What does it mean to “appropriate” the music of a different culture?

Rapper Noname recently proclaimed that she’ll quit music because she detests the notion of performing for predominantly White crowds.

In a series of deleted tweets, she refutes the fact that black people fail to turn up at her shows because of ‘black death and financial restraint’, pointing out the fact DaBaby, Megan Thee Stallion and Smino shows have majority black audiences. Instead, she blames others for just plainly not enjoying her music.

Unhappy with how her music is being consumed by a demographic that she wasn’t appealing to, Noname’s frustration is understandable given she believes that they might not be able to thoroughly appreciate the position of where she’s coming from.

This then brings about the question. What does it mean to appreciate the music from a culture different than ours? Is it wrong to like a certain type of music purely off their superficial aesthetics? Or must we delve deep into the contexts behind its creation before we’re able to call ourselves a fan?

Well, my short answer the latter two questions is ‘no’. Music has always been a subjective medium, and there’s an infinite amount of reasons as to why people fall in love with a song. Production can get people grooving, lyricism might pull their heartstrings, and songwriting could leave a hook stuck in their head for days.

It’s impossible to identify with all kinds of music that are being made around the world. Noname’s unapologetically black brand of spoken-word jazz-rap, in theory, appeals to an audience that has an appreciation for the fine arts and the softer side of hip-hop. Me, a Chinese man hailing from Malaysia who grew up on Michael Jackson and pre-puberty Justin Bieber (I know); tend to have slight problems understanding the subtleties of her music on my own.

Storytelling and imagery have always been a core aspect of music. Even the most sparsely written song can transport listeners to a whole new environment if done well, be it into the artist’s mind or a specific place in time.

What an artist chooses to present to us becomes a window to peer into, a tidbit of the experiences they’ve faced up till now that’s wrapped in a sonically beautiful package.

Lana Del Rey’s musings about toxic masculinity and dense lyrical detail on capitalism, romance and America are themes that I struggle to comprehend, much less relate to. Fortunately, the style of her music takes on an almost otherworldly quality. Her soft, spacey aesthetic set up the perfect backdrop to consume the heavy subject matter.

On the other hand, drug-rap enthusiast Pusha T has been dropping cocaine pushing testimonies for close to two decades. I’ve never touched cocaine in my life and neither have I even attempted to sell drugs. Still, drenching his rhymes beneath grimy production and ingenious metaphors, his music brings the raw and unforgiving experience of street lifestyle right to me.

No matter how detailed an artist goes, it will always fall short of relaying the many subtleties of their experiences which are impossible to convey unless listeners actually lived through it themselves.

Yet, I still love rap music. Be it gangster rap, stoner rap or conscious rap. I also love queer music and gospel music. Personally, I don’t need to understand what an artist is trying to communicate. As I take in their work at face value, I’m able to instead relate to the humanistic aspects present.

Their struggles, hopes, victories and defeats; universal themes that transcend cultures and commonalities amongst people from all walks of life. First, the music grabs hold of listeners; and then, it is these elements that help extend the reach of music, enabling it for widespread (and hopefully, deeper) appreciation.

Of course, I’m not claiming that Noname is in the wrong for her comments. Rap music and black culture at large have been facing an acquisition crisis by white people for the past decade.

But to play the Devil’s advocate, music is a shared, communal experience. The understanding of a culture isn’t necessary as long as credit is given where its due.

Posted by

Based in Melbourne and Malaysia. Jensen is a part-time journalist and full-time music fan.

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