I recently spotted a post on the ACDA Diversity Initiatives Facebook page that will be of interest to all who are concerned about cultural appropriation. While written from the point of view of a composer, the author poses some excellent questions, and the observations of the commenting responder are spot on. This post is long, but worth the read. If questions of diversity concern you, I encourage you to join the ACDA Diversity Initiatives Facebook Page. Interesting conversation and an opportunity to connect with those also concerned with questions relative to diversity.
I’ve been thinking a lot about appropriation, and recently wrote down some of my thoughts in my newsletter. I don’t have the answers, but the conversation is worth having.
Appropriation is a lively and important conversation these days, and the concept has me questioning every single thing I do artistically. I don’t have the answers, but hopefully I can start an intelligent conversation. One of the biggest concerns in the arts as we’re trying to support and encourage minority artists is cultural appropriation, and I’ve also interpreted that to cross over into gender appropriation as well. Just so we can start from common ground, Oxford defines the term appropriation as “the act of taking something for one’s use, typically without the owner’s permission.” Right away we can see how this might get composers into trouble. We are constantly borrowing words, ideas, stories, melodies, songs, and styles from others.
As a straight white male composer I’m trying to figure out my role. How do I bring a diverse type of poetry and music to singers and audiences without overstepping my bounds? I think about my catalog: I’ve written in Estonian, French, Somali, Spanish and Latin, but none of those languages are “mine.” I’ve arranged spirituals, Motown, Rock, Hip-Hop, I’ve arranged tunes from the Irish, Scottish, Appalachians and Norwegians, I’ve written for treble choirs, GALA choruses, and religions that aren’t mine. None of those belong to me. So am I allowed?
When I wrote “How to Triumph Like a Girl,” I was well aware that I was not a woman. One of the singers who premiered the SSA version said as much, and asked why I thought this was a piece I should write. I told her that I felt strongly about this poem and that it needed to be set to music. I realized that in the process of bringing a woman’s poem to life for a female singer (the first version was an art song), I was the gender outlier in that chain as a male composer. But I wanted this story to be heard on stage and I knew how I’d want it to be told. I knew the kind of reaction I wanted the singer(s) and the audience to feel. I knew that if I succeeded, it wouldn’t matter what my gender was. I didn’t want to set this poem for my own use, but for the musical experience of others. I wanted to do my part in lifting up women, to help them see themselves as strong. The gift here is Ada Limón’s poem. I’m just the middle man (get it??).
Whose permission do I need to appropriate those languages, melodies, faiths, and choral identities? If I’m asked by a treble choir to write for a treble choir, that’s permission. If I’m asked to write a piece in Somali and collaborate with a Somali poet for the text, that’s permission. If a GALA chorus asks me to write a piece that fits a GLBT program theme, that’s permission. If a black poet allows me to set their words, that’s permission. Ada Limón gave me permission to use her words, and I was asked by a female singer to set it. But what if I want to do any of these projects on my own? What if I’m setting words in the public domain? Where does permission come from?
We should be sensitive about doing the right thing. We don’t want to be careless about using someone else’s story, someone else’s struggles, someone else’s identity for our own gain or without permission. But we also want to shine a light on poets, cultures, and voices that we value and want to share. What matters is our intention and that we have the correct permissions to move ahead.
I want to preface this by saying that (1) I LOVE “How to Triumph Like a Girl” and (2) that I’ve never had any issues with your compositions or arrangements when it comes to cultural appropriation or similar issues. I think you do things right and are doing the best you can to respect others.
That said, I appreciate you thinking deeply about all this, but I strongly disagree with your final sentence. Intention barely matters, and permission (although is good to have) is not the real issue. In fact, a lot of misconceptions related to racism, cultural misappropriation, gender discrimination, etc. are based on the attention being on the person’s “intention”, versus the actual real-world consequences of these things. In other words, when someone does or says something that is racist, the problem isn’t that the person did something yucky or that they meant well or not, but the real-world economic and societal consequences of racism or gender discrimination that are supported or perpetuated by these sorts of things (higher incarceration rates, lower educational and economic opportunities, discrimination in hiring… etc.)
It’s important to note that this sort of misunderstanding not only affects the white male artists that don’t know how to navigate these waters, but also self-appointed gatekeepers on the other end that are trying (with good intentions) to defend their culture or identity.
Cultural exchange is immensely important, and is the basis of a lot of good art. However, the line between that and a power dynamic that is unbalanced, taking advantage so to speak, is very thin.
So, things to consider to make sure you are taking into account real-world consequences of cultural/gender misappropriation:
(1) Is your work perpetuating a misconception about the group you are connecting with? Have you done real, serious research in collaboration with this group to make sure that is not the case? Positive and negative stereotypes and how a particular group is perceived by society have real-world consequences.
(2) Is your work disrespecting or misrepresenting some element that the group you are connecting with considers sacred or central to their identity?
(3) Is the fact that your work exists restricting or actually enhancing access to the marketplace for artists from the group you’re connecting with? … this is the important one that a lot of artists with “good intentions” completely miss. In the case of your work, by doing what you’re doing, are you competing with a female composer that wanted to set the same text for the same sorts of ensembles or are you actually creating opportunities for the performers and poet? How is your work affecting that group’s access to these sorts of opportunities?
You’ll notice that nowhere did I talk about whether your intentions are good, or whether you have permission… after all, who is actually authorized to give you permission? At least on my end of the cultural spectrum, I don’t know of the one and true Mexican-Arab that will speak for all of us Mexican-Arabs out there to grant permission on my behalf for people that want to work with elements from my cultures. In this whole equation, whether you have good or bad intentions is actually the least important aspect of this whole deal. Hell, there are plenty of commercial works out there where the intention is “I want to make money and this stuff sells”, but it’s done in a way where (1) the group is well represented, (2) the elements that are central to the group’s identity are respected, and (3) do not restrict access for people of that group.