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The ‘Adele does Jamaica’ storm shows that the debate around cultural appropriation is, in any language, a mess

Andrew Dickens
Andrew Dickens

Andrew Dickens is an award-winning writer on culture, society, politics, health and travel for major titles such as the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Independent, the Daily Mail and Empire.

Andrew Dickens is an award-winning writer on culture, society, politics, health and travel for major titles such as the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Independent, the Daily Mail and Empire.

The ‘Adele does Jamaica’ storm shows that the debate around cultural appropriation is, in any language, a mess
British pop icon Adele has been both attacked and defended for dressing in a Jamaican flag bikini and having her hair in Bantu knots. Is it cultural appropriation or cultural appreciation? It’s a big old mess, is what it is.

As sure as the Earth spins on its axis, each new day will serve up something for someone to get angry about online. 

Yesterday’s dish was a photograph of Adele. In it, as a nod to the Notting Hill Carnival that didn’t happen this year, she wore a bikini top in the colours of the Jamaican flag and had her hair in Bantu knots. The carnival, in case you don’t know, is a celebration of Caribbean culture that has taken place in west London since the 1960s. And a right laugh it is, too.

Her get-up led to accusations of cultural appropriation; that she, as a white British woman, shouldn’t be dressing like that. Her hairstyle, in particular, seemed to be an issue, as black women’s hair holds huge cultural significance.

This criticism then led to a lot of people defending her, claiming that what she was doing was cultural appreciation, not appropriation. 

I’m only talking about black and Jamaican voices here. I’m a white British male, so I’m in no position to tell black or Jamaican people what does or doesn’t offend them or their culture (it’d be nice if other people understood that, too).

The one thing I would say about Adele is that she grew up in Tottenham, the same area of London that I live in. It’s a financially poor but culturally rich area, albeit one spoiled by the presence of Satan’s own football club, Tottenham Hotspur. In the 2011 census, Tottenham’s borough, Haringey, recorded nearly 19 per cent of its residents as ‘Black’.

I’m not saying that growing up somewhere like Tottenham automatically prevents you from being racist. I absolutely guarantee that it doesn’t. The “I’ve got a black friend” argument only gets you out of so much. But I do believe that whatever Adele did was done with some degree of understanding and sensitivity - this was no Justin Trudeaux blackface horror show. In fact, my local MP David Lammy agrees. 

Whether black people were offended or not, as I say, is not for the likes of me to decide. Judging unscientifically from the reaction on social media, as is my wont, it seems that Americans got more upset about it than the British or Jamaicans, which might be telling.

What I can say, however, is that the force and diversity of reaction showed how much of a confused mess the debate around cultural appropriation is – no matter where you’re from.

Unlike the antisemitic right-wing made-up notion of ‘cultural Marxism,’ cultural appropriation is real. Dominant cultures have, for centuries, taken the best things from dominated cultures for their own gain and to the detriment of those being pillaged.

They’ve taken gold and oil, yes, but they’ve also taken art, iconography and music and profited from them, with barely a word of credit, let alone a penny, finding its way to the originators. White Americans have made far more money from jazz and soul than black Americans, for example, whether as artists, management or label execs.

Culture is fluid. This is a given. All cultures give and take to and from each other. It’s how it’s done that’s the key to whether it’s ok or not. 

It’s clearly not ok to steal. It’s not ok to mimic and mock: to ‘do a Trudeaux’ and black up or to stick on a native American headdress, whoop and stick ‘me um heap big chief’ into your party banter. Same goes for taking sacred or religious items or symbols and using them to push a frivolous high-end fashion line. That’s not an ‘overly-woke’ example, by the way. Imagine the reaction in conservative America if a Muslim Pakistani fashion designer created a crucifix catsuit with a Jesus Face codpiece and Holy Mother earrings. 

There wouldn’t be enough toys to throw.

That’s the easy stuff, though. Where it gets messy is when people start to confuse cultural appropriation, cultural appreciation, cultural assimilation and acculturation. It was messy just typing that sentence.

It’s ok to dress in the clothes of another culture if you’re doing it because you love that culture. You might look like a tit in it, but it’s a sign of affection. It’s also ok for you to make music or food influenced by other cultures and make money from it, as long you acknowledge where the food or music came from.

This means you can be Paul Simon and produce Graceland, inspired by southern African music but including and crediting African musicians. It means that you can be a white man in Yorkshire who makes and sells Indian food, but as one wit said during this debate, you can’t then claim that it’s ‘Yorkshire curry.’ 

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It’s ok for a middle-aged white Brit to love Japanese art (my forearms bear three Japanese tattoos, each drawn by Japanese artists) or want to make films about Indonesian martial arts, as long as it’s deferential, referential and you’re not screwing anyone over. It’s ok for a Chinese man to be the world’s best pianist and for South Americans to be the world’s best footballers.

Al Jolson, on the other hand, is someone you should never have heard of.

Obviously much cultural mixing has happened through colonialism. What’s less obvious is that many cultures are still taken advantage of today. So the next time you buy an expensive ‘ethnic piece’ from some white woman in California or Kensington, maybe ask a few questions. And maybe see if you can get it at source (it’ll probably save you a few quid, too).

Perhaps, too, if you really dig Peruvian fashion, learn more about Peruvian life and politics. Love Congolese sculpture? Find out about their familial structures or amateur cricket scene. Whatever. Be less shallow. 

But those people who are too ready to attack, often on other people’s behalf, need to remember that we live in a transient world. People move and adapt and share and learn all the time, and that’s a bloody wonderful thing. I thank the food gods daily for living in a city where I can eat a hundred cuisines, not always cooked by people from those cuisine’s home countries, but always recognised for what they are. My Japanese tatts are sweet and so much better than an English rose or British Bulldog. (The Japanese, by the way, are the absolute masters of cultural appropriation and appreciation - they take foreign stuff and make it better.)

Tara from the Home Counties, however, probably shouldn’t wear a bindi or cornrolls because she thinks it’s a laugh.

So yeah, it’s complicated. It’s a mess. If you want an opinion, it’s down to motive and method. If people do things for the right reasons and the right way, it’s all good. But if you want a solution, sorry, I can’t give you one - and that is an international problem.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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