Beg, borrow, or steal


A common misconception that has been troubling me recently is the idea that culture can be owned.

This is simply a factual error, from which springs a conceptual error.  The fact is that culture spreads and mutates of its own accord, against your will if need be.  It pays no attention to what you want from it.  As a result, the concept of culture ownership – the misguided notion that you can or should be able to control culture, and prevent undesirables from sullying it – is just a denial of culture’s essential nature.  It’s you, standing on the shore of a lake and saying you should be able to walk across the lake because you believe water should be a solid (imaginary Jesus and seasonal/geographical ice notwithstanding).  You can’t walk on water and you can’t hold culture.  Like water, it is a liquid – it spills, it seeps, it evaporates, and if necessary it will wear slow holes in whatever contains it.  Eventually water and culture will get away from you.

One place I see this misconception is in the elitest music subcultures.  Metal and punk fans tend to be the worst about it.  Their war is against the selling of their culture.  A band can be huge in the scene, generally if not universally well-loved, a la Behemoth when they released “Zos Kia Cultus” or Operation Ivy, that pre-Rancid ska band with unimpeachable cred.  But then Behemoth starts selling too many albums and plays at Ozzfest, and Op Ivy turns into Rancid and signs with Epitaph and has a couple hit singles – and the fucking earth must be flying into the sun, because everyone is red in the face and acting like it’s the end times.  Nile was pretty cool when they were just another death metal band with a unique penchant for Egyptian lyrics and instruments, but now they’re sellouts and crap and that Egyptian thing is a gimmick.  Green Day was OK in their halcyon days on Gilmore St., but as soon as they show up on MTV singing about masturbation it’s fucking OVER.  This particular strain of kneejerk anti-commercialism and elitism isn’t confined to these two types of music listener, though; I’ve talked to hip hop purists on and reggae snobs on the VIP dancehall forums, and every kind of music elitist you can think of on the old message boards, before they started making you pay to post.  (Fuck that, you sellouts.*)

Culture elitists have a real problem to contend with, and it is as follows (presented here in easy-to-remember axiom format):

    First Axiom of Culture – If your culture is worth a damn, people are going to LIKE it.

    Second Axiom of Culture – If people LIKE your culture, then they will WANT it.

So it’s going to get packaged and sold.  Maybe you don’t like what Green Day has done with punk, or the fact that a major label signed Green Day and got their shit spinning on MTV and alternative rock radio approximately 5,976 times a day.  Maybe it pisses you off when you see little kids in eyeliner and American Idiot t-shirts, because you think punk was better before the masses got to it.  Well, maybe you were right.  But you’re just going to have to get over it.

Punk was inaccessible for about one second in the early 70s, and then it grew hooks and happy little melodies and sold out.  Everything that people want will sell, and as soon as someone with some business sense realizes it, they’re going to sell it.  That’s what happens at the intersection of culture and capitalism.  Punk got sucked into the distribution cycle.  And not only did it start selling, but people – I’d go so far as to call them pioneers of a sort – realized that by toning down the anger and increasing the catchiness they could sell even more.  Punk went commercial.  It happened because the original product was good, and people liked it.  Only the hardest hardcore had no commercial appeal at all, but it was compromised by its relationship to the more tuneful strains of the genre.  So now the hardcore fans sit around and bitch bitch bitch about what happened to punk.  And I say to them again: get over it.  There is nothing you can do about it.  You never owned punk.  It had begun “selling out” long before you ever heard the first note on your first Minor Threat seven inch.

You think Mexicans don’t feel some resentment toward the owners of Taco Bell?  Well, white people wanted cheap and fast Mexican(-ish) food, and Taco Bell filled the gap.  It wasn’t a diabolical scheme to ruin the cuisine’s purity.  It was simply the convergence of people liking Mexican food and wanting it in a more convenient format, and a business owner (who probably also really liked Mexican food) rushing to fill the market gap.  Capitalism does this to culture.  You can’t have both and prevent this from happening.  It happens; get over it.

Another place I see this coming up a lot is in the discussion of black culture.  I aim to misbehave (~ Capt. Malcolm Reynolds) a little here, Diane, so bear with me, and keep an open and charitable mind.  If you visit the Okayplayer site, like I do every day, you can usually see a hoppin’ discussion of whites stealing from black culture.  This goes back to Elvis – probably a lot farther, but in terms of pop music that is the genesis point.  Public Enemy said Elvis was a racist.  Mos Def (who I like and admire, at least until his last couple of so-so albums) said Elvis had no soul, and implies that Little Richard was the real thing that Elvis wasn’t.  And it’s gone on from there.  Today on Okayplayer we even have a white person posting that Amy Winehouse is stealing black music.

Let me refer back to our two axioms:

    First Axiom of Culture – If your culture is worth a damn, people are going to LIKE it.

    Second Axiom of Culture – If people LIKE your culture, then they will WANT it.

And at this point I’d like to add a third:

    Third Axiom of Culture – If people WANT your culture, then they will also want to CONTRIBUTE to it, and/or MAKE SOME of their own.

Elvis wasn’t a capitalist who “stole” black music because he saw the potential to get rich.  He was a kid who loved the sound of rock ‘n roll and had a gift (largely unappreciated by me, I’m sorry to report) for performing it himself.  Maybe you think Elvis sucked, or maybe you’re indifferent to him like I am.  But Elvis saw something in the music, and whatever he saw, however he transformed it into his own (whitened) style, people LIKED it and WANTED it, and that was that.  That was the beginning of how rock became white music.  It may piss you off – whether you’re black or white or whatever other color – but it happened, it wasn’t malicious, and you have to get over it.  There’s no going back.  There’s no one person you could have taken out, Terminator-style, to prevent it from happening.  Even if Elvis hadn’t existed there were others in the wings that would have happily filled his shoes.  Many, many white kids in those times were getting into black music.  And they weren’t going to be content with just listening to Chuck Berry records while singing white pop themselves.  They liked it, so they wanted to MAKE it.  And when they did some of it was compromised or evolved or just changed in exactly the right way to make other, previously unaccepting white kids like it too, and want to buy it.

I concede that there is an element of racism in the selection of what sells a lot, versus what does not sell as much.  This was true to a much larger degree in the old days before hip hop.  A lot of white people were afraid of black people, and by extension afraid of black music.  But when you whitened it up a little and put a white face on the record sleeve, they weren’t afraid of it any more; they could just enjoy it.  That’s unfortunate.  But it wasn’t Elvis’s fault, or Mick Jagger’s, or Jimmy Page’s, or Eric Clapton’s.  Those guys to varying degrees all loved black music.  They just wanted to make some themselves.  If I may turn back to Mos and his song “Rock N Roll” for a second:

    You may dig on the Rolling Stones

    But they ain’t come up with that shit on they own

The thing is, Mos, if your aim is just to educate, most Stones fans already know this.  They know the Stones were borrowing from and sometimes outright stealing blues licks and lyrics.  Some rock stars – not all, but some – gave credit where it was due, or at least talked about their idols in interviews.  They were candid about their blues influence and encouraged their white fans to seek out the originals.  Clapton is a one-man blues preservation society; he’s done a lot to keep blues alive (or at least displayed, museum exhibit-style, with informative plaquards).  But even the ones who were shoplifting don’t really compromise my argument.  Led Zeppelin stealing blues songs and not giving credit doesn’t make them racists; it just makes them dicks.  And we have plenty of those in both the white and black camps.  (Refer to previous Michael Vick post for details.)  People being dicks has continued at a steady rate for thousands of years of human civilization, but I’m happy to report that racism has undergone a steady decline, at least in the last century of American society.  It still isn’t fixed but I don’t think Denzel Washington or Snoop Dogg have much to complain about, financially speaking.

But Mos, if your aim is not to inform, but just to imply something negative about the Stones’ music (e.g. “The Stones are terrible because they borrowed from the blues”), I say again: you have to get over it.

Culture is stolen within racial boundaries as well as across them.  You think all those original blues players simultaneously and independently came up with the idea to play acoustic blues?  Hell no, they didn’t.  They were borrowing and yes, STEALING from each other liberally and frequently.  Different delta blues players claimed to write songs with the same lyrics and tunes.  (Some of them were being dicks, like we just talked about.)  You can hear a story about almost any great blues or jazz musician in their youth, hearing one of their forebears and deciding on the spot that they wanted to play the same kind of music.  There wouldn’t have been a Charlie Parker if there hadn’t first been Lester Young and all those other jazz titans blowing gales through Kansas City.  There wouldn’t have been a Robert Johnson if there hadn’t first been Son House and Charley Patton.  And even the very originators of every genre were still looking to some other influences, translating and recoding them in a new way.  Everything is borrowed; everything is either evolution or retread; nothing is new under the sun. 

It’s a patently false idea that people of another skin color, country, class, or gender shouldn’t be allowed to participate in/mimic/co-opt your culture.  That’s a law that cannot be enforced, and as such is pointless.  Any person with musical talent is going to be influenced by the music they like.  And the only way to prevent other people from liking your music is to make it suck.  Blues, rock, and jazz don’t suck; ergo, white musicians started playing in these styles just like blacks had before them.  And before that, jazz and rock and blues musicians – the black ones – were borrowing from (white) classical music and (white) popular songsmiths like Gershwin.  None of these musics was created in a vacuum, and none of them has pure African heritage.  It would be silly of me to complain that blacks stole from white music to come up with some of the greatest American contributions to art.  So please, don’t complain about Eminem when he sells more records than Dr. Dre.  He’d be the first one to point that out, and the first one to give credit where it’s due.  Amy Winehouse hasn’t made any secret of the soul tradition she is borrowing from, either.  These musicians LOVE hip hop and R&B.  They just want to make some of their own.

* Irony star!


11 Responses to Beg, borrow, or steal

  1. […] just not how language works. Or as my friend Special Agent Dale Cooper so eloquently says on his blog, You can’t walk on water and you can’t hold culture. Like water, it is a liquid – it spills, it […]

  2. Kit-chen says:

    In an ideal world, genre would just be a way to find the record you are looking for in a store.

    To the people complaining about white people making black people… should we also have black only and white only record stores?

  3. Kit-chen says:

    i meant, white people making black people … music.


  4. Shae says:

    I wish whoever is complaining about Amy Winehouse would get out there and make something comparably soulful and authentic. I’ve worn out her disc and would love to have more.

  5. Well, the person complaining in this recent instance was white, so clearly they are self-prohibited from making any soulful music.

    Damn, people can be goofy sometimes.

  6. H says:

    Your points about not finger-pointing are all pretty decent, but, you have to realize that the anger people have (I’ll use Amy Winehouse as an example) comes from an overall feeling, not a specific instance. For those of us who aren’t White and living in America, it is tough enough to make sense of what is happening with our cultural roots. It is tougher, then, to see a largely-White media touting somebody like Amy Winehouse so strongly, when it is obvious there is far superior music — which she pilfered quite liberally — from over 40 years ago. Yes, she credits her influences, yes, I’m sure the Stones do, as well. That still isn’t the point. The point is, the exposure, critical analysis, and honest chance White artists are given completely eclipses those who are not. Things are changing slowly, as the face and structure of media largely dictates how people absorb information (especially music research), but there is a ways to go. I think your writing is a good call for peace, but it smacks of naivete that drives people like me insane. The people who hear Amy Winehouse on the radio and shake their heads, wondering why.

  7. H – I don’t usually respond to comments on old posts but I will make an exception here, because I think this is worth discussing.

    I understand the thrust of what you are saying, and I believe I touched on it here: “I concede that there is an element of racism in the selection of what sells a lot, versus what does not sell as much. This was true to a much larger degree in the old days before hip hop. A lot of white people were afraid of black people, and by extension afraid of black music. But when you whitened it up a little and put a white face on the record sleeve, they weren’t afraid of it any more; they could just enjoy it. That’s unfortunate.” You could extend that beyond pure sales numbers and speak, as you have done, about the media and the music industry machine that packages and sells these artists. There’s no denying it – Eminem was right when he said “If I was black I would’ve sold half.” That’s fucked up. It’s something that as a society (of blacks and whites both) we should be pushing to change… and hopefully are, if the possibly imminent election of one Barack Obama is any kind of indicator. Certainly that’s something that could not have happened in this country as recently as 30 years ago.

    Racism and its wounds are scrawled all over America – don’t think I’m naive enough to not see it. What I take issue with is the people who get angry on a personal level with white musicians playing “black” music forms. People who say Winehouse shouldn’t sing soul music, even in the privacy of her own home. It’s more than fair to wonder why she’s so popular while so many of the artists she emulates are forgotten – let me reiterate, MORE than fair, because I’d rather listen to a dozen different Motown artists than Amy Winehouse, who to me is just alright. (By the same token, I’d rather listen to 50 different Jamaican artists than Matisyahu, who sounds like a slight version of the real thing with a gimmicky add-on component, to me.) The industry that sells Winehouse and the media that was throwing her on magazine covers from Day 1 while generally ignoring or ghettoizing her black contemporaries – yes, both deserve their criticism. And the same goes for the white audience that laps up Winehouse and doesn’t seek out the artists who went before her. We have a real commercialism problem in this country, and the reality of that commercialism is that it can sometimes be very racist – ignoring black artists, always on the lookout for the next Great White Hype.

    Where I can’t get behind these sentiments is at the point where they turn into personal hatred for the artists. I don’t listen to Matisyahu but I don’t think he should stop singing over one-drop beats either. If he loves reggae he should do what he feels. And at the same time it’s hard to begrudge him accepting the piles of money he gets for doing what he loves. The main thing I ask of that type of artist is to give credit where its due – be a salesman for the artists who influenced you. Guys like Clapton have been exemplary in this regard and hopefully at least a few more white music fans own some genuine Delta blues records now.

  8. ddsharper says:

    the premise is wrong. culture IS owned ,except, by blacks because the white man thinks he owns blacks and everything within their culture. Put you in prison and steal your essence. from your sayings into his commercials, from your dance, into his movies, from your swagger into his comedy. But of course, the Jews own their culture, and claim that daily. whites and their fake histories lay claim to ownership of America and every invention since the beginning of time. the memorialize their saints and criminals, in books, universities and in song. Asians own martial arts, the Chinese own Chinese food, Japanese geishas and the like. Hispanics own their culture and are proud to be whatever, with their macarena dances, their mariachis, etc. picture a bunch of whites playing in a mariachi band. But now. Let’s talk about black Americans. Whites are predators and as such have always believed they own what blacks create. they chained us back then and do so now. the answer is for black Americans to copyright their music and patent their moves., the leaches steal, justify it, like in this article, which is a simple dismissal of black concern and arrogantly continue to steal since no one wants their lack of creativity. What an arrogant article. Thieves from day one. Thieves of your culture but never your struggles, never your pain from living in Amerikka. Crakka Jakkas is what we call them.

  9. How do the Chinese “own” Chinese food when Americans eat it and make it every day? Do they own Panda Express (or just work there)? Do they own dishes like General Tso’s Chicken, which was created in America and doesn’t resemble anything in traditional Chinese cooking?

    Do Hispanics own their culture, really? No white or black American has ever cooked up enchiladas? When Paco de Lucia and John McLaughlin played flamenco together, was de Lucia just loaning out some of his culture temporarily?

    And by all means, let’s talk about black Americans. We should probably toss Terrance Hobbs out of Suffocation for daring to be a black guy that plays white death metal. Scott Joplin composed works of European classical music when he wasn’t writing ragtime (and ragtime and jazz wouldn’t have been exactly what they are without those influences, either). Black musicians have also borrowed extensively from Latinos – Bird made “South of the Border”; Dizzy played salsa underneath and on top of his bebop; some Motown hits used the rhythms and the clave of Cuba.

    The Japanese are voracious consumers and regurgitators of white and black American culture. They form rap and punk and pop/rock groups; they wear cowboy hats. The Italians made Westerns and pretended they were set in America and Mexico, when really they were filmed in Italy and Spain with mostly Euro actors. I own Chilean and Spanish rap albums, Mexican rock and metal albums, European jazz albums, and martial arts movies (one very famous one in particular) starring white and black actors alongside Chinese ones.

    Everybody (in this country, at least) has the right to their own intellectual property – your melodies, your lyrics, your individual compositions. But general styles and affectations will be borrowed (or stolen – whichever word you use, it’s the same to me), and the law doesn’t care about that. Yes, any musician (black or otherwise) should copyright their works and make all the money from them that they can. But if somebody with a different skin color or foreign accent starts playing in the same general style, while writing their own original songs, the copyright means nothing.

  10. Donnell says:

    I just came across your blog, and I have to say that I probably disagree with much of what you are saying here. Let’s take a closer look at what I’m saying by checking out some of the “Blues” festivals I’ve attended. Most of them had cards consisting of 20 or better groups who were to play during the festival. We all know that The Blues is, was, and always will be a “Black” thing. But when you go to these festivals with all of these groups playing and only 1 or 2 of them are Black groups, that’s where I take offense. It’s like, “Everything we’re doing is because of Black people, but you Blacks can’t make any money or get any recognition for it.” It’s when things like that start happening that I take offense. It’s not about, as you say “owning” culture, but let’s keep it real. You know, and I know, that were it not for Black people, the Blues wouldn’t even exist. It was our way of taking a negative and trying to make it a bit more bearable. But when white folk started doing it, and locking up people like Chuck Berry to render them immobile while the happenings were going on, or taking the songs of Little Richard and recording them with a white artist and Little Richard was “still” broke, I take issue with these types of things. And as a musician myself, I can all too easily see that “racism” hasn’t gone anywhere. Many white people who have heard my music have wanted to collaborate with me or get together and jam, but when they found out that I was a Black musician, all bets were off and I never heard from them again. I hope this clears up where I stand on this matter for you, as it’s not against the law for us to disagree, as I’m sure we will, but as I said earlier, The Blues was, is, and always will be, a Black Thing!

    • ddsharper says:

      Donnell: It’s true, not just about the blues, but with all black forms of art- from music and dance to swagger and sayings and handshakes. They make money while excluding you. Black millionairres and those with the means to make a differene are completely white washed and here we are, like those in Africa, being disrespected and jacked. It’s the story of Satan versus God: We WERE created in His image, afterall. The AD people, the Europeans serve a different god.

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