Cultural Appreciation NOT Cultural Appropriation… At Least That’s How It Should Be
Just over a year ago on May 10th 2019 Netflix released a documentary named ‘Remastered: The Lions Share’ divulging into the history of the well-known and well-loved song ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’. The origins of this iconic song stems from a poor migrant worker in South Africa in the 1930’s, named Solomon Linda. Linda, a Zulu man, created a song named ‘Mbube’ with his choir the Evening Birds. This song has been appropriated countless times in history. The record was a success from the get-go selling around 100,000 copies and becoming the basis of a new sub-genre of Zulu music. But Linda, being an illiterate and uneducated black man in South Africa, did not understand the impact of his song on the music industry. He died a poor man with twenty-five dollars in his account just a year after the release of the chart-topping Mbube re-make: ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ by, which he had never known existed.
The key factors that delayed this outcome are money and power. Neither of which did Solomon Linda, the Evening Birds, or his descendants have. Cultural appropriation is evident in this case. Big players in the music industry with substantial power, knew that due to Solomon Linda’s life of poverty and being a black man in South Africa, they could easily appropriate his song. The white men that did the appropriating referred to it is as a South African Folk song without mentioning its title, that it has meaning in Zulu and without crediting Linda.
It makes one wonder which major fashion brands have been culturally appropriating those that are not able to defend themselves. Keeping in mind that cultural appropriation is not restricted to black cultures but any minority cultures and tribes.
The Maasai a tribe located in East Africa have become well known as warriors but also for their traditional clothing. Due to this the Maasai tribe have become victims of cultural appropriation on countless occasions. Based on their estimate, around a thousand companies have used traditional Maasai imagery or iconography at some point in time with at least eighty presently doing so. This would create a value of 10 million dollars in licensing fees that are nowhere to be seen. A brand that blatantly appropriated the Maasai culture is Louis Vuitton with its SS12 collection, including hats, shirts and scarves based on the Maasai Shuka, which is a traditional African blanket in colourful shades of red and blue.
Although the cultural appropriation was obvious through the way in which it was wrapped around the models neck as well as the colours and patterns used, the Maasai tribe faced the same issues as Solomon Linda; they do not have the power or the financial means to take legal action that will make an impact. Since this is a frequent occurrence, the Maasai Intellectual Property Initiative, MIPI for short, has been created, with the hopes of working with the community along with Light Years IP, a Washington DC non-profit that works on public interest intellectual property issues, internationally. Their goal is to force companies to obtain licenses from the Maasai tribe so that reasonable funds can be distributed to the tribe, as well as appreciation for the cultural significance of the imagery used. Sadly, what usually happens when there is an opportunity to take legal action, it turns out to be two groups of white men fighting each other in court both seemingly acting with good intentions, but having their own agendas, which was the case for Solomon Linda’s family.
It sounds optimistic and straightforward but there are still enormous obstacles that have to be tackled to reach their goal. Clare Cornell, the head of the European trademark group at Finnegan, an intellectual property law firm states that although there is sympathy surrounding this case, “If you are the Maasai and you want to prevent people using your trademark, you are going to have to pay, and you’re up against commercial players with deep pockets.” Which goes to show that many of these big brands have no social or cultural ethics and morality. That they are driven by sales and profits, which will continue being the case if we as consumers continue to support such brands. This then brings you to another obstacle, being that many people “supporting” these brands, which culturally appropriate minorities, are not from the culture that is being appropriated, creating a disconnect between the problem and the solution of this social issue. Whereas on the other hand, you see people with same ethnicity as the cultures being appropriated also supporting those big brands. This occurs greatly with celebrities and figures especially in the media, buying, modelling, promoting and in turn supporting these brands without being aware of what these brands are doing. All of these obstacles’ leader to further confusion and misconceptions of where these brands stand morally and ethically.
Native Americans are another community of victims that are being constantly culturally appropriated, extremely so in the fashion industry as is the Maasai tribe. A prime example is when the fashion label Paul Frank hosted an event in 2012 using an array of typical Native Americans themes and imagery. Once questioned about this, their response was that they had consulted Native American studies experts from the University of California. But why not consult Native Americans themselves instead of going as a white-run corporation to speak to white experts about a culture not related to either of them. A similar defensive response was issued out when Chanel faced a backlash of criticism after they held a “cowboys and Indians” themed fashion show in November 2013.
Their response was that Native Americans are an integral part of Texas’ history and the “feather headdress, [is] a symbol of strength and bravery, and one of the most visually stunning examples of creativity and craftsmanship,". This response was taken as extreme offense to the true symbolism of the feather headdress, earned by leaders with great respect in the Native American tribes. Thus, instead of apologizing for culturally appropriating they added salt to the already huge open wound of the Native American people.
One thing Chanel and Louis Vuitton had in common is that after they were called-out about cultural appropriation they apologised, whether it was genuine is another debate. Urban Outfitters, on-the-other hand, has no remorse or empathy with the Native American people, more specifically the Navajo tribe after blatantly appropriating their culture. One of the most extreme examples of their disrespect to the Navajo culture was that they put “Navajo Hipster Party” as the title of a flask wrapped in traditional Navajo patterns. Firstly, they used the tribes’ culture as a basis for an entire collection. Secondly, they did not have the slightest cultural sensitivity by neglecting that the Navajo tribe does not consume alcohol. Putting their name of a flask would be taken as disrespect. Urban Outfitters response was defensive, cold and unapologetic stating that "like many other fashion brands, we interpret trends and will continue to do so for years to come,".
There is a misconception that people from the minority cultures being appropriated are against brands using their imagery, but it is that the brands are not paying homage to the cultures they are "inspired" by. There is no appreciation shown, there is no credit given, and there are no retributions being paid by big brands that are cashing-in. In the current societal situation, attention and appreciation are needed more than ever. Attention needs to be paid to the little people, the tribes, the black culture, along with all other races that have aspects of their traditions used and abused by the big power players.
Many big brands may think they are showing appreciation to the cultures from which their inspiration derives but the true question is, how can you embrace a culture if the people of that culture are not happy with the representation or accredited? Are you truly appreciating a culture or actually appropriating it?