and less of a need for requiring a western mouthpiece, and the ability for South African artists to bring their own culture forward.
Capitalization and Reduction of Disempowered Cultures
In contrast, when Chris Martin was asked what inspired writing “Hymn For the Weekend”, he stated that he was hearing a new Flo Rida song, and thought about really wanting to write a new hit single.
As stated poignantly stated by Rachel Martin and Justin Charity, to go from having Flo Rida as inspiration, to shooting a music video for the song in Mumbai with Beyonce “is a strange cultural leap that seems like it's basically appropriating a very distant culture that the music video is not really engaging with...” (Martin & Charity).
The music, aurally and lyrically doesn’t have any significant Indian influence, and the fictitious image of India it illustrates – one of endless celebration- is not realistic. There are, however, more subtle and accurate ways of portraying solidarity through the strength of Indian people.
Unlike Mumford & Sons, Coldplay does not give back to the culture it borrows from, rural people used in their videos are not even interacted with, nor is attention given to the fact that the people they are using for-profit as props most likely live in poverty. This is not appreciation, and most definitely does not allow Indians to bring their culture forward.
Cultural Appreciation is a Win for Artists and Locals
Cultural appreciation instead of appropriation is definitely possible as demonstrated by Mumford & Sons.
Beatenburg, a Cape Town SA-based band, performed on 2 of 5 Tracks on the Johannesburg EP
We are all so much more than these stereotypical depictions of ourselves in commercial music videos, films, and television shows. When massively promoted and viewed, it is no wonder why a large number of people find it difficult to visualize or understand that there is more to a culture than what is stereotyped and shown on media.
In other words, India is so much more than its poverty. And not every day in India consists of bursting into dance and song on the street, nor is it only consisted of snake charmers & sadhus. Not all black women are dominating, not all Asian women are submissive, and not all gay men are effeminate.
Cultural appropriation is also another form of enhancing stereotypes – we need to remember that we are more than what is portrayed in selective videos and films.
When artists with privilege and power incorporate something as massive and diverse as a culture into their art form – they had better be sure to fully understand and appreciate its incredibleness in a way that its people would be proud to see it integrated.
Watch the Mumford & Sons Johannesburg Trailer
Berumen, Gwen. "Breaking Down Cultural Appropriation in Pop Music and More." Breaking Down Cultural Appropriation in Pop Music and More. Bust, n.d. Web. 11 July 2016.
Diplo. "Major Lazer & DJ Snake - Lean On (feat. MØ) (Official Music Video)." YouTube. YouTube, 22 Mar. 2015. Web. 11 July 2016.
Hendicott, James. "Mumford and Sons Announce 'Johannesburg' Mini Album." NME.com. N.p., 22 Apr. 2016. Web. 11 July 2016.
Martin, Rachel, and Justin Charity. "Cultural Appropriation In Pop Music - When Are Artists In The Wrong?" NPR. NPR, 7 Feb. 2016. Web. 11 July 2016.
Nittle, Nadra K. "What Is Cultural Appropriation and Why Is It Wrong?" About.com News & Issues. About News, 1 July 2016a. Web. 11 July 2016.
Alisha Mahtani currently works for Blank Label Records as a Digital and Social Media Strategist. She is a music and Indian cultural enthusiast. You can follow her work for Blank Label Records on their Twitter account at @BlankLabelRecs.