Misappropriation refers to the misuse of music in which culture is the defining element. Culture defines all music. The differences between a Hindu raga and a Bach chorale are as much cultural as they are musical, and understanding and honoring these differences is vital. If we sing an Indian raga like it's supposed to be a Bach chorale, then we could be guilty of misappropriation. We often assume that all music is free, ours for the taking. Further, we sometimes incorrectly assume that because the music is "free," we are allowed to make whatever changes we want, including changing the words to fit our personal beliefs. We must balance our need to express our own beliefs with honoring other cultures. Honoring cultures must come first—these cultures do not belong to us. This sometimes means singing words we do not believe. When I sing these words, I do so in a welcoming spirit. I welcome a diversity of thoughts and beliefs. I neither try to make others conform to my beliefs nor change the songs of diverse cultures to fit my beliefs.
Misappropriation statement from the UUA. The discussion on misappropriation is ongoing and will continue to evolve. The UUA website features the beginning of the dialogue on misappropriation in a beautiful series of statements written by Jacqui James, Jason Shelton, and fellow musicians from the UUA and UUMN (Musicians Network). The UUMN website (www.uua.org/uumn) publishes the following statement and links:
Cultural misappropriation is the term given to the set of injuries marked by:
- using music, reading, symbols, ritual, or iconography of a group without a willingness to engage in their struggle and/or story and connecting their struggle and/or story with our own (UU and community).
- the use of cultural practices as bait rather than an as organic part of our cultural experience
- an unwillingness to respect the community of origin or dishonoring the refusal of a community to share
- disrespect or casual engagement with a practice, or
- unwillingness to share the pain caused by intentional or unintentional misuse.
Link to helpful Web resource on cultural misappropriation: Considerations for Cultural Borrowing
I do not pretend to have answers, simply pieces of the dialogue. On the one hand, I am concerned that UU music could grow "safer and safer" and eventually become bland and free of joy. On the other hand, I worry that our fear of misappropriation could prevent us from celebrating music of great power. We should celebrate all music. Make it live. Honor the traditions and revel in the differences. But we need to do our homework: We need to learn how to sing the music of different traditions, learn the stories behind the music, and make these stories and the music come alive. Diversity should not rise from tokenism or a need to be politically correct, but rather from a sincere need to express ourselves and our faiths in a culturally rich environment, a musical ecosystem in which each piece of the diversity supports every other piece.
I believe in the voice of one humanity, but admit that its time has not come. Our differences are great, but our common voice is greater. You can go anywhere in the world and intone the universal sound oo, as in cool, and everyone, regardless of their language, will understand its meaning. It is a universal vowel sound expressing a universal sentiment. Our emotions are universal, which is why music is universal. We struggle with misappropriation because we want our individual religious and cultural actions to be universal as well, but they are not. This is the challenge.
This quote by composer Charles Ives in his 1910 book, Essays Before a Sonata, keeps me on the journey: "The time is coming when music will develop possibilities inconceivable now—a language so transcendent that its heights and depths will be common to all mankind."
The essay that follows, called "The Cultural Connection," is a blend and rewrite of two earlier essays I wrote. When I speak of diversity in the essay, I am referring to diversity of religious beliefs, cultures, race, economic systems, sexual orientation, and the obvious diversity of musical styles. Welcoming diversity means opening to the discussion of both conservatives and liberals. We are all on a journey to seek truth, and every voice is important.