© 2019 by Yuri Woodstock
Jupitercommunitychoir@gmail.com
(828) 489 4240
Celo, North Carolina

~A note on cultural appropriation~

It has been common among community choirs to view singing songs from other cultures simply as a way to connect to those cultures.  As the conversation around this progresses, it is important to carefully reflect upon the wake of colonialism and enslavement, which are still present.  It can be deeply offensive to people who feel connected to oppressed persons when a song that emerges from an oppressed group is sung by privileged people, who are connected to a dominating culture, and especially if the song had an intended or limited purpose that is not being honored.

This can be as simple as a room full of people with "white" skin singing a song that was written by "black" people. ( I use the scare quotes not to suggest the shortsighted stance of colorblindness, but as a reminder that for all its power to oppress, conceptions of race are in fact a cultural construction. )  There is a long history of white people taking music from black culture and profiting massively from it without giving money or even credit to the original authors.  ( Elvis, Led Zeppelin, Moby, etc. ) Another thing that can be very problematic is turning a song's meaning on its head in a disrespectful way. Imagine a group of privileged white folks beatboxing to an upbeat celebratory rendition of Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen.  It behooves us to be careful and intentional in these realms.  I benefit from straight white male privilege, and I consider myself an ally and a dissenter. Do I have the right to sing an old spiritual, to teach it? My stance is currently that any songs from history require digging up that history to hold them well.  If we share a song, along with its historical and cultural context, I believe it can be a window through which we connect to all the grief, pain, and oppression contained in the thrust of history, and within ourselves.  

Some people believe that the only respectful thing to do is carry songs from one's own "cultural heritage".  I questions this, because seeking an authentic or pure strain of culture is a fool's errand.  History is a pageant of cultural appropriation. Language, food, stories, humor, clothing, and songs have been instantly transmitted from culture to culture all along,  along trade routes, between neighbors, from oppressed groups to the oppressors, and vice versa.

I believe that most songs yearn to be sung.  That is how they feel in me.  And it is to the songs I meet that I am indebted.  But all this is not to say that anything goes.    What is important, in order to be respectful, is to not lose sight of our privilege when portraying history.   And sharing songs is nothing short of that.  These songs are keys to understanding moments and stories from a very complicated and sordid past, namely, full of rapacious colonialism.  And that history is connected directly to you. History is not an idea.  It's inside the present.  Singing a Celtic song as a Sephardic Jew means something. Singing a Congolese song as a Belgian means something.  Singing a Turkish song as somebody of Russian descent means something.  And neither you, nor the song, are exactly what these labels represent. 

I believe it is really important to have the scary conversations. The unnerving kind, that song has been yet another doorway into.  Why do you feel uncomfortable when your friend hums that Cherokee prayer song (or was it Navajo?) while Instagramming?  Let's get uncomfortable!  It probably means we're onto something important.  So no, I don't believe there is a simple answer about what you or I have the right to sing, based on our culturally mediated privilege, but sometimes it is completely clear when the line is being crossed. Know that I am doing my best to dig up the wonderfully tangled roots of these songs, that we may honor the full weight of where they lead, in the past and in the present.