Reckoning with cultural extraction

Our economy was built on the genocide of Indigenous people and the violent extraction of labor from enslaved Africans. This cruelty was justified by white people’s created illusion that those we killed, stole from, and enslaved were inferior and that white people were superior and therefore deserving of excess power and resources. These roots continue to feed and shape our systems today, which produce more wealth and health for white people, and continued barriers, hardships, and disparities for people of color.

How does culture play into this story? How have white people extracted cultural riches from people of color and used those riches for their own advantage and monetary gain? (All while believing – perhaps subconsciously – that they are entitled to advantage and gain, even at others’ expense.)

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Skyland Orchestra, circa 1900.

In my recent essay, “Repairing narratives: old-time and bluegrass music,” I discuss the immense and mostly unacknowledged Black cultural contributions to those genres, and Black people’s subsequent disfranchisement from them. I refer to the unjust economic and emotional consequences, which are ongoing. As I wrote in that essay, we as white people must reckon with this theft, how we are benefiting from it, and what actions we are going to take on the path towards rectification.

As a songwriter, I’ve experienced the rush of creative inspiration that comes in times of heartbreak and loss. The amount of heartbreak and loss Black communities have experienced on this continent is unfathomable. The art that has been created in response is divine.

Simultaneously, white people have disassociated from the heartbreak that should come from our history of inflicting pain on others for our own comfort and profit. Instead, cut off from the cultures of our ancestors, we imitate and exploit others’ cultural expressions without fully understanding the context that created them.

[If how whiteness was invented is unfamiliar to you, here’s an article you could start with: “How White People Got Made.”]

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Brook Benton and Elvis Presley. Photo from SBS, “The black artists that inspired Elvis Presley.”

Music is a powerful force that fills our emotional and spiritual yearnings. Perhaps because of that power, music has been monetized. Beyond the musicians themselves, the music industry supports promoters, sound technicians, DJs, studio owners, festival producers, record labels, venue owners, booking agents, digital streaming platforms, etc.

Without any research, and while there are certainly exceptions, I can venture an educated guess that the majority of money in the music industry in the U.S. has been and is being made by white men. Yet most “American” music as we know it would not exist without Black people.

A friend recently sent me a 1973 Harper’s Magazine article by Margo Jefferson entitled, “Ripping Off Black Music.” The article begins, “Elvis Presley was the greatest minstrel America ever spawned, and he appeared in bold whiteface.” Jefferson continues, “far too many white performers thrive and survive on personas and performances that are studies in ventriloquism and minstrelsy, careless footnotes to a badly read blues text.”

Amandla-Stenberg-on-Cultural-Appropriation
“What if America loved Black people as much as Black culture?” – Amanda Stenberg

While I hadn’t thought about it before, the connection between more recent white appropriation of Black styles of music and art and the history of blackface is obvious. The article draws a line from the minstrel area to early 1970s rock, and the exploitation of Black music and culture that happened along the way. That line continues to this day, as outlined by Amanda Stenberg in her insightful video, “Don’t Cash Crop on My Cornrows.”

As Sternberg points out, there are other fields in addition to music where cultural extraction occurs, like fashion. There are Indigenous healing practices white people make money on that could be named. Last year in Asheville, leaders of color spoke out against a white women charging money for hosting an Indigenous cacao ceremony. Food is also on this list. One can’t deny the enormity of culinary cultural extraction – Chef Michael Twitty addresses some of it in his book The Cooking Gene. Moreover, much of Western herbalism has African roots, as I learned in a class taught by Angelique “Sobande” Greer. And on and on and on.

The natural tendency for humans to inspire and influence each other is a given. Art is created in symbiotic relationships between people, the natural world, and god. No one can exactly imitate someone else’s art. It’s all iterations. I celebrate this.

What I want us to reckon with is the fact that cultural exchanges have not and are not happening equitably. They are happening within systems of oppression that produce different results for artists and creators based on race. Erasure and theft have dominated the dynamics. Sounds and soul are stolen and sold. Sacred practices are copied and commodified. Oppression wreaks havoc on people’s lives, yet the creative spoils of this suffering do not proportionally benefit those who suffer.

When white people own the cultural extraction we are participating in, what will we do?

krekel and worthen
With Jason Krekel and a ukulele, 2007. Photo: Sandlin Gaither.

I’ll talk about my own family. As I mention in “Repairing narratives,” I have played the banjo, an instrument from Africa claimed by white culture. I also have played ukulele, an instrument with Portuguese origins which was made popular by Hawaiian people – you know, Indigenous people from the tropical islands this country colonized. My musical and life partner Jason Krekel and I were even in a “hapa haole” Hawaiian band for awhile, playing tin pan alley songs which quoted Hawaiian melodies and themes, making a caricature of that culture. I am not proud of the lack of awareness I had at that time. Now, our awareness has expanded, and we strive to avoid pirating other people’s culture. At the same time, we are clear that we still sometimes make money playing music born in part of Black and Brown contributions.

Our response to this, and the myriad of ways we benefit from our whiteness, is multifold. First, we name it. We share our time, talent, and treasure with leaders and artists of color. We connect artists of color to opportunities. We have authentic and accountable relationships with people of color, and, with their input, continue to refine the ways we practice reciprocity. This is a journey we are committed to.

In addressing this topic, I see the fuzzy lines. I know that cross-racial creative mutuality happens, that white creative contributions happen without extraction, that there are places where cultural justice occurs. I am looking at overall patterns which still need to change, reparations that are owed, harm which needs to end.

What if every white music professional gave a % of the money they make playing or promoting Black or Black-influenced music to a program that serves young Black artists? Took time to mentor young artists of color? Shared platforms and opportunities? Same formula for other fields. This is not a comprehensive solution, but a way to move towards acknowledgement and accountability, truth and reconciliation, healing.

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Cortina Caldwell, left, founder of the adé PROJECT with artist Cleaster Cotton at the project launch event, “Triumph for Trayvon.” Photo: Renato Retolo.

On that note, I am going to lift up these local arts projects which are led by and center people of color: Delta House and their Delta House Jazz Band, Artists Designing Evolution – the adé PROJECT (which includes the Brian Christopher Daniel Scholarship Fund), Word on the Street/La Voz de Los Jovenes (now’s the time to contribute to their Spring fundraiser – donations made during March will be matched up to $5000), and Nuestro Centro‘s RAICES dance group.

Conversation to be continued.

history cannot be unlived
“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again – Maya Angelou. EJI Legacy Museum building, a former slave warehouse.

PSA

In February, Jason and I went to the Equal Justice Initiative‘s Legacy Museum and Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. It was a profound, devastating, motivating experience. Please click here to read this post from Terra Sylva School of Herbal Medicine about their recent trip there and why you should go. In the meantime, EJI’s founder and Executive Director Bryan Stevenson will be speaking at UNC Asheville on April 25. Details here.

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