“Hip hop started off in a block that I’ve never been to
To counter act a struggle that I’ve never even been through
If I think I understand just because I flow too
That means I’m not keeping it true, nope”
– Macklemore, 2005
The idea of cultural co-optation is a pretty simple one. Someone takes something from a culture foreign to them and incorporates it into a cultural product of their own. Where, though, does the limit stand for co-optation? More importantly, at which point does something that has been co-opted become an entrenched part of the adopting culture? For me, these questions are epitomized in my ponderings about the evolution, growth and appropriation of Hip-Hop.
Hip Hop culture, in its first stages, emerged in the 1970s and 80s out of typically working class, African-American communities in the United States. Most important to our studies is the role of Hip Hop music and Rap which, undeniably, became the most popular aspect of hip hop culture. Its popularity meant that it was no longer being consumed by the specific demographics that were producing it, but by audiences across the social spectrum. With that, a more diverse population of producers emerged. By the mid-nineties, Rap and Hip Hop was completely popularized, commercialized and diversified (Acker, 2012, p. 29), as demonstrated by the success of artists like the Beastie Boys, Vanilla Ice and Marky Mark and The Funky Bunch alongside more traditional Hip Hop artists like NWA, De La Soul and Wu-Tang Clan.
Marky Mark just happened to be Model/Rapper/Actor Mark Wahlberg. Terrifying, right? I digress.
Once popularized in the U.S, Hip Hop was quickly exported around the world, with local groups quickly establishing themselves their own regional brand of Hip-Hop wherever it landed. Where, though, did hip hop stop belonging to one specific culture and at which point does the cultural trait that has been appropriated become a legitimate aspect of the appropriating culture?
Rock & Roll followed a very similar path to Hip Hop (Rodriguez, 2006, p. 655) and, undeniably, not just the music but the entire culture of Rock & Roll was repeatedly re-appropriated and co-opted around the world. That said, even though I am geographically, chronologically and socially far from its origins, I consider Rock & Roll to be an inherent part of my culture. Is it just time and an inheritance from the original adopters that has legitimized Rock & Roll as a part of our culture?
In the globalized media landscape, cultures are going to mix. As a result, consciously or unconsciously, practices are going to be appropriated. Until we can figure out a solution to this very sensitive issue, the best course of action is to acknowledge the source and pay the right respects, while using the adopted culture in the manner it was originally intended.
The perfect example of this for me is the song White Privilege, from the 2005 Macklmore album “The Language of My World”. If you’re keen, it’s an excellent way to spend four and a half minutes, as well as a great source for the exploration of Hip Hop and cultural appropriation. Macklemore even actually says “culturally appropriated” so, yeah, check it out.
Acker, R. 2012, “The crystallization of hip hop culture in corporate and mainstream America, 1995–1998”, Masters, University of Colorado, Boulder.
Rodriquez, J. 2006, “Color-Blind Ideology and the Cultural Appropriation of Hip-Hop”, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, vol. 35, no. 6, pp. 645-668.