In today’s canceled culture society, non-African-Americans are being condemned by social agitators as being racist, homophobic, misogynist, and many other disparaging remarks. Non-African-Americans the “white European type” are being labeled as having “white privilege” over people of color. In many cases, some are called thieves when it comes to music, fashion, and any type of business. People like, Bruno Mars, Kim Kardashian, and Sarah Marantz Lindenberg have been labeled as such. In regards to music, could non-African Americans be defined as cultural appropriators if they sing songs originally done by black singers and songwriters? The term cultural appropriation first appeared in the 1960s, but recently it has become a term that has been used regularly since 2013 and more so by academia. It is rooted in an ideology that engages in negative racial viewpoints and terminologies. It is a tool used by social justice advocates who want to reprimand any person, group, organization, or business that dares to use any cultural aspect of a minority culture whether it be music, fashion, art, or anything outside the culture of their own. Are non-African Americans thieves if they sing songs originally sung and written by black folks?
Some would say yes, or would they be called preserves of black music? We all know in the field of music, especially in the 1940s and into the 1950s “white entertainers” took advantage of cover songs written by blacks and made a lot of money. Pat Boone’s rendition of Ain’t That A Shame, and Long Tall Sally, in today’s culture, would be considered a thief, or a cultural appropriator. Gallaher and Lippard in their book blame the record companies, not the individuals. By way of example, Fred Parris group, The Five Satins greatest hit “In The Still of The Nite” received less than $800.00 for their song which sold between 10 to 15 million copies. Are those who sang his songs, would they be considered cultural appropriators? Many vocal groups past and present have song sung his song “In The Still of The Nite” for decades. This also includes the Acappella era of the 1960s, to the present who sang their songs along with The Cadillac’s signature song “Gloria” as part of their standard repertoire, the vast majority non-African-Americans.
So, the question we must ask is this, are doo wop singers’ thieves? To whom should these performers, artists, and business people ask permission to sing a certain style or create a certain business so they are not labeled as cultural appropriators? What are these faultfinders using as a point of reference to say it is wrong or inappropriate? Does cultural appropriation also apply to people of color when they sing or use a fashion motif that is not their own and non-African-American? To what body within the African-American community or any community are they accountable to? Take for example the late great lead singer, and arranger of the Persuasions, Jerry Lawson, his group the Persuasions sang songs that came from the Beatles to Frank Zappa, and everything in between. The answer to this question is simple, there is no group or guild they answer to when it comes to singing, or anything else, they answer to no one.
When a culture suppresses or dampens creativity, and ambition of an artist, or a business, on the basis of cultural appropriation all of society suffers. People who have an entrepreneurial spirit are not beholding to bloggers, art critics, Hollywood, or public opinion. Their goal is to make money and to make sure their business thrives in a culture that is open and free. Black historian and radio personality, Bob Davis said the following:
“Black Americans tend to create culture and then throw it away. Black Americans get mad when other people take the culture they no longer seem to want, and then start making money on it”
Those who sing do so because they appreciate the music, and love the original artists who sang them. Those who sing in the doo-wop street corner style, are mostly non-African Americans and those who attend and promote the music are non-blacks. Does that label apply to them? If this crusade continues on this road-map of cultural labeling, it should include the food we eat, how we decorate our homes, and the clothing people wear. If a person is an entrepreneur, and seeks to adopt a certain pattern for a clothesline, he or she saw with an ethnic group or an indigenous tribe or people group more power to them. Yet opponents, within this worldview perspective, would want businesses to pay tribal or ethnic groups monetary compensation for “stolen” work. Music and creativity, in general, are universal, and has no boundaries, it has open borders. There are no walls, fences, or bared wires to keep musicians, singers, and entrepreneurs out. Those who engage in R&B vocal group singing will continue to sing the songs they grew up with, learned from friends and relatives. Davis, referring to non-African -Americans who sing in the doo-wop style said:
“You see; these folks are preservationists of a great culture that black people no longer seemed to have any use for.”
In the end, when people make misleading disparaging remarks, and falsely accuse people of cultural appropriation especially non-African Americans everyone loses. For those of us who are engaged in the genre of vocal group singing, or creating a business, we must continue to stand up, and not surrender to those who may falsely accuse us of cultural appropriation. If we do not, our music, business or anything we believe in will be in great danger. At this time in history, the street corner R&B singing or doo wop is primarily a genre whose roots are in the American black experience, which is sung mostly by non-African Americans. Let’s continue promoting the music we love, and never surrender to those who seek to do us harm.
Abraham J. Santiago is an author, film documentarian, and songwriter. He is the recipient of many awards his most recent, Vinyl City Broadcasting Hall of Fame Award in October of 2019.