Why I Love Cultural Appropriation and Why You Should Too

The title of this piece is not accidentally provocative, cultural appropriation is a hornet’s nest in the world of art, the title is like saying “come, sting me!”. I’m moved to write about it from my own experiences, particularly from the recent piece for my iForest “I Walk Towards Myself” which features a work for three choirs of 24 voices each (The Crossing) individually recorded and spread out across land at the Wild Center in the Adirondacks. It opened to the public  in 2017 and comes to Manhattan as part of Drums Along the Hudson in June 2018. Much of the text of “I Walk Towards Myself” is in the indigenous Mohawk language and this has drawn the attention of people who are sensitive to ‘cultural appropriation’.

If I pick up a guitar and strum a D major chord, I didn’t invent it, I appropriated it. Of course, it’s absurd to call it ‘appropriation’ because it’s in such common usage. I could equally write a blues or a jazz song using that chord and, even though they both have clear cultural origins that are not my own, I would be in no danger that this act of cultural appropriation would upset anyone.

Cultural appropriation is a sign of a healthy society. It means we’re listening to each other, inspiring and influencing each other. Cultural misappropriation is something entirely different, it means we are exploiting each other, using each other’s stories and sometimes our suffering to further our creative interests and ambitions without proper respect and consultation. Cultural misappropriation is something like discovering that the painful, awkward romance you had in your early twenties has been turned into a Broadway musical by a complete stranger.

When the Boomtown Rats wrote the song “I Don’t Like Mondays”, beside scoring a massive chart hit in the UK they also faced a lawsuit. The song was about the case of 16-year-old Brenda Ann Spencer, who fired at children in a school playground at Grover Cleveland Elementary School in San Diego, California, US on 29 January 1979, killing two adults and injuring eight children and one police officer. Spencer showed no remorse for her crime and her full explanation for her actions was “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day”. The Boomtown Rats song was first performed less than a month later. The courts did not block the song in the end. Whether that reflected an ethical conclusion or is simply what happens when a well financed record company are pitted against a family who’ve just been thrown into grief and shock is impossible to say. The song remains popular to this day.

When I hear people get worked up about ‘cultural appropriation’ I can’t help but think of a phrase from Milan Kundera about being ‘The brilliant ally of your own gravedigger’. Their arguments come from a good place, I identify with them. They’re sometimes outraged and at times it feels right to be outraged, but these arguments too easily and invisibly become something that is no longer cultural appropriation, it’s cultural segregation. Follow them to their logical conclusion and you discover you can’t write a work from the point of view of a black woman because you’re a white man, and maybe that sounds fair enough, but try it the other way round: you can’t write from a white male point of view because you’re a black woman and immediately you see it for what it is: racial prejudice.

This goes against one of the most hopeful things humans possess: theory of mind, the ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes, it is the keystone of empathy. It sounds like a very grand statement but ‘civilised’ society rests on theory of mind: on the understanding that others equally feel pain and suffer and have hopes and ambitions. All of the great founding documents of nations from Magna Carta to the American Constitution have this at their bedrock.

Running a prototype iForest at the Wild Center, Tupper Lake.

One day when I was mixing my iForest onsite at The Wild Center, the director charged out to see me. She was worked up: “You didn’t tell me this piece was all in Mohawk, they’ll accuse you of cultural appropriation and you’ll get shut down!”. The iForest represented a significant investment for them and this scenario angered her. I told her I felt confident that nothing I had done could be interpreted as ‘cultural appropriation’. Firstly, it had seemed to me that since my work celebrated humans as a part of nature in the ancient history of the land, if it had not been in Mohawk it would have been an insult to the indigenous peoples of the area. I had been told about the Mohawk Thanksgiving Ceremony by someone who was herself Mohawk, I’d been introduced to a translator who taught Mohawk language at the Freedom School on the Akwesasne reservation, I’d met with the chief elder, Tom Porter, visited the Akwesasne museum and met other members of the Mohawk community, none of whom had ever suggested I was doing something that might be offensive or insensitive in some way. But more to the point, the piece I had written was a western choral work, strongly in the polyphonic tradition of my native Europe, it was clear that this was my own creative response to the land, that had been lent language and, to some degree, form, by the Mohawks. For me the key was that I strongly identified with and felt inspired by the Mohawk viewpoint; their Thanksgiving ceremony thanked each part of nature which was essentially what I wanted the iForest to do, as well as to include ‘human’ as part of the nature experienced on the site, making the point that we are part of nature and not external observers of it, which was again a part of the Mohawk viewpoint.

Even so, I felt a lurking unease. Cultural appropriation has something of the witch-hunt cry to it. It’s a dark accusation about murky  goings on, the mere suspicion is enough to doom some artists. And sometimes that doom is appropriate; art is our creative response to the universe, we may make it for good reasons, we may make something that engages people, but if we don’t first make enquiry as to whether the people whose story we seek to tell are ok with it we run the risk that we have committed ‘cultural misappropriation’.

In my case I got off lightly, a few interviewers asked about cultural appropriation but seemed satisfied with my answers. Only once did I receive a very angry email. It was from someone who hadn’t visited the iForest, but had contacted me asking if she could hear the music, I’d sent her a link. She replied with a tirade of insults which, since she wasn’t Mohawk herself, made me wonder what  motivated her. Clearly it hit a nerve and, as is often the case in areas that are vaguely defined, she felt ok to fill in gaps between what she understood and what she projected with a great deal of anger.

It’s a great thing for cultures to inspire and influence each other. Cultural appropriation, rather than misappropriation, is a good thing. It’s a sign of empathy, of reaching out with respect and sharing, whether from joy or sorrow  that helps us realise there’s no such thing as ‘us’ and ‘them’ because ‘they’ are ‘us’. There are plenty of people who do not agree with that view, they see the world as ‘us’ which includes themselves and people like them and some form of vaguely threatening and probably inferior ‘them’ people who are not ‘us’. Cultural appropriation helps us to take a step beyond that and understand that our different cultures are merely the outward flowerings of similar souls. When we see and understand such things, I like to believe that we live together in happier more fruitful ways.