It has been a while, for the most part, since the conversation of what is and is not “cultural appropriation” has taken over our minds and timelines.
This is mostly due to not having heard from Macklemore, Iggy Azalea or Eminem in a while—thank goodness!
Instead, between the facts that Afro-beats genres are dominating the playlists of every deejay in the world and that Caribbean genres that have long been ignored or gone unrecognized—Dancehall and Soca—are now coming to the forefront, the conversation has often switched to which group of Africans “can” and “cannot” make which types of African music genres.
On one hand, you find the Africans who do not care about who is making what, as long as it sounds good.
On the other hand, you have “purists” who believe that only this group of Africans can truly know, understand and love this type of music and no other group of Africans can or will ever be able to do the same. “I do my thing and you do yours.”
It is nothing less than fruit off of the tree of divisionism and comes from the same line of thinking that just because an African was born and raised in a different place than another African, we are not one and the same. Point blank, if they believed we were the same, this would not be a conversation.
In Chairman Omali Yeshitela’s book, “One Africa! One Nation!,” he says:
“We are told that those of us who have been dispersed around the world are not a part of the same group anymore in any meaningful way. We are now supposedly some aspect of a European-created nation.
“In the United States, after they have finished calling us ‘spooks’ and ‘monkeys’ and ‘niggers’ and ‘Negroes,’ we’ve graduated to ‘African-Americans’ or ‘Afro-Americans’ or ‘Black-Brits.’ Our identity is not our own. It is in relationship to something that’s been created by imperialism, white power.
“We know that if we are called ‘African-Americans,’ it means our national identity is somehow associated with America and not with our people. We know that everywhere we are, African people still experience a response to what we see happening to people who look just like us in some other place in the world, even if it is shame.
“So many of us have been made to feel ashamed of Africa, both inside Africa and elsewhere. Nevertheless, we know that there is some kind of relationship here. So this question of identity is extremely important.
“Most of us have come to understand the question of nations based on our experience where we are located.
“Few of us have given much thought to the question beyond that, except that we see other black people who look like us in other places. Therefore, our concept of a nation has been imposed on us by imperialism by our relationship to white power.”
Music comes from personal influence
An African musician should not be limited to creating music in the genre or genres of where they were born and raised, nor should they be obligated to even create music in such genre or genres. That is to say that an African from Jamaica does not have to create—or only create—Reggae and Dancehall music, and an African from the United States does not have to create—or only create—Hip-Hop and Rhythm and Blues (R&B) music.
If this were the case, the music world would have missed out on R&B gems like “If This Isn’t Love” by Jennifer Hudson, “Music for Love” by Mario and “I Bet” by Ciara—all of which were written and produced by the two brothers, Timothy and Theron Thomas, from the Virgin Islands, known as “Rock City.”
We would have also missed out on Afro-beats hits created by R&B singers such as Omarion’s “Distance” and Alicia Keys’ “In Common.”
As overplayed as it was, “Boo’d Up” by Ella Mai is a strong example of how an African on one side of the world can be strongly influenced by Africans in another and choose to express themselves in the same artistic stylings of their influences.
In fact, Ella Mai’s hit being so well received by the black community in the U.S.—and I mean imagine seeing and hearing the most hard-bodied African men sing this song at the top of his lungs—was a reflection of the authenticity found in the song itself.
It has also been said that while an African may be born and raised somewhere, if they are raise in a household with parents and family members from somewhere else, they too can never fully relate to or understand the music of where they are born and raised, even if it is what they were “fed” the most by the environments outside of their home and even if it is what they were “fed” by the mainstream media of the where they were raised. I know that was a confusing read, but do not worry about it because it is still wrong.
Can you imagine if Biggie Smalls never stepped into Hip-Hop because he was raised by a ‘Jamaican’ mother? Imagine if Maxwell never felt confident enough to create R&B/Soul music because he grew up in a household with a ‘Haitian’ mother and ‘Puerto Rican’ father?
“Pretty Wings” would have been either a Konpa song titled “Bèl Zèl” or Bachata song titled “Hermosas Alas.” That actually would not have been a bad thing, but sadly most of the people who love him would have never even heard it.
We can go through an infinite amount of examples of Africans crossing genres to express themselves—whether making it their career or just a moment in their career—and with each example, we would see that the African Nation relished in it.
Instruments have no inherent language
We are all familiar with the cliché “music is universal.” It is even more true for African people considering the fact that Africans are the creators of damn near every genre that exists on the planet.
More than the words of a song, we are moved by the beat of the drums. We get down because the basslines go right to our waistlines.
We groove to the guitars, cry at the pretty sounds of the piano and get hype when the singer begins to scat. We connect with the various sounds of Africa!
This is why when you heard Sean Paul and Beenie Man for the first time, you got up and danced without having a clue about what they were chanting. It is also why I could not escape hearing 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” and Akon’s “Don’t Matter” blasting from the speakers of every “tap-tap” bus driving through the streets of Haiti, in the summers of 2003 and 2007, respectively.
We share music because we share the same experiences
There is nothing about Blues music that a musician in New York cannot love and learn, if only they take the time to study that particular expression of art.
In the same vein, there is nothing about Jazz music that a musician in California cannot love and learn, if only they also take the time to study that particular expression of art.
If this paragraph is true for Africans within U.S. borders, why would it not be true throughout the entire African Nation?
Yes, it is true that music genres originates as a result of the experiences felt by the creators of that genre, but just because something originates one way it does not mean it always has to remain that way. Let us take a look at some genres from around the world:
Gospel music is an extension of the Blues, which comes from Africans from the Southern states of the U.S. expressing and trying to escape from their colonial conditions.
Reggae music came about as a result of Africans in shanty-towns like Trenchtown, expressed their disdain for the neocolonial government and pigs there and equated them to “Babylon” of the Bible, which they proclaim “must fall down.”
We can express the same experience in different ways and it still be the same experience.
You would be fooled to find out that as upbeat as Kanaval music from Haiti is and as much dancing takes place when it is being played, the songs are talking about how the country needs stability, hospitals, education and to do away with those currently in power─whereas, in the Hip-Hop world, such a message would be delivered with a sad and solemn sound.
It does not make the pain felt by the African creating Kanaval in Haiti any less, or less significant, than the pain being felt by the rapper in Brooklyn.
People dying, children crying and families starving are all too common themes in the music we all make as Africans and as African people, we can choose to express our experiences a myriad of ways. When it comes to African music, all of it belongs to all African people!
One Africa! One Nation!