Ap­pro­pri­a­tion is a mul­ti­lay­ered term

CityPress - - Voices - Sizwe Mpo­fuWalsh voices@city­press.co.za

In a re­cent ar­ti­cle for lo­cal hip-hop cul­tural magazine The Plug, edi­tor Caron Wil­liams com­plains that South African hip-hop has floun­dered in 2017. She cites ma­te­ri­al­ism, ap­pro­pri­a­tion and monotony as the cul­prits of rap’s demise. Her views on ma­te­ri­al­ism and monotony are ap­pro­pri­ate but un­o­rig­i­nal. It is her ar­gu­ment on ap­pro­pri­a­tion that’s the real prob­lem.

Artists tack­ling po­lit­i­cal is­sues are not “ap­pro­pri­at­ing hip-hop”, as she sug­gests. In­stead, it is trendy youth pub­li­ca­tions that milk youth cul­ture for ad­ver­tis­ers, while claim­ing to be a “voice” for young peo­ple, that are the real ap­pro­pri­a­tors. This is a trend where “brands” and po­lit­i­cal par­ties use “cool” to di­vert the at­ten­tion of young peo­ple from press­ing po­lit­i­cal challenges.

Emerg­ing and “edgy” youth pub­li­ca­tions seem in­no­cent and re­fresh­ing at first. But look closer, and you will see that some bow to the same po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic em­per­ors as their main­stream ri­vals. The ANC’s strat­egy for young vot­ers re­lies on a so­phis­ti­cated at­tempt to make it­self look “cool” through “celeb cul­ture”. The same goes for many al­co­hol brands. New, trendy plat­forms get to have it both ways: they sell cul­ture back to a young black au­di­ence, and place misog­yny and ma­te­ri­al­ism on a pedestal, only to pre­tend to be crit­ics of the prob­lem they prof­ited from in the first place.

Crit­i­cal opin­ion is one thing, but we should all be very scep­ti­cal of those who ap­point them­selves as the le­git­i­mate voices of “cul­ture” – es­pe­cially when the self-ap­point­ment is tied to com­mer­cial aims.

When we speak about “our” cul­ture, just who is the “our” to which “we” re­fer? How have we al­lowed self-ap­pointed cul­tural mes­si­ahs to be­come hip-hop’s chief spokes­peo­ple?

Wil­liams re­serves spe­cial ire for me, ridi­cul­ing my work as “pseudo-in­tel­lec­tual” and ap­pro­pria­tive. But there is a dif­fer­ence be­tween not con­form­ing to a stereo­type and ap­pro­pri­at­ing a cul­ture. When Jor­dan Peele di­rected the US so­cial thriller Get Out, he didn’t “ap­pro­pri­ate hor­ror”; he just broke new ground. Go­ing to Ox­ford Univer­sity shouldn’t stop me from rap­ping, just like be­ing a prom­i­nent celebrity shouldn’t stop Somizi Mh­longo from writ­ing. We need to break the bi­nary no­tion that black peo­ple can only le­git­i­mately do one thing at a time.

By do­ing so, we avoid the grave er­ror of con­fus­ing “ap­pro­pri­a­tion” with “break­ing the out­dated mould”. Be­sides, if be­ing in a po­si­tion of priv­i­lege bars one from rap­ping, then we would have to elim­i­nate the voices of half the in­dus­try, and most of its con­sumers.

Ques­tions of racial ap­pro­pri­a­tion sur­round­ing Die Ant­wo­ord are im­por­tant. But who gets to say when a black artist can speak? Dis­agree­ment is one thing; ar­bi­trat­ing over who has a right to speak is an­other. Let’s not ap­pro­pri­ate the lan­guage of ap­pro­pri­a­tion.

Wil­liams’ ar­ti­cle also ig­nores women, while claim­ing to re­view hip-hop in 2017. Artists such as Dope Saint Jude and Rouge have made im­por­tant in­ter­ven­tions on ques­tions of gen­der, cor­rup­tion and me­dia own­er­ship this year. To im­ply that they “have not said any­thing” by leav­ing them out of the con­ver­sa­tion is laugh­able.

Dope Saint Jude re­flects on this point in our song We Don’t Care from my new al­bum, Democ­racy and Delu­sion: “I’ve had it up to here and I’m feel­ing so damn be­trayed/ They open up their mouths and I won­der who’s get­ting paid...”

Wil­liams also mocks Riky Rick’s new song, Buy It Out. But it’s strange that she only sin­gles out Riky. Why not other artists who have graced her magazine’s cover? Why did she not re­flect on the way that “cul­ture me­dia” feeds ma­te­ri­al­ism? Why didn’t she also in­ves­ti­gate the role of brands? Per­haps this would re­veal her own pub­li­ca­tion’s com­plic­ity?

The ma­te­ri­al­ism de­bate is com­plex. Art can per­form an eman­ci­pa­tory role with­out hav­ing ob­vi­ously eman­ci­pa­tory aims. And treat­ing black art as if it only has one pos­si­ble layer feeds into the ex­act stereo­type that must be avoided.

The im­por­tance of counter-hege­monic, con­fi­dent black ex­pres­sion may help some lis­ten­ers to es­cape from the con­stant so­cial in­fe­ri­or­ity that comes with black­ness. Rap’s au­di­ence is smart enough to de­cide which parts of a song they will en­dorse and which parts they will es­chew, with­out need­ing to be spoon-fed. Wil­liams missed these nu­ances.

There are ex­cep­tions. Plat­forms such as the web­site Slik­our On Life play a cru­cial role in el­e­vat­ing the voices of young black artists, with­out be­lit­tling them. And some brands en­dorse braver, more com­plex mes­sages.

But rap’s au­di­ence would do well to dis­tin­guish be­tween po­lit­i­cal art and com­mer­cial jour­nal­ism wrapped in trendy pack­ag­ing. As I say in We Don’t Care:

“A diet is more than just what they’re feed­ing ya/

A diet is read­ing deeper than Wikipedia/ A diet is what you’re con­sum­ing in the me­dia/

You’re on a diet diet, your diet is what’s mis­lead­ing ya/”

Mpofu-Walsh is the au­thor of Democ­racy and

Delu­sion: 10 Myths in South African Pol­i­tics. The book is ac­com­pa­nied by a rap al­bum of the same name

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