Justin Timberlake was accused of cultural appropriation on Twitter during the BET Awards, and he responded with this:
He then doubled-down with a tweet saying essentially the same: that we’re all human beings, with the point that everyone should be treated the same. It’s a kindergarten-level call against racism, really, which is fine. The problem is that JT’s career, to no fault of his own, has a relationship with racism and cultural appropriation. JT is a cultural appropriator. I don’t think that’s in question. My question is, what is the alternative? How does a modern American — artist or not — not appropriate culture? Isn’t modern American cultural appropriation necessary as opposed to taboo?
Justin — and everyone, ever — took in the culture around him as a child growing up. Tennessee culture in the 90s was in part a strong and rich African American culture. Like Disney, this formed Justin into the person and singer that he is. It’s essential that he know and respect the facts and histories of the cultures that have influenced him. I don’t think many accuse JT of doing otherwise. The question is, what’s the difference between appropriation and influence? Is the idea that JT should sing only what the culture of his birthplace and ethnicity has sung historically? That doesn’t sound right.
OK, back to the basics. What exactly is cultural appropriation? The Wiki def:
“adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture without invitation or permission of use.”
Culture is fashion, art, music, food, sports, drama, and comedy, but it’s also business and law. It’s basically everything we’ve ever done together as a species. Today it’s usually a reference to pop culture (entertainment) or social values and practices.
Does culture have a correlation with ethnicity because of the mono-ethnicity of civilizations past and present? Inversely, modern American culture— what JT grew up with — is by definition multi-ethnic (remind Trump voters any time), especially in a place like Tennessee. In America today, it is normal to be a part of and appropriate a modern multi-ethnic culture that has a history of cultures created mono-ethnically. America has been a multi-ethnic and multicultural melting pot before JT was born.
Cultural appropriation involves members of one culture using or adopting elements of another, but the concept of members here is a bit confusing. What is a member of a culture? Everyone? How do you become one? By being born? Who decides if you are a member of a culture, and how is a particular culture chosen for someone? Do we have a choice? When is it decided? Are we born and locked into a specific culture based on ethnicity and/or geography? The concept of cultural membership is murky for me.
Next, what does it mean to use culture? If there are members, who decides if one member can use another member’s culture? What does using a culture mean? Must someone be profiting off a culture to be using it? Again, who and how many members of one culture decide if members of another culture can use theirs? This gets to the core of my confusion. I don’t know how someone doesn’t appropriate culture in modern America. I don’t know how appropriation isn’t a part of becoming, being, or acting cultured, profits or not.
Justin fortunately became a part of corporate culture at a young age, which is a very privileged position to gain. This corporate and consumer culture favors whiteness. There aren’t a lot of brown Mousketeers. Jason Derulo — someone legitimately comparable to JT — isn’t likely to have the same level of mass appeal because he is a black man. The reasons for the public desire for whiteness are a forest with racist roots, but what blame is there for Justin? What did he do wrong? Yes, he appropriated the multi-ethnic American culture he grew up in and around, including African American culture. He learned from America, took from America, and has added to America.
The fact that not every modern American society is multi-ethnic or multicultural needs to lead the conversation on modern American identity, but we are moving in that direction. America obviously has racist roots, and racism is still pervasive, but we also have a multicultural history that can support a modern societal and cultural revolution. We need to be knowledgeable of and pay respect to all past cultures that have made the American environment what it is today, but today, we are a multicultural people.
There are racist American factions, but the foundation that us non-racists are building is on multicultural. In this America, skin color and ethnicity don’t inhibit what culture you chose to mirror, act within, or build upon.
It’s all new, and the fact that we are in the midst of creating new, multi-ethnic cultures is nothing short of an enlightenment. Let’s respect history and focus on the light.