Justin Bieber has dreadlocks. Away with them, string him up, cast him out. And while you’re at it, leave our leprechauns alone. I’m fed up of people claiming to be Irish, dressing up in green clothes and drinking green beer so they can say ‘top o’the mornin’ to ye’ and get drunk on St Patrick’s day.
That’s cultural appropriation, isn’t it? Not if everyone does it, apparently, even when they’re a boozed up Stag party in green hats and ‘funny’ red beards and hair. But hey, we don’t have a copyright or intellectual property rights on drunkenness, red hair or pots of gold, for that matter.
Justin Bieber’s sporting dreadlocks and the whole world’s up in arms but hey, it’s just a hairstyle or is it? Not, according to a black student in California, who, physically, confronted fellow student, Cory Feldstein, who is white, because of his ‘locks.’
Of course, if you look at the history of ‘locks’, you’ll find it has, er, roots going right back to ancient Egypt. Hindu mystics, the Sadhus, wear their hair in locks as part of their religious detachment from the material world. Ancient Celts and Vikings wore their hair in locks. They’re even mentioned in the Bible, if you want to check out Samson and Delilah.
Bieber, of course, is not the first, white and wealthy, western artist to ‘appropriate’ another culture for their own gain. Madonna came under fire for ‘appropriating’ ‘vogueing’ from the black and Latino New York gay culture; Katy Perry pissed off many Asians when she dressed up as a geisha for the video of her single, Unconditional. Paul Simon got raked over the coals for apparently flaunting the cultural boycott of apartheid South Africa, with his album, Graceland.
And while we’re at it, let’s burn effigies of Elvis and The Rolling Stones for ‘appropriating’ the blues and gospel. But hang on a minute, there. Surely modern pop and rock culture owes as much to country music and European folk music? I remember having a conversation with Mac Rebennack , Dr John, about that very subject. Now, Rebennack, apart from being a well respected artist in the jazz influenced tradition of New Orleans’ blues culture, he is also a recognised expert on the melting pot roots of that Louisiana music that draws as much from its black slave roots, as it does from the Acadian music of Canada and Irish music, drawn from the denizens of New Orleans’ own, Irish Quarter.
The ‘appropriation’ of black music, whether it was by the Chess family, the Rolling Stones or U2, hasn’t done that music or the artists who played it, any harm, either. Indeed, if it’s true all ships float with a rising tide, then ‘black’ music has benefited, largely, by the aforementioned ‘appropriation’.
Indeed, I remember, distinctly, the cover of an Ice T, gangsta rap album, from the early ’90s, called ‘Home Invasion’, with its illustration of a young, white, middle class suburban child dressing like a ‘homie’ and listening to rap to the horror of his parents. The inference was obvious: this was a ‘cultural appropriation’ that has provided black comics plenty of fodder for ridicule, while lining the pockets of all those gun totin’, Cristal guzzling rappers
That’s all very well, the culture police might argue, but ‘dreadlocks’ are a special case because of their connection to an obscure Jamaican religious movement called Rastafari and their symbolic use in the rejection of cultural, economic and physical slavery that has, in turn, been appropriated as a general symbol for black culture, in general.
So there’s a whole lot of ‘appropriating’ going on, much of it with a strong argument but no unconditional right of ownership that I can see. Perhaps, if such inappropriate fashion statements like Justin Bieber’s hairstyle, were termed ‘misappropriations’, there might be a stronger argument but until then, like the Irish and ‘our’ leprechauns, well, it’s away with the fairies, isn’t it?