This past week a ravenous debate engulfed black twitter. The case at hand? Bruno Mars and cultural appropriation. Though inklings of appropriation accusations have been shadowing Bruno for a while now, the discussion intensified after Mars swept the 2018 Grammys, winning six in total, including album, song, and record of the year for his New Jack Swing and funk inspired album ‘24K Magic.’ Following his wins, the Grapevine, a youtube series that showcases dialogue and debate on hot topics relevant to black millennials, posted a video entitled “Is Bruno Mars a Cultural Appropriator”, where Seren Sensei, an activist and frequent contributor to Grapevine discussions, weighed in with a compelling and sharp critique of Mars. Her sentiments became viral and set the stage for an intense battle, with so-called “Bruno stans” on one side and “Hotep haters” on the other.
Outside of these extremes, most have simply quipped that the debate is pointless, a waste of time, or as an article on The Grio put it, a result of ‘righteous millennial boredom’. These sentiments are disheartening. It is concerning to see so many devalue the importance of critiquing the skewed power relations embedded in cultural appropriation, and it’s real ramifications on an artist’s trajectory to success, where greater autonomy is often given to non-black artists vis-a-vis greater limitations and marginalization of black artists. As a black woman who not only grew up on, ferociously consumed, and writes and performs R&B music, this debate hits close to my heart. Also, as a black woman who studied critical race theory and is passionate about highlighting ways in which anti-blackness is created and maintained in the media, this debate is definitely valid and important. It is important because it is a very visible symptom of the larger disease that is at the core of racial politics in America and indeed globally: white supremacy.
As we all know, we live in a world in which whiteness is propped up as the gold standard and is imbued in all parts, sectors, aspects of our lives. Within the entertainment industry, it plays a large role in representation and access. The closer you are to white, the more you ‘gon be alright’. In this Bruno case, we must acknowledge that the fact that he is multiracial (Puerto Rican, Filipino, Jewish), or what people are calling his racial ambiguity, or relative proximity to whiteness, has played a role in his greater access to representation, access to musical experimentation, access to entering and climbing the charts, and being valued in multi-genre capacities. And in an industry, like all industries, where competition is cut-throat and there is limited space at “the top”, this has far-reaching implications for black artists with the same talent, and skill, but not receiving the same access, acknowledgement, and remuneration.
For me, Usher comes up as a good case study for comparison. Bruno and Usher are both extremely talented singers and performers whose music, at least in this moment, is rooted in R&B/Soul/ MJ-influences. However, just from indicators such as the number of Grammys won, Bruno, whose career has spanned 14 years as opposed to Usher’s 26, has won 11 Grammys as opposed to Usher’s 8, with most of Bruno’s success being due to the fact that he has won in both R&B and pop categories, giving him more reach and exposure, whereas Usher has won in only R&B categories. His top selling 2004 album “Confessions”, which picked up eight nominations, won in the R&B/Rap categories, but did not garner him the same crossover, big-ticket wins in Album and Record of the year. .
In the same token, I do feel that the conversation on Bruno may be a bit misplaced, in terms of #Brunoisaculturalappropriator arguments primarily focusing on writing off an individual’s artistry as opposed to highlighting the systemic and institutional dynamics that are producing and maintaining cultural appropriation as a tool for monetary gain. I don’t agree with the conversation being about whether or not a specific individual is an appropriator. For me, appropriation is a process made possible by the decisions, actions and (re)actions of both artist and industry, as supported by institutions such as record labels, marketing and PR agencies, consumers, policies such as intellectual property rights, etc. That’s why, for me, this issue is systemic, not just about Bruno.
So instead of calling Bruno names, diminishing his talent, suggesting he stop doing black music altogether, as some of the sentiments were in the viral video, the conversation could be more valuable if it was one that was highlighting the systemic process of appropriation. Right now, if the argument is that Bruno is an appropriator and should stop doing black music; say if he does, then what? The system will just replace him with another. Hip-hop journalist and professor Davey D. Cook put it best: “cultural appropriation is capitalism and big business in the form of multinational corporations who have zero respect and total disregard for Black People and the oftentimes oppressive conditions that gave rise to our musical expression.”
Lastly, this debate is also interesting because of the artist in question. Bruno is simply a hard one to come for in this context because he honestly is talented, does the music justice both in creation and performance, and credits the importance of the black musical legacy. I would not necessarily call him a cultural appropriator, but maybe more a beneficiary of a system that gives him more relative power (I wish there was a nice short word for that). The question is, what is he doing with his relative power? As of now, it seems he is using it to prop up other black artists. Now if the debate was about Miley Cyrus…