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’
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?