Cultural Appropriation in Music: From Madonna to Miley Cyrus

Gwen Stefani and the Harajuku Girls. Peter Cruise/Flickr.com

Cultural appropriation is nothing new. For years prominent whites have been accused of borrowing the fashions, music and art forms of various cultural groups and popularizing them as their own. The music industry has been particularly hard hit by this practice. The 1991 film “The Five Heartbeats,” for example, which was based on the experiences of real African-American bands, depicts how music executives took the works of black musicians and repackaged them as the product of white artists.

Due to cultural appropriation, Elvis Presley is widely regarded as being the “King of Rock and Roll,” despite the fact that his music was heavily influenced by black artists who never received credit for their contributions to the art form. In the early 1990s, white rapper Vanilla Ice topped the Billboard music charts when rappers as a whole remained on the fringes of popular culture. This piece explores how musicians with wide appeal today, such as Madonna, Gwen Stefani, Miley Cyrus and Kreayshawn have been accused of cultural appropriation, borrowing heavily from black, Native American and Asian traditions.

Madonna

The Italian-American superstar has been accused of borrowing from a host of cultures to sell her music, including gay culture, black culture, Indian culture and Latin American cultures. Madonna may be the biggest culture vulture yet. In “Madonna: A Critical Analysis,” author JBNYC points out how the pop star wore Indian saris, bindis, and clothing during a 1998 photo shoot for Rolling Stone magazine and the following year participated in a geisha-inspired photo spread for Harper’s Bazaar magazine.

Prior to this Madonna borrowed from Latin American culture for her 1986 video “La Isla Bonita” and from gay black and Latino culture for her 1990 video “Vogue.”

“Although one can argue that by taking on the personas of otherwise underrepresented cultures and giving them exposure to the masses, she is doing to world cultures like India, Japan, and Latin America, what she has done for feminism and gay culture,” JBNYC writes.

“However, she made political statements about feminism, female sexuality, and homosexuality about their ideological representations in the media. In the case of her Indian, Japanese, and Latino looks, she has made no political or cultural statements. Her use of these cultural artifacts is superficial and the consequence is great. She has further perpetuated the narrow and stereotypical representations of minorities in the media.”

Gwen Stefani

In 2006, singer Gwen Stefani faced criticism in 2005 and 2006 for appearing with a silent group of Asian-American women who accompanied her to promotional appearances and other events. Stefani called the women “Harajuku Girls” after the women she encountered in the Harajuku district of Tokyo. During an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Stefani called the “Harajuku Girls” an art project and said, “The truth is that I basically was saying how great that culture is.” Actress and comedienne Margaret Cho felt differently, calling the foursome a “minstrel show.” Salon writer Mihi Ahn agreed, criticizing Gwen Stefani for her cultural appropriation of Harajuku culture.

Ahn wrote in 2005: “Stefani fawns over Harajuku style in her lyrics, but her appropriation of this subculture makes about as much sense as the Gap selling Anarchy T-shirts; she’s swallowed a subversive youth culture in Japan and barfed up another image of submissive giggling Asian women.

While aping a style that’s supposed to be about individuality and personal expression, Stefani ends up being the only one who stands out.”

In 2012, Stefani and her band No Doubt would face a backlash for their stereotypical cowboys and Indians video for their single “Looking Hot.” In the late 1990s, Stefani also routinely sported a bindi, a symbol Indian women wear, in her appearances with No Doubt.

Kreayshawn

When rapper Kreayshawn’s single “Gucci, Gucci” begin to earn buzz in 2011, a number of critics accused her of cultural appropriation. They argued Kreayshawn and her crew, known as the “White Girl Mob,” were acting out black stereotypes. Bene Viera, writer for Clutch magazine, wrote off Kreayshawn as a rapper in 2011, in part, because of doubts about whether a Berkley Film School dropout could find her niche in hip-hop.

In addition, Viera argued that Kreayshawn has mediocre skills as an MC.

“It’s ironic how the white girl mimicking black culture has been viewed as quirky, cute, and interesting in the past,” Viera noted. “But sisters who fashionably rock bamboo earrings, gold nameplate necklaces, and blonde streaked weaves, will inevitably be considered ‘ghetto’ by society. It’s equally problematic that every female emcee post Queen Latifah and MC Lyte who has had massive mainstream success all had to sell sex. Kreayshawn, on the other hand, is able to avoid an over sexualized image because of her whiteness.”

Miley Cyrus

Former child star Miley Cyrus is best known for her starring role in the Disney Channel program “Hannah Montana,” which also featured her country music star father Billy Ray Cyrus. As a young adult, the younger Cyrus has taken pains to shed her “child star” image. In June 2013, Miley Cyrus released new single, “We Can’t Stop.” During that time Cyrus earned press about the song’s allusions to drug use and made headlines after debuting a markedly “urban” appearance and performing with rapper Juicy J on stage in Los Angeles. The public was shocked to see Miley Cyrus sport a grill with gold teeth and twerk (or booty pop) at the House of Blues with Juicy J. But Cyrus’ image overhaul was a decidedly concerted move, with her music producers commenting that she wanted her new songs to “feel black.” Before long, Cyrus faced a wave of criticism from African Americans concerned that she was using black culture to advance her career, which many before her had done.

Dodai Stewart of Jezebel.com asserts of Cyrus: “Miley seems to delight in …twerking, popping the @$$, bending at the waist and shaking her rump in the air. Fun. But basically, she, as a rich white woman, is ‘playing’ at being a minority specifically from a lower socio-economic level. Along with the gold grill and some hand gestures, Miley straight-up appropriates the accoutrements associated with certain black people on the fringes of society.”