Type
Polemic
Category
Culture

Busy earnin’: Iggy Azalea, Jungle and appropriation

The Australian rapper Iggy Azalea has generated fierce debates about appropriation, authenticity, and racial exploitation because of what Brittney Cooper has called her ‘co-optation and appropriation of sonic Southern Blackness, particularly the sonic Blackness of Southern Black women.’

Azalea’s cultural appropriation and racial exploitation, whether deliberate or the result of ignorance, is just another episode in a story begun in the nineteenth century and continued by white musicians including Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Madonna, and Eminem.

But I wonder about the extent to which her femaleness and her sexualised performances make her an obvious mark, for the same criticism has not been leveled at the British male duo Jungle, recently dubbed the ‘hottest band in Britain.’ Over the past year Jungle have released a series of 1970s-style funk songs driven by cool music videos featuring black dancers. The band members kept their identities hidden – they were initially identified only by the initials J and T. An online article in NME about the Jungle members finally revealing themselves was accompanied by a photo of the two men who featured in the film clip for ‘The Heat’

jungle

It was a shock, then, to discover that J and T are actually Joshua Lloyd-Watson and Tom McFarland, two privileged white guys.

They have said that there was no particular reason for keeping their identities hidden other than a desire to keep the focus on their music rather than their appearance. Yet a carefully crafted image of black cool has accompanied, and been crucial in circulating, their tracks. Their band is called Jungle, their music is heavily influenced by (and sounds a lot like) 1970s funk, they have had black people stand in for them and, as a result, have gained attention, credibility, and sales.

The lyrics for their song ‘Busy Earnin’’ take on a different meaning when heard in the context of this, especially because J and T have not had to pay any of the costs of being a racial minority. When racial inequality remains a fact of life, it’s both wrong and naive to act as though we live in a post-racial world.

There’s nothing new in the appropriation and mixing of music. The history of popular music is one of hybridity and migration, the coming together of regional and transnational variations of different music styles including white folk and country, black folk, blues, jazz, gospel and R&B, latin rhythms, and eastern percussion.

There’s also nothing new in the story of white people appropriating music and style from black performers. In the northern United States in the early 1830s, a young working-class white man named Thomas Dartmouth Rice painted his face black and mimicked a song and dance he had seen performed by a black man. Although the music comprised African dialect and European musical influences, it was presented as authentically black. Rice’s song ‘Jump Jim Crow’ became the first international American song hit, with his performances hugely successful with the urban working-classes. They fed the popularisation of blackface minstrel shows, which were identified by Europeans as the first distinctively American form of entertainment. Minstrel troupes toured the US and abroad, helping to build a national American culture and an international popular culture.

Blackface minstrelsy was born of a process that Eric Lott has described as involving ‘love and theft’, with the musicians both admiring and appropriating black culture. White working-class northern minstrels were fascinated by, and identified with, the marginalisation and the rebellion that black culture expressed. But they also capitalised on, spread and exploited a distorted performance of black culture and associated racial stereotypes.

Minstrelsy’s ugliness and danger came from its emphasis on racial difference – and, as it became mainstream and lost its complexity, its depiction of black people as variously lazy, stupid, primitive, threatening, and in need of management and uplift by white people. Blackface minstrelsy became a form that reflected, created and perpetuated divisive racial thinking.

Popular culture was predicated on these ideas – and the notion that black people were inferior was used to justify violence against people of colour, both during and after slavery, and their domination in the expansion of colonial empires.

In the US, the civil rights movement brought protests against blackface and what it represented. The power of that movement and the prominence of American intellectuals of colour keep the conversation about race prominent in America. There is, however, no equivalent public conversation in Britain and Australia where The Black & White Minstrel Show aired on television right up until the 1970s. The differences in racial consciousness play a significant role in the roasting Iggy Azalea has received and the comparative British silence about Jungle.

The Afro-British population in Britain has amassed largely as the result of the postwar immigration associated with the collapse of the British Empire. Such peoples have been colonised twice: first on their own soil when the British took over, and, second, in Britain, where the colonial experience continues through institutionalised racism, socio-economic inequities, and cultural exploitation by white people.

This history, this reality, is embedded in Jungle playing coy about hiding their identities behind black faces. Jungle have appropriated and exploited black culture in their bid for stardom. Even the name ‘Jungle’ harks back to old notions of black primitivism that lend an aura of primal authenticity. Yes, their admiration for black music and culture is obvious, and Tom has made clear their creative debt to Funkadelic. But what makes Jungle any different from the white performers of the past who tried on a black identity for love and profit, secure in the privilege that meant they could always take the black face off?

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Rebecca Sheehan is lecturer in US History at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. She is passionate about music, culture, feminism and social justice.

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Comments

  1. I don’t see either of the artists you mention denigrating ‘black’ culture – whatever you presume that is supposed to be. It’s a globalised world, and whatever has been thrown out there into popular culture SHOULD be up for grabs for people to take have fun with. Cultures are not, and never have been, hermetically sealed.

  2. “In the US, the civil rights movement brought protests against blackface and what it represented. The power of that movement and the prominence of American intellectuals of colour keep the conversation about race prominent in America. There is, however, no equivalent public conversation in Britain and Australia where The Black & White Minstrel Show aired on television right up until the 1970s. The differences in racial consciousness play a significant role in the roasting Iggy Azalea has received and the comparative British silence about Jungle.”

    I find this dismissive of the long history of Aboriginal activism in Australia.

  3. Jungle is a disgrace. I was really getting into them when I learned (after having to really DIG) they were just some white boys. Totally unacceptable- and I find it really telling that they hid their identities in a time when you can be a successful white rapper ala Iggy, who at least has to deal with the fact that she’s white. I think their careful crafting of the Jungle image is far more sleazy. I’m glad to see somebody taking notice!

  4. How can you blame the band for the appropriation of black culture, when it is the society that has created the conditions for this to occur? They are merely a result of the far greater racial appropriations that are made meaning that a band has arguably only found success with their music through tying themselves with symbols of black identity.

    The joke isn’t on them, it’s on us.

    The comment above saying that they won’t listen to them now that they’re “a couple of white boys” is perfectly symbolic of this.

  5. Jungle are not appropriating or exploiting the culture. You can use a style, learn from it, embrace it, but as long as you don’t claim primacy/your audience (mainstream white america in Iggy’s case) does not claim primacy over that style, that’s fine. Jungle have a disco and funk infused style, but sing in their english accents, and aren’t trying to use a particular vernacular that’s foreign to who they are as a ploy to sell records.

    Additionally, them hiding their faces and using dancers isn’t a mask to sell more records. It’s a similar sentiment done by a lot of artists notably French duo Daft Punk. Basically, you’re welcome to borrow music and culture, appropriation comes in when you claim original ownership over that style or culture. Jungle does not do that, Iggy does.

  6. I know this was published years ago but I had the exact feeling when I saw the actual musicians themselves. For a while I was like, it’s cool that the frontman can also dance really well. But the more I watched their music videos the more variety in dancers I saw and the more I was like.. who are the singers/musicians? And when I saw it was two white guys I felt tricked?? Like, idk, I’m white myself and I’ve been trying to listen to more artists of color so this felt really weird to me. I was disappointed honestly. All these other comments defending them aren’t really seeing the point here.

  7. I first heard them on Queen Sugar, looked up more & been listening since. Well after this published article.
    I did like that they employed Black dancers for their videos, yet found it a bit irksome & couldn’t quite identify it before.
    I guess I caught onto them after the mentioned initial curated image, when they could be readily seen in their live performances.
    A bit irksome they never seen in videos, seeing them in background non-dancing role, while shining spotlight on the dancers would make a difference.
    Hadn’t seen any mention of this before & now realizing that not easily identifiable irksome feeling is what they’ve performed has been akin to blackface minstrelsy.
    Glad they do employ Black people in the full live band. Would be nice to know they share some of that creative input with their full band in the studio too.
    I’ll keep an eye on them & hope that they do improve on this facet.

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