Black Culture Isn’t a Free For All
Everytime society declares, ‘Music is for Everyone,’ in regard to justifying the white presence in black music, (I am talking about music of black origin) society is subtly separating crucial elements of black culture from black people. Black culture is being dismantled, one generic phrase, one modern day and age at a time.
Often through the performance of music we see other aspects of culture expressed including dress, hair and dance. With this, consider another modern adage, ‘it is just a hairstyle,’ used to dismiss the personal importance of black hair. Locs for example, are not just a fashion statement, they are deeply rooted in black liberation and spirituality. In the 1930’s, crowned emperor of Ethiopia, Ras Tafari, was forced into exile by Europeans. Ras Tafari was royalty like no other, he was a blood descendant of Great King Solomon of 970 BCE! Freedom fighters vowed not to cut their hair until he was reinstated. For the everyday black woman, there is no such thing as just hair. The way we wear our hair often comes with stigma. Earning capacity, the significance of our voice, and the levels of respect given to us are all lower than average when we wear our hair in certain cultural styles such as locs.
We have all probably heard, ‘it is just dance,’ often said interchangeably with ‘dance is for everyone.’ Dance is potent in black heritage. Native African dances are often linked to long standing spiritual belief, they mark occasions such as birth, death and rights of passage. Carried across the Atlantic on slave ships, Africans continued to dance in the West Indies and Americas, preserving vital aspects of their culture and freedom. However none of this was free from subversion, black dance was mocked for decades in the form of white people prancing around in blackface- minstrel shows. In these shows white people dressed as caricatures supposedly derived of black people and mocked black culture through music and dance. The insults still blemish black identity through stereotype today. Not only that, ideas such as being uncivilised, animalistic and hypersexual are suggested against black people and their dance in present time.
There is yet another adage thoughtlessly repeated, that is ‘it’s just clothes.’ Black people, the originators of streetwear and urban styles, suffer stereotypes, racial profiling and mistreatment when in this dress. However, the rest of society embraces the look without prejudice and brands grow from sales. The implications are that black people can not dress as they please without threat, nor can they freely enjoy or benefit from their own art.
These adages dismiss the way black people are being separated from their culture. Pretending that this is a kind of cultural evolution is actually just another vehicle of racial oppression. The rise of white people representing black dance in place of black people, the rise of white women modeling streetwear in place of black women and the rise of white women wearing and renaming black hairstyles, are all examples of this.
This is most evident amongst black women whose place in society under white supremacy stays at the bottom. We have to contend with being separated from our racialized femininity. What is deemed unattractive and ‘ghetto’ on black women is praised on non black women even when it is our natural physical appearance. A glaring example, Kim Kardashian modelling Yeezy. No shade.
Often times the black woman’s own body is ‘too much,’ too curvaceous, too strong, too striking. Miss Brown, the teacher criticised all over social media for the way her body looked in a simple dress. Super-athlete Serena Williams, endures society relentlessly trying to undermine physique while oversexualising her at the same time. The modern adages justify sweeping the black woman’s identity away from her only for it to be replicated by other women elsewhere. Both the physical and cultural aspects of her identity are removed from her and socially, economically and politically she stays the most oppressed.The black woman evolves alone, only being allowed to own and identify with the bones and dust of oppressive stereotype.
Society’s shameless disregard for black identity, pertaining to it’s overwhelmingly incessant tendency to appropriate black culture, is rooted in a systematic attempt at ownership of black identity, lingering from colonialism.
As we know, from the moment black people were introduced to the western world, their cultures were purposefully stripped from them. They were deemed subhuman, unable to own their physical bodies or cultures- they were stripped of all identity. Since then, black people have never been able to fully own all aspects of themselves. There has not been a moment in modern times where genuine equality has been restored, where black people have been given the space to restore their collective identity outside of the influence of white people.
“I fear, I am integrating my people into a burning house,” said one of the most whitesplained black men in history, Martin Luther King, Jr. He continued to say that black people would need to, “become firemen.” Indeed, black people are stuck in a state of damage control, while white hands continue to monopolise black culture whilst demonising black. Black people barely benefit economically from their own curation. Under white supremacy, the traits that are allowed to belong to black people are seen as inferior.
Denial and delegation of what constitutes to blackness is commonplace. We do not always recognise blackness when we see it, or we reason it away or must explain it in terms of whiteness. Do we recall the white response to Beyoncé’s performance at the 50th Country Music Awards in 2016? Brazen declarations that a country girl from the southern states had no business performing music originating from her own heritage. Also, let’s not forget the eruption of white outrage with the release of Lemonade, the 2016 visual album. In this album, physical and cultural aspects of black female identity are so bound to the music and performance, that there is little opportunity for white ownership complexes to subvert the cultural relevance of this work. White people became suddenly so incensed by this, so much so that they attempted to boycott and ultimately destroy her career.
It is a wonderful privilege to be in the position to enjoy other cultures, therefore it is the responsibility of the observer to partake in a way that is respectful to the values of the cultural arts and its origins. Whilst music, dance, and fashion do not belong to anyone, this shouldn’t be a excuse to dismiss their cultural importance. We cannot enjoy other cultures whilst continuing to marginalise the people for expressing themselves through the same said culture.
Written by Natalie Alleyne