I Was Too Quick To Call Out Cultural Appropriation

From Electric Lit:

I don’t remember exactly when I first heard it but it was in high school sometime in the early nineties. I was listening to the radio after school but before my parents returned home from work. Rock music was the sound of my teenage rebellion. It was forbidden in our house so I had one ear on the radio and the other on the garage door. Suddenly I heard a familiar twang in an unfamiliar place. It was the distinct sound of a sitar, but in a rock song: The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood.” How strange to hear the sitar alongside English rockers crooning about a long-lost love? As a first-generation Indian American who spent my weekday afternoons illicitly jamming to pop and rock while doing homework and my weekends at Indian classical music concerts, I found myself constantly humming the tune. 

But even that didn’t prepare me for when I turned the radio dial and blaring back at me came, “Ha-re Krish-na, Krish-na Krish-na, Ha-re Ra-ma, Ra-ma Ra-ma.” I couldn’t believe chants to Hindu deities Krishna and Rama, which I was accustomed to hearing in the sanctity of a Hindu temple or uttered by my grandmother in prayer, were being sung in a rock song. That was my introduction to the iconic hit song “My Sweet Lord.” 

In truth, I couldn’t yet admit to liking the song because it felt a bit like when white girl rockers like Gwen Stefani wear a bindi as a costume. Doing so, I felt, might make me a bad Indian, betraying my culture by falling prey to the wiles of a culturally appropriative yet masterful performer. Yet, this song oddly captured my essence—a little bit Hindustani, a little bit rock ‘n roll. And the lyrics about the singer’s search to find and be found by his “Sweet Lord” spoke to my own quest to find my identity and be seen in my totality as an Indian-American—a person formed by these two bold, and often opposing, cultures. It would still be a few years until I learned that one musician was behind the Indian influence in both of these songs: rocker George Harrison.

These perplexing feelings would come rushing back to me during my initial interview with Grammy-nominated, Hindustani singer Lakshmi Shankar—the subject of my first book—when she mentioned that she went on a fifty-city stadium rock ‘n roll tour and sang alongside George Harrison. I was stunned. I had known Lakshmiji, as I affectionately referred to her, my whole life, had been to dozens of her concerts from the age of five onwards, and counted her amongst my most favorite singers. Her repertoire of Hindustani ghazals, thumris, and khyals were imprinted in my mind, part of the indelible soundtrack to my childhood. 

Lakshmiji had pulled out a cassette tape, during our interview, and had played me, “I Am Missing You,” a sweet ballad where she implores Lord Krishna to show himself, confessing she is missing him terribly. In all the years of listening to her music, I had never heard Lakshmiji sing in English. Yet, here she was not only singing in English but accompanied by a rock band—keyboard, saxophone, bass guitar, and drums! Lakshmiji flipped the tape over and a second version of the song played, this time her voice was accompanied by Indian instrumentation—santoor, bansuri flute, and tabla. She called “I Am Missing You” a “Hindustani pop song”—it was unlike anything I’d ever heard. 

Ravi Shankar, renowned sitar player and her brother-in-law, composed the song and none other than George Harrison produced it. “This is amazing, you’re a rockstar, Lakshmiji!” She laughed as I sat in disbelief wondering what else I didn’t know about this traditional Hindustani singer, close in age to my grandmother, always clad in a sari and a bindi. In that moment, I had a dawning realization that my assessment of George and his relationship to Indian music and culture might be, at best, incomplete, and at worst, unfair.

In truth, before embarking on writing Lakshmiji’s biography close to ten years ago, I had already made up my mind about George. I believed he and all the other white rockers of the late 1960s, casually strumming the sitar or playing guitar riffs inspired by Indian ragas on their rock songs, were cultural appropriators. They were indiscriminately poaching and misappropriating Indian music with little regard for its significance or context to Indian culture. For them, it served merely as a trendy “exotic motif” to spice up their music and image. 

I wasn’t entirely wrong. For many rock bands of that era featuring Indian musical and cultural motifs, playing pentatonic scales while donning kurtas and malas cemented their appeal with hippie and counterculture audiences.

But as I delved deeper into my research into the journey of Indian music to the west and George’s role in this cultural transmission I began to realize that perhaps he had transformed himself from a cultural appropriator to an ambassador for Indian music as he evolved his own understanding and appreciation. My feelings and beliefs about George as an artist and as a person began to shift and evolve, as perhaps his own feelings and beliefs about Indian music had. Admittedly, it had certainly been easier for me when I could consider George solely as a cultural appropriator and cancel him in my mind. However, this experience had now complicated my thinking on cultural appropriation, making it more complex and nuanced, more gray rather than starkly black and white. 

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

PG was very close to going on a lengthy rant, but it’s too late and PG is too tired.

Of all the various societal twists, quirks, idiocies, and silliness of the last ten years or so, the one that drives him crazier than any other that comes to mind is “cultural appropriation.”

People have been adopting good ideas from other people forever. Groups of people have been adopting good ideas from other groups of people forever.

People create cultures. Who owns the cultures that groups of people develop over hundreds or thousands of years? Everybody and nobody.

The Roman Empire borrowed a great many ideas from the ancient Greeks and other groups of people which it discovered. Indigenous tribes have been borrowing ideas from other indigenous tribes and anyone else with whom they come in contact forever.

Human beings are highly social creatures. One of the most common forms of social human behaviors is sharing problems, discussing solutions, and learning about good ideas that others have developed.

One person (male) can’t get his car to operate properly. So that person parks it somewhere, opens the hood and starts looking and poking around to discover the cause of the problem in hopes of finding a solution.

If the car is parked in a public location where other males with nothing urgent to do can see the open hood and a fellow male messing about under the hood, some of the other males will cluster around the male trying to find a solution to the problem. Suggestions, information, and potential solutions will soon begin to flow among the members of this newly formed social group. Other expert male mechanics not present will be cited for possible solutions to the problem.

Massive cultural appropriation from various schools of automobile problem-solving will take place.

Lest PG be accused of male chauvinist piggyness, precisely the same pattern happens among females of the species who gather to discuss common problems, solutions, interests, and expertise.

Groups of doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, airplane pilots, etc., organize professional groups that host conferences and publish newsletters to exchange ideas and information of interest to those with common interests. International groups are organized for the same purposes. Does anyone complain of cultural appropriation on the part of those organizations? Do lawyers complain that engineers are appropriating good ideas the lawyers have developed?

PG just checked what he had written and noticed he said he was tempted to go on a lengthy rant because it was too late and he was too tired. It’s later now and PG is even more tired, so he’ll stop.

11 thoughts on “I Was Too Quick To Call Out Cultural Appropriation”

  1. There is no culture that cannot be improved by adopting, and fully assimilating, the best from other cultures. The fun part is arguing about which parts are the best, and what constitutes “improvement.” (I’d vote for kung pao shrimp this evening, but it might be different tomorrow; and that’s the point.)

    Once upon a time — in my lifetime — the University of Alabama had no black football players. It has recently produced two black top-of-the-NFL black quarterbacks. Think there’s any culture appropriation in there? Or, more to the point, think there’s none? (And on the other side, the consensus best US player at the Women’s World Cup this summer was… a refugee from Ethiopia.)

    • The story I’ve heard is that it’s all the University of Southern California’s fault. Take with a grain of salt, but here’s how I know it:

      Bear Bryant’s Alabama team went to USC, a team that was already integrated, and got absolutely demolished. Afterwards, Bryant approached the USC coach and said, “Those kids you’ve got playing for you are monsters! Where did you find them?”

      The USC coach smiled and said, “Alabama.”

      When Bryant got back to Tuscaloosa, he had a little talk with the administrators….

      So, yes, it’s cultural appropriation from California.

      • That might be the one enlightened thing ever to come out of USC.

        I grew up in the Pac-8. Not in Los Angeles. So I’m sorta obligated to think that way…

  2. Top selling beer: MODELO.
    SALSA outselling ketchup.
    Taco Bell everywhere.
    Urban music (ughh): DESPACITO, DADDY YANKEE, BAD BUNNY…
    (Ever hear the term: Neorican? Or, more properly: niuyorican? 😉 )
    Tried empanadas?


    Some tribes are only too happy to contribute to the common, binding culture, and integrate.
    Others self-segregate and cry appropriation.

    To be remembered: immigration without integration is colonization, as they’ve discovered in the EU. Sweden had to call in the Army to deal with their immigrant gangs, Germany is now talking of mass deportations. France has regular riots. And most of the EU is increasingly nativist.

    This story is just starting to play out, there and here.

      • I think Bruce Lee once advised, “accept what is useful, reject what is useless, and always add what is specifically your own.”

        Complete cultural isolation is dangerous: The idea of a monoculture is not really about ethnic or religious or racial identities. It is, more fundamentally, about ideology. Thus, while it embraces people from many backgrounds, the ‘intersectional’ academic world is forming a monoculture (only forming because it is rarely actually violent).

        True. And the blogger’s point in that link reminded also of the United Nations report about how the 22 countries of the Arab world translates fewer books into Arabic than Spain translates into Spanish in any given year. There’s not much going on in places where “not invented here; no outside ideas welcome” is the prevailing culture.

        Lee’s point to me is to be discriminating, but with a purpose. If you have immigrants, you should care if their values are similar to yours. If they’re not, limit them. Assimilation is the goal in any case. If newcomers are not willing, do as the Swiss do and deny citizenship.

  3. Car mechanics??? There is something off with the examples in your rant.
    The music business is well known for using black musician’s songs without proper credit and royalty payments. It then becomes both cultural appropriation and rights violation.
    That black people created jazz and rock n roll but white musians used it to greater fame and fortune is ok.

  4. I’m solidly on the side of assimilation. That’s both an artifact of my time period (Baby Boomer), as well as my experiences growing up in Cleveland, OH, where MULTIPLE ethnic groups flooded into the area in my youth. Those cultures were not only European, but Asian, African, and Middle Eastern. And, most memorably in 3rd grade, Hawaiian (not yet a state).
    I grew up knowing the the cultures, food, and customs of multiple countries/regions. I even could often detect the countries of origin from the way the noobs spoke English.
    When I hear Black people disdain “cultural appropriation”, I have to restrain myself from saying, “Oh, yeah? Then stop tap-dancing. That’s a cultural appropriation from the Irish dance heritage!” (The Irish had paved and cobbled streets LONG before it was common in Africa, outside of the palaces. Without paving, you cannot make that sound).
    ALL cultures have shared ideas, culture, and innovations. That’s the beauty of humanity – we are an incredibly adaptive species, as we develop MOST of our ways through learning after our birth. A child growing up out of their birth family will take on the heritage of their adoptive family without a problem – language, customs, foods, culture, and interactions.
    Americans have, by necessity, taken this to the ultimate level.

    • Cries of cultural appropriation are a political power acquisition tool just like the cries of white priviledge and (latdly) racism.

      Soon to lose all meaning through overuse.
      A game nobody wins.

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