Country musician Taylor Swift dropped an album reveal, 1989, out of the blue a couple nights ago, along with the release of a music video for the album’s lead single “Shake It Off,” a pop ditty about shaking off the haters and doing your own thing. But “your own thing” apparently doesn’t involve any self-awareness.
The video and Swift are currently being raked over the coals on social media for a clueless portrayal of hip-hop culture throughout, yet another current example of a musician unwittingly dabbling in cultural appropriation. I’m not here to bad mouth Taylor Swift, who is quite successful and does indeed support many worthy causes with the millions of dollars she earns. I’m not here to accuse anyone of racism. I’m not even particularly bothered by the fact that she raps the bridge of the song. I’m here to expose the attitude that she perpetuates through her well-intentioned but misguided music video and attempt to discern the difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation.
The main difference I see between the two is a difference in understanding. Cultural appropriation in music videos is the modern equivalent to people wearing Che Guevara t-shirts with no knowledge or even understanding of who he is and what he stood for. But it looks good across your chest and on that tote bag, right? Many public figures, most of whom are white, different aspects of cultures are like fashion accessories, little charms on a bracelet that look cute for a couple of weeks before swiftly being replaced or dropped altogether.
The message of the video itself, namely doing what you feel is right and ignoring anyone who says otherwise, is severely cheapened by Swift, clad in a hooded jacket, cap, and with a boom box over her shoulder, and asses twerking in the background. And I understand that Taylor Swift has done covers of rap songs in the past, but that’s still no excuse. Anyone with vocal chords and a laptop can rap. By dressing the way she did and doing her best Radio Raheem impression, she as a public figure is acting as a representative of a culture that she’s not representative of.
Cultures of oppressed peoples, African-American people in particular, were created in the face of oppression from Caucasians who uprooted their entire lives from one continent and placed them in another. The culture may not be perfect, but then again what culture is truly perfect? African-American slang, music, art, and dress were created in the face of strong oppression as a way for us to differentiate ourselves and dispel the notion that our bodies were someone else’s property. So seeing someone who appears to have little to no understanding of it feign a connection to it is insulting at the very least. Artists like Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, and Avril Lavigne have been heckled for their careless appropriation of other cultures in the past, and this time is no exception. That’s the unfortunate thing about appropriation; it can fester on the sidelines of any public statement (like, for example, a music video) regardless of good intentions. At least Swift didn’t call out for the LL Cool J seal of approval.
Let me be clear in saying that anyone of any race can culturally appropriate. If you take aspects out of an oppressed culture that you personally think are cool and use them for profit with little to no understanding of their initial values or support to the culture that you’re borrowing from, you’re a part of the problem, regardless of your race. The main reason a group like Wu-Tang Clan, whose whole aesthetic is built around tenants of Asian culture, gets a pass is because the group, particularly their frontman RZA, has a deep understanding and respect for the cultural aspects he adopts into his work (kung-fu movies, the teachings of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism) that have led toward his own philosophical and spiritual growth. Same goes for artists like El-P, Eminem, The Beastie Boys, and even Iggy Azalea, who all grew up immersed in hip-hop culture and have the life experience to back up their claims.
Look. I’m all for cultural exploration and I’m certainly not suggesting that everyone needs to “stay in their lane” when it comes to liking a certain kind of music, film, literature, or brand of toothpaste. I’m not accusing anyone of outright racism, especially because the message of Ms. Swift’s video is ultimately positive and at least she tried. But I feel about cultural appropriation the same way I feel about those Che Guevara shirt wearers: don’t be posers. There’s no excuse for ignorance, especially in the year 2014. We need to work harder as a people about bridging cultural, gender, and financial gaps, especially in a country known as a melting pot, in order to better understand each other and broaden our perspectives. And “Shake It Off” isn’t helping our case.
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