A few years back, I was talking to an Irish musician about the American blues. I found it strange that British and Irish musicians, particularly those honing their chops in the 1960s, seemed more taken with the form than Americans. “Well,” the singer said in his inimitable Dublin brogue. “No offense, but youse didn’t give those guys the appreciation they deserved. So all those unsold records ended up on docks across the Atlantic.”
I can’t vouch for this as an economic explanation, but I find the statement touching. Artists like Robert Plant, Mick Jagger and Van Morrison revered African-American blues and rock musicians to an obsessive degree. It’s also, to be fair, hard not be ambivalent about this fact. Those artists participated in what might be labeled “cultural appropriation” today, imitating both the style and dialect of commercially unviable artists.
The dialect was crucial. Mick Jagger meticulously imitated blues singers’ accents. When Robert Plant exclaims “oh child, the way you shake that thing,” I doubt he’s using a colloquialism from his native West Midlands. British blues appropriation would have been much less sociologically fascinating without the peculiarity (and, let’s face it, implausibility) of British voices imitating the language of African American Southerners.
But is linguistic theft the same as cultural theft? When people talk pejoratively about “cultural appropriation” these days, it often seems their main beef is with ethnolect appropriation. This came to mind recently in regard to Australian hip hop artist Iggy Azalea, who raps in the style of Southern Hip Hop. This interview interspersed with music clips gives an idea of how disparate her rapping and speaking lects are (ignoring some adopted Americanisms in her speech like occasional rhoticity):
Azalea’s fame has generated a line of criticism typified by this article by Brittney Cooper in Salon:
Iggy Azalea interlopes on this finely honed soundscape of Southern Blackness to tell us “how fancy” she is, and ask “how we love dat.” Her recklessness makes clear that she does not understand the difference between code-switching and appropriation. She may get the science of it, but not the artistry.
Cooper’s linguistic focus here suggests to me that she takes issue with Azalea’s dialect imitation more than anything else (I’m hardly the first to point out that when you remove Azalea’s vocals, her hit Fancy sounds more like Gwen Stefani‘s Hollaback Girl than TI). The focus on accents and dialects which accompanies this debate exemplifies the intensely personal nature of language.
Yet it also, curiously, exemplifies the superficiality of language. While Azalea full-scale dons African-American English’s syntax and phonology, what she actually raps about is rather culturally nonspecific (at least from what I’ve heard). A few hip-hop tropes aside, “Fancy” reads like a universal party anthem. Come to mention it, Azalea occasionally raps about topics far removed from any American experience. Note this stanza from Change Your Life:
We spend our Winters in the Summer of Australia
Eating crumpets with the sailors
On acres without the neighbors
We fast-forward four years more
We long way from piss-poor
Lyrics like that evoke my startled reaction upon hearing Van Morrison sing about “the train from Dublin up to Sandy Row” like a Delta bluesman or Robert Plant sing likewise about England’s druidic past (not that I’m saying Azalea is on par with those guys). It also, in a way, reminds me of Trudgill’s great example of a non-standard-English speaker discussing academic geography. To wit, how you say something doesn’t always correspond to what you say, culturally-speaking. Dialects, like all language varieties, have near-infinite expressive capacities.
It’s valid to criticize appropriation in the music industry. But a distinction needs to be made, I think, between appropriating surface-level linguistic features and appropriating cultures. Of course, it isn’t always an easy line to draw.