The Humanevangelist: What Cultural Appropriation on a Global Stage Can Teach Us

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery. Why, then, is Russian singer, techno songwriter/mixer, DJ, and dentist Nina Kraviz in a world of trouble over her new cornrows?

Looked at one way, the answer’s easy: Kraviz hasn’t really known, let alone lived, the African or African-American experience the hairstyle embodies. Her adoption of the style strikes many as an attempt to exploit the hard, often deadly experience of growing up poor and black.

What’s more, critics point out, in 2011 Kraviz put out a single titled “Ghetto Kraviz.” (By “critics,” I mean anyone with a Twitter account.) In true DJ fashion, let’s sample a few exchanges:

@NinaKraviz I LOVE my hair!

@vanberkalator No Nina! We (white people) can’t wear cornrows. Cultural appropriation.

@NinaKraviz I can wear whatever I want! Thank you.

@frankiefatgold replying to @NinaKraviz  i can’t believe you’re actually going to the extent of co-opting the experience of racism as a way of deflecting a discussion about white privilege. as a black person who’d been a supporter of yours, this is sad.

@delitefuls… having a title like “ghetto kraviz” & then having cornrows. girl needs to get cancelled already. … tired of these white girls in the techno scene, disrespectful

Not all fans were offended. Techno bassist Quinten McKee came to Kraviz’s defense:

@quintenmckee Oh hell no, you’re not going to try and wave the black card over a hair style…. Not with me around! Take your sensitivity somewhere else, its 2019 we have plenty of real racism to handle without you making up issues…

Charges of cultural appropriation usually play out within national borders. On the global stage, things can get complicated in other ways.

Kraviz grew up in Irkutsk, in the center of Siberia, a famously cold and bleak region of Asia where for decades Soviet leaders sent dissidents into exile. Siberia, in short, was a ghetto on a grand scale. But that doesn’t seem to be what Kraviz had in mind. “Ghetto Kraviz” is about a change of seasons.

Why not reference her local history? I’m not sure Kraviz knows it. Or perhaps “Gulag Kraviz” lacked the branding power of “Ghetto Kraviz.”

Reacting to the tweetstorm, she wrote: “Polish Jews would be very surprised to discover that [the] word ‘ghetto’ exclusively belongs to African-American culture.” True, but she can hardly claim that her song was about their experience, and if it were, would that not be another instance of cultural appropriation? In short, like so many others. Nina’s been trying to crib some cool from African Americans.

But the controversy opens the door to deeper questions: Who owns culture? Who gets to say what’s offensive and what’s legit? And most important, where do we draw the lines of our identity?

Culture, by definition, is a shared system of customs, values, symbols, and behavior. Yet, it’s equally obvious that some people have a greater claim to cultural particulars than others, at least for a time. The Stars and Stripes belong to the United States of America; the Latvian language belongs to the Latvian people; hula belongs to the Hawaiians; and the many cultural responses of black Americans to slavery, segregation, and racism belong to black Americans … at least for a time.

This is where it gets difficult. The blues and jazz both grew out of the African-American experience, but, like countless other cultural creations, they evolved beyond their origins. Today, no one can rightly say that either musical form is “owned” by anyone. Cultural products—songs, poems, paintings, and so on—may be copyrighted, but genres? No. Whole cultures? Certainly not.

Still, this isn’t about legalities. It’s about the anger that some people—usually people who feel set aside and oppressed—feel when they see elements of their cultural identity reproduced by outsiders. Imitation may be sincere, or it may be mockery, but either way it can be infuriating to see it snatched and distorted out of context.

In a minor way, I’ve experienced this. I belong to two of the most despised cultural groups in America: atheists and Arabs. My father’s side of the family is Lebanese in origin. I can live without the cultural heritage of religious conflict, minor-key music, and dreadful politics, but the food? Never! I was genuinely upset, some years ago, when an Israeli restaurant opened in my town, serving all the foods that we thought of as ours. Israel was founded by mostly European Jews in 1948. You’re telling me that hummus, kufta, baba ghanoush, labni, baklava, and the like all sprang up from nothing since then? I was outraged.

But I later tamed my outrage. For one thing, much of the same cuisine girdles the Mediterranean. The Greeks have dolmades, the Lebanese have waraq einab—both are delicious rolled, stuffed grape leaves. But more importantly, if we’re ever to find peace in the Middle East and elsewhere, sharing food—and ways of cooking it—forms a good first step. If Israelis want to think of this traditional fare as theirs, what’s the harm in that?

Food, music, fashion, language, and ideas have always jumped over cultural boundaries. More particularly, history shows that conquered tribes and oppressed minorities nearly always exert a powerful cultural influence on the invaders. Rome conquered the Hellenic Empire in 146 BCE, but Greek culture remained the pinnacle of intellectual and artistic life throughout the Roman Empire for centuries to come.

What we call “Arabic numbers” originated in the Hindu culture of what is today India. The numerals reached the Middle East in the eighth century as a result of rapid Islamic expansion.

So-called Western science began in Europe, scattered across Italy, France, Germany, England, and Scotland (whose cultures, let us note, differ significantly), but today there’s nothing “Western” about it. The science practiced in labs in Beijing, Argentina, Egypt, and Cameroon is just as sciency as in Pasadena or Cambridge. That’s because science is a way of getting to universally reliable truths. And one of those truths is that, however diverse cultures may be, underlying them all is a common human nature.

Shaped by eons of evolution, human nature has imposed on us a tendency to form mutually antagonistic yet mutually curious tribes. In English, this tendency is captured in the tension between two words with essentially the same meaning but radically differing nuance: “alien” and “exotic.” The existence of similar terms in many other languages points to this tendency’s deep roots.

Let’s be clear: the flaws of human nature do not invalidate claims of cultural appropriation. Yes, there are some social justice activists with hair triggers on their flamethrowers. But there are also dunces who don’t get why doing a tomahawk chop in feathered headdress no more honors the Native American warrior tradition than putting on blackface is a way for whites to pay tribute to black musicians.

What’s more, cultural appropriation is problematic when it’s about power. A black teen might get harassed for her hairstyle; in fact, little black boys are often told they can’t go to school because their hairstyles break the dress code. But when a rich, white musician has cornrows, it can add prestige and power to her image. It’s why in many instances, cultural appropriation goes beyond being offensive to become outright exploitation.

I would argue our grasp of human nature points the way forward: we cannot truly be humanists if our primary group identity is less than humanity. Culture is a river that flows, ever-changing, around the world. It may look and sound different from place to place, but human nature guarantees deep commonalities among all human cultures.

Recognizing that truth imposes on us a moral duty of decency, sympathy, and respect toward people of all cultures. But it also licenses us to respectfully criticize cultural practices anywhere that fall short of humanistic ideals.

The cornrows of Kraviz may understandably spark outrage, but in a global setting, it’s important to remind everyone that we respect cultural differences because we accept the universality of humankind. However much cultures may vary, let us never forget: we’re all in this together.