A Perspective on Music and Cultural Misappropriation
By the Reverend Jason Shelton
The question of cultural appropriation (sometimes called misappropriation) is a hot topic among ministers and other worship leaders in our time. I first remember hearing about it couched in a story of worship leaders who had adapted certain First Nations rituals for use in Unitarian Universalist worship without the permission of the tribe or nation with whom the ritual had been associated. The story raises complicated questions about ownership and rights, about race and race relations, and about who can legitimately participate in rites and rituals which have their origin in a cultural “other.”
As our congregations have begun moving into new musical directions in recent years, the question of cultural appropriation seems to be taking on a new shape. Namely, should people be making use of musical traditions which have a cultural heritage other than that of the musicians (or congregations) involved? It is a question that needs to be addressed carefully, especially as we welcome the wealth of diverse music found in our new hymn supplement, Singing the Journey, into our congregational worship experiences.
I would like to begin by questioning the idea that the rituals or musical traditions of any culture can ever really be “owned” by any person or group, no matter what their cultural background might be. Cultural anthropologists have pointed out for many years that all cultures are profoundly affected and necessarily changed by interaction with the “other.” Cultural exchange happens under both positive and negative circumstances, in peaceful trade relations as well as in situations of oppression and theft.
This is not to say that rituals and musical traditions cannot be traced back to particular peoples or cultures. Rather, I am saying that the possibility that any one ritual or custom can be claimed by a people or culture as solely their own invention, without any influence from the cultural other, is remote at best. True, there are moments when peoples express their particular genius in a truly unique and unaffected manner, but these moments are rare indeed. More often, cultural traditions evolve over long periods of time through experiences of contact and exchange with others.
I want to make this point very clear not because I somehow wish to devalue the qualities that make our cultural traditions special, but because I believe that our tendency to guard those traditions with references to cultural appropriation or even accusations of racism (or at the very least insensitivity) cut off the possibility of dialogue and real learning that can come from the sharing and exchange of ideas and traditions which is possible in our world today as never before.
II. Who Owns It?
Who owns a particular musical or cultural tradition? Who has the right to invite others to participate? Once invited, must a person seek permission again and again in order to bring that tradition into her or his own life?
I once participated in a retreat which was focused on earth-centered spirituality and led by a Catholic nun. She had ministered among a group of First Nations people in North Dakota for many years, and as she had gained the trust of the tribe she was, with time, invited to participate in some of their most sacred rituals. After nearly twenty years she was reassigned to another ministry, and when she left the leaders of the tribe gave her permission to build, use, and invite others to participate in their traditional sweat lodge ritual. What’s more, she was given permission to adapt their ritual so that it fit within a more traditional Catholic framework. I had the privilege of participating in a sweat under her leadership, and it was a deeply transformative, life-changing spiritual experience.
However, when I have spoken of this experience with other persons of First Nations descent, I have been told that what the nun had done was totally inappropriate, that she had no right to build and use a sweat lodge, much less to adapt the ritual in any way. Further, the tribe which had given her permission to do so, they said, had betrayed their heritage by their actions.
I have also participated in various workshops on singing in the African American traditions. And I have seen non-African American participants in these workshops go forth from them and try to put into practice what they have learned—what they have, by all accounts, been given permission to use by the workshop leaders—and been reviled by some African Americans in their congregations who claim that the person had no right to lead or sing those songs.
Again, I recognize that these are extraordinarily complex issues. They bring up questions related to personal cultural heritage, and our differing levels of comfort in sharing these traditions with others. But we, as people of faith who claim to celebrate our diversity in all its forms, cannot afford to make assumptions about the legitimacy of a person’s participation in what seems on the surface to be a ritual or tradition which comes from a cultural tradition which is not his or her own. We cannot know whether a person making use of a particular musical tradition or religious rite has come to that usage through respectful, disciplined study or through haphazard, careless conscription simply by looking at the color of their skin.
So how can we approach this issue in a way that is both respectful and invites full participation from the whole community of faith? I would first look at the history of a truly great American musical art form—jazz.
III. What is Appropriate?
The popularly accepted theory that Jazz stemmed from a simple combination of African rhythms and European harmony is in need of a little revision. Both African and European rhythms were employed. African music supplied the strong underlying beat (absent in most European music), the use of polyrhythms, and the idea of playing the melody separate from or above the beat. European music provided formal dance rhythms. Combined, these rhythms give Jazz its' characteristic swing. Likewise, the harmonies and musical ideas of both continents are present, the blue notes derived from the pentatonic scale, "call and response" and unconventional instrumental timbres of African music together with "conventional" harmonies and, most important, the formal structure of European music. The multiplicity of ethnic, cultural and musical conditions needed to spawn Jazz was thus unique to the United States, and specifically to New Orleans. The necessary philosophical impetus for Jazz, i.e., democracy and freedom of individual expression supported by group interaction, are also American institutions. 
What’s more, the history of jazz is rife with stories of ways in which racial barriers were broken down long before the Civil Rights movements made national headlines. Integrated bands toured the country and confronted segregationist policies both directly and indirectly, often making dining or lodging decisions based on the maxim, “if we’re not all welcome, then none of us is staying here.” Yes, racism is a part of jazz history, and that cannot be overlooked. But there has also been an underlying sense among many jazz musicians—especially bandleaders—that the important thing was not the color of the musician’s skin, but whether or not he or she could play. In jazz, if you can play, you’ll get the gig (until someone comes along who does it better than you—so you’d better practice!).
As jazz has spread throughout the world, it is impossible to know the ethnic or cultural heritage of the players one might hear on the local jazz radio station just by listening to them. The music itself has transcended it particular cultural origins to become something in which dedicated musicians the world over can participate, regardless of cultural heritage. To be sure, there are some who consider themselves “purists” who might say that persons of non-African American descent should not play jazz, and so we find ourselves revisiting the question of permission giving and who has the right to speak authoritatively on behalf of all persons of a particular ethnic heritage. But the cultural norm which seems to be taking hold at this time is to say that the people who should be playing jazz are those who are dedicated enough to invest the time and effort to learn to play it well.
What if we were to apply this norm to our situation regarding what is appropriate when using the traditions of the cultural “other” in worship?
I have, on several occasions, gotten myself into trouble by using what seems to be a very small word—we. We is a problematic term because it can be used to describe a group that is related in many ways, and yet is quite different in many others. We are Unitarian Universalists, but we may have very little else in common. Groups of people who share a similar tone in their skin are not necessarily of the same ethnic or cultural background. And even if you and I did share this background in common, my experience of being a Jewish/Italian/Thai who is 1/8 Cherokee has most likely been vastly different from yours.
OK, so that is not my heritage. But you wouldn’t know by looking at me that my musical background includes being a jazz trumpet player, or that I learned most of what I know of the Gospel music tradition by singing and worshipping in predominantly African-American Catholic congregations for several years. You wouldn’t know that I play bluegrass mandolin, either, or that I sing in a Renaissance vocal ensemble. You wouldn’t know that I have been commissioned to write music for GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender) choruses. You wouldn’t know that I am a nut for old Stevie Wonder tunes and shape-note hymns, or that my current favorite song is the silly ditty I made up for my three week old daughter when she was in the hospital. And it would certainly be a mistake to assume that anyone else who looks like me shares my particular combination of musical background and tastes.
So, when I use the term we, I have to acknowledge that I am making a certain set of assumptions about the group I am addressing which may or may not be correct. We don’t sing very well. We can’t clap on 2 and 4. We have to read ahead to make sure we agree with the words to the hymn. Sound familiar? How about this one: we shouldn’t be singing African-American spirituals, or Venezuelan folk tunes, or Native American chants, because we don’t have the right to sing their music. What assumptions are being made about who it is that is a part of the picture when we say we?
My experience has been that some people will start talking about “cultural appropriation” when what they really mean to say is that the musical offering or ritual just experienced was done poorly. Many Unitarian Universalists, it seems to me, are not comfortable making a judgment about the quality of a presentation, but are somehow OK with raising cultural or racial issues instead. I have been a part of numerous worship situations where the songleader has bounced and shimmied through a poorly sung African-American spiritual. Do I think that what they did was cultural appropriation? No—I have seen songleaders from many cultural traditions, including African-Americans, do the same thing (please do not assume that every African American can sing or lead spirituals well—stereotypes are very dangerous). I think what happened was that a person who was not really familiar with a particular musical style tried to lead a congregation in something that was beyond his or her particular musical skill. Such a situation is not only disrespectful to the musical tradition which has just been trampled upon, but also to the whole congregation, regardless of personal ethnic background, all of whom deserve better.
If I were going to conduct my choir in a performance of a Bach cantata, you can bet that I would spend an enormous amount of time researching the work, checking on stylistic and performance practice issues, so that I could present the piece is a way that was respectful and as “authentic” as I could make it. If I didn’t, there would certainly people in the audience who knew better, and who would be very disappointed that I had not made adequate preparation for the performance. They would not, however, accuse me of cultural appropriation, even though I am not of Germanic descent. A reviewer might say that I should do more homework the next time I chose to present such a work. Or perhaps I should listen to a recording made by a reputable ensemble.
This, I believe, is sage advice for the musicians in our congregations who have been moving in new musical directions (as evidenced by the incredible musical diversity in Singing the Journey). Rare indeed would be the church musician who is equally well versed in Bach’s and Luther’s hymnody as they are in 60’s R&B and the music of the Salvadoran liberation movement. But you will find such music within these pages, and much more, all composed and arranged by people who are leaders in their particular genres and who have given their permission to have their work included in this collection.
But for the collection to be used most effectively, our musicians must take seriously the music of the “other.” Many of the styles of music found in this collection will be largely unfamiliar to the conservatory-trained musician. To help, we have provided stylistic and interpretive markings which should be carefully observed. And we have collected a list of recommended listening examples for further study and deepening familiarity.
All of this to say that while the question of cultural appropriation may never completely be resolved, our musicians can go a long way toward alleviating many of the most obvious concerns by committing themselves to respectful, dedicated preparation of all music that is to be used in worship. Moving in these new directions with quality and integrity will speak volumes about our collective musical experience, and encourage more new music from our authors and composers. This, in the end, is my greatest hope for Singing the Journey—that it will move and inspire us to create even more new music which reflects our diverse musical and experiential backgrounds while resonating across our communities as songs that speak to the heart of our faith.
- From “The Origins of Jazz” by Len Weinstock (Red Hot Jazz Archive)
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Last updated on Thursday, April 5, 2012.
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