The following is a transcript of a small part of Episode 19 of the UnMute Podcast, where philosopher Paul C. Taylor and Myisha Cherry discuss what the worry is behind a white rapper like Iggy Azalea topping the charts. The ideas they discuss are also very useful for thinking about other socially unfair contexts.
For example, here in India we could ask: what’s wrong with the movie Mary Kom (where Priyanka Chopra played the Manipuri boxer) and it’s commercial success? The practical concerns remain very similar. The real problem is that Manipuris (among others) are second class citizens of this country. However these days, we like to pretend that any individual is only limited by how hard they work – not the colour of their skin, their religion, sex or family name.
The accepted point of view is that if any individual is unable to overcome the effects of such real and terrible discrimination, then they didn’t work hard enough. This strange phenomenon where the actual conditions of social life are ignored in public is called erasure (whereby very large and very complex systemic problems are made to seem insignificant and swept under the rug). It is a worrying sign of our times.
It doesn’t seem as relevant to debate how the obstacles which the original Mary Kom faced can be eliminated for future generations of Manipuris and others. Why should Manipuri actors have to work harder than others to play the role of a Manipuri on the national stage? Isn’t it bizarre enough that we couldn’t allow a person who looks the part to play the part? We also have a ready justification for it?
Recreating such stories in a form which the average moviegoer can easily digest might be great for popcorn sales today, but the social situation will likely remain the same tomorrow. Those who are excluded will remain excluded. That’s unfair. And it’s unfair of us to ask them to be more patient.
UNMUTE PODCAST IS HOSTED and produced by philosopher Myisha Cherry, and the episode in question is titled: ‘Paul C. Taylor on black aesthetics’.
Myisha Cherry: Black musical artists Jill Scott and Eve conducted an interview recently and they were asked about the white rapper Iggy Azalea and one of the things that they said is that instead of sounding like a black woman (which they said she does sound like a black woman when she raps), they wish that she sounded more like where she was from which is Australia.
They said that would be amazing. And clearly they are pointing to the issue of authenticity. So I want to ask two questions: Are white people and others not being “authentic” when they do black music or when they do it in a so-called black way? And is it always a practice of cultural appropriation when they do?
Mozart stole from Handel, right? That’s just how culture works … it’s difficult to start immediately talking about appropriation whenever somebody borrows something from another context, or learns something from somebody who doesn’t look like them … But then …
Paul C. Taylor: It’s not always an ‘invidious’ form of cultural appropriation. There’s a rich story to tell about what cultural appropriation is and I don’t think we have told the story adequately yet. There’s some very good work out there on it now and there’s more coming. But we typically use it as a term of criticism, right? To appropriate is bad in this way, and so I wanna talk about that (emphasis added) as ‘invidious’ cultural appropriation. [Appropriation is] not always ‘invidious’ right?
This is what Alain Locke had in mind when he said cultures have no colour. In a perfect world, (emphasis added) a world in which ethnoracial boundaries weren’t bound up with politics – some of us think that’s unavoidable, that’s what race is – culture would work in racialized contexts the way it does in other contexts: people borrow things from each other, people steal things from each other, right? Mozart stole from Handel, right? That’s just how culture works. And so it’s difficult to start immediately talking about appropriation whenever somebody borrows something from another context, or learns something from somebody who doesn’t look like them. That’s hard, because that’s just how culture works.
But then, when you build back in the politics, when you build back in the power asymmetries, and the asymmeties in access and opportunity that come with the racialized boundaries [that you’re in], then we start to get some traction for ideas about ‘invidious’ cultural appropriation. So one way of raising worry about Iggy Azalea is the way people used to raise worry about Elvis, the way people raised worry about Vanilla Ice, right? All of these white rappers, right? People used to raise worry about Art Pepper, right?
These people are doing things [that] people who look differently have done for a long time but didn’t get credit for; but now you [go] put a white face on it and then look what happened. Right? That’s the worry. It’s Michelle Wallace’s worry about ‘restraint of trade’. It’s about unequal access to certain kinds of opportunity: those opportunities are segregated by race. And so that’s where the worry comes in.
We present it sometimes as a worry about ‘the nature of the enterprise’ and of the body, right? So a person with the wrong kind of body cannot participate in this performance tradition, right – it feels like a metaphysical claim. But my view is that it’s better understood as the beginning of a political claim. It’s an expression of skepticism about the degree to which the relevant opportunities are equitably distributed.
It’s an expression of skepticism about the degree to which the relevant opportunities are equitably distributed… because you look the way you do, you get more attention, which means you get more money, which means you get more play, which means you end up in a better place.
And so the worry is – Iggy Azalea just ain’t that good a rapper and nobody would care if she looked differently and you know, I’m not an expert in this performance tradition – I’ve listened to her and don’t think she’s interesting musically. But, to me that’s the interesting version of the worry right? If you looked like Shaniqua on the corner, and you were making those noises, nobody would care. But because you look the way you do, you get more attention, which means you get more money, which means you get more play, which means you end up in a better place. And that seems inappropriate.
End Transcript [30:05 to 33:33. ]