Art, Culture & Appropriation: Police and Thieves

On the intertwined histories of music, sampling and influence

Mea Culpa. The worst mistake I ever made in decades of covering Afro-Caribbean music for TV, print and radio arose due to my resistance to cultural appropriation. Apartheid was still in effect in South Africa when I travelled there in 1983 to co-produce and direct a BBC Arena documentary on the Jo’burg music scene. It was partly a ruse to film the trumpeter Hugh Masekela, who had been forced into exile in the 1960s and was recording his album, Techno-Bush (1984), in a studio in a caravan in adjacent Botswana. At the time, there was a general boycott against South Africa by the African National Congress (ANC), as part of their struggle to oust the regime. Unlike Paul Simon – who recorded his 1986 album, Graceland, there – I was granted clearance by the London ANC: they felt it was useful for people outside the country to hear the springy, m’baqanga sound of segregated townships, to relate.

My sin was not to include local disco diva, Brenda Fassie. I failed to ‘get’ the music’s embrace of new technology now adored in the work of, say, Nigerian artist William Onyeabor. (Later, I’d write the liner notes to his acclaimed re-issue.) Fassie is now hailed as a heroine, but I was not wild about her music – or her cultural appropriation of disco. Though I loved Chic, I was sick of disco putting my musician friends out of work. I hoped to escape to a more organic sound in Africa – only to find that African musicians themselves were longing to flirt with electronica and disco.

Without cultural appropriation, there would be no pop, which is intrinsically mixed, racially impure, creole. The rhythms of captive Africans, centuries on, provide the framework for pop. Something of the host population winds up in the mix. Even now, the zouk and related music of the French Antilles features not only the African-derived gwo ka drums, but also the slavemaster’s violin. Music is like that: a dandelion, whose spores blow far, sprouting where they land; some in more hospitable climes than others.

Sampling, the musical language of our times, presents a rough conundrum. ‘Like most “found” art, it raises stubborn questions about context, manipulation and cultural imperialism,’1 wrote Rolling Stone critic Jon Pareles of David Byrne and Brian Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981), a delicious landmark album that blithely rummages through deracinated global voices, some of spiritual import, as if they were a dressing-up box. One track, ‘Qu’ran’, sampling a recording of Algerian Muslims chanting, was removed after release by Byrne and Eno following complaints from the UK branch of the World Council of Islam. In 2006, Byrne told Pitchfork: ‘Self-censorship is not necessarily a bad thing. That’s just the way human interactions work.’2

Like so much in life, the fracas around musical appro­priation is not so much aesthetic as it is about money, entitlement, power and access. Simon made Graceland on a whim after he came across South African township music on a bootleg cassette. His new band were the team of session musicians who mostly recorded for the Afrikaans monolith Gallo Records, orchestrated by the bandleader and master guitarist Ray Phiri (who passed away in 2017), with whose brilliance Simon spun a new weave of his idiosyncratic, fragile melodies. Graceland went on to become a foundational fusion work of ‘world music’ and an international hit, selling some 16 million copies worldwide. Simon disliked being drawn on the ANC ban he had ignored. It was widely rumoured that he paid the musicians over scale – only right, since we’re talking about apartheid South Africa where, as members of the oppressed black majority, the musicians were paid even less than their ‘rich world’ peers. But Simon also gave global visibility to artists who were already established regional stars, including Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens, and the Empress, Miriam Makeba. (Still, Simon could have included Ray Phiri in the publishing credits and properly shifted the wicked separatist paradigm.) Proper pay goes a long way towards levelling a corrugated playing field. Due to the great neoliberal, neocon, capitalist, consumerist numbers game that has been run on us, here we all are inna Babylon, as the Rastas would say.


Junior Murvin, Police & Thieves, 1977

Junior Murvin, Police & Thieves, 1977

Why would I, a transplanted British New Yorker, express myself with Rasta patois? Is it appropriation or just how I was raised? Although my immediate family’s background is refugee German-Jewish, my individual development was forged in the eagerly multicultural crucible of mid-1970s London and its ‘Punky Reggae Party’ (as Bob Marley called the sketchy but infectious alliance between the era’s two downtrodden rebel youth groups). As for most of the city’s first postwar generation, my musical genre was indeed at the ‘PRP’ end of New Wave. For us, both authenticity and mixology were harmonious and part of the thrill. Young Britons of all shades fought in the streets for the right to live in a mixed society, and that hybrid culture is proving resilient even today. Britain’s admixed music has grown into part of its sellable image, the way that the UK’s favourite dish is no longer spotted dick but chicken tikka masala.

Today’s dizzying progression of dance sounds, from garage to grime, are all rooted in cultural mutation. Some Americans raised on theories of appropriation misinterpret The Clash’s reggae versions – like 1977’s epochal ‘Police and Thieves’, taken from the Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry production of singer Junior Murvin. The Clash weren’t stealing, but simply playing the soundtrack of their lives in postimperial Britain’s multicultural society. Ska and dub were in their DNA more than, say, über-British Morris dancing. Reggae was less ‘Other’ to The Clash than were The Beatles. The Clash did attempt to repay their debt to the reggae that formed them, making efforts to further the careers of their island inspirations, such as producers Perry and DJ Mikey ‘Parrot Jungle’ Dread. So committed were young British bands to multiculturalism that the next popular wave of music in the early 1980s became 2-Tone, which redefined Jamaica’s bouncy ska sound from the early 1960s. For bands like The Specials and The Selecter, it was almost de rigueur to combine players of different ethnicities.

Dub was given to the world by Jamaica. EDM, remixing and rap would not exist without Jamaicans’ inventiveness. How can the rest of the world ever repay the island, considering that – with the exception of Bob Marley – the majority of pioneers were ill-remunerated? Drummer Sly Dunbar and his partner in rhythm, bass player Robbie Shakespeare, have been the definitive Jamaican studio rhythm section since the 1970s. Sly had just invested in his first ever digital drum, a Linn, in the early 1980s, when I earnestly asked the duo if they weren’t at all annoyed about foreign white bands like The Police copping their licks and making more than they did. Both chuckled. The way they saw it, they dug the homage, respected The Police and felt that any success of theirs simply helped to create a larger market for their own label – which is exactly how it worked out.

Today, Jamaica is arguably facing cultural genocide at the hands of Justin Bieber, J-Lo and others who have appropriated and deracinated dancehall, renaming it ‘tropical house’ – a slower house, with folky, ‘ethnic’ elements. Evidently, they feel the new misnomer is a more ecstasy-user-friendly association than dancehall: the sonically arresting, raunchy, violent and occasionally homophobic genre that followed conscious roots reggae with the rise of imported cocaine. The island is currently enjoying a latter-day conscious roots revival headed by artists like Chronixx and Jah9. However, even as Marley’s ‘One Love’ vibes from the 1970s are refreshed, grand theft of the island’s 1990s cultural patrimony has occurred. Producers like the Norwegian DJ Matoma are now responsible for giving the tropical house and dancehall treatment to many of today’s top names. Yet, generally, no one ’fesses up to their Jamaican origin. This is not appropriation: by hijacking an entire genre without acknowledging its source and making best efforts to somehow give back, it’s wholesale heist.

As writer, musician, broadcaster and NYU music professor Jason King says: ‘Cultural borrowing is always connected with stolen labour in our society of asymmetrical power relationships.’ King notes that a recent list of the Top 100 DJs features just one woman and is almost entirely white and male. Key among this ‘elite’ is the suave, debonair international DJ and producer Diplo, aka Major Lazer, known for his work with Madonna, Beyoncé and The Weeknd among many others. The Caribbean-oriented Major Lazer trio he formed with DJs Jillionaire and Chinese-Jamaican Walshy Fire is a palpable presence in Jamaica. We love the music, we love the vibes; yet, Major Lazer’s success highlights the chasm between a cool white male DJ and the lesser-known, often darker-skinned, originators. ‘Run the World’, his Beyoncé version of ‘’Pon de Floor’ (2009), a 2011 smash, was a dancehall track – though not billed as such. Diplo has tried to ‘give back’ through his experimental Mad Decent label and Heaps Decent, its nonprofit associate, which promote underrepresented musicians. But, according to forensic journalism by musician and writer Boima Tucker, less than one percent of his earnings wind up there.3

New solutions are in the air, however. New York’s pan-global DJ, producer and writer DJ/rupture recently told the Guardian’s Dan Hancox: ‘It feels like the technology is almost in place to allow that, if someone makes a beat on their laptop, they could sell it on their phone, and get all the money for it, direct. It comes down to this basic thing – how to give, say, a weird Angolan techno producer their dues?’

Maybe all roads lead back to Karl Marx’s labour theory of value, which questions whether people get paid appro­priately to their work and worth. Because not religion or racism alone, but the rapaciousness of contemporary capitalism, shorn even of its former noblesse oblige, underpins the fury over cultural appropriation. The rest is showbiz.

Main image: Katy Perry featuring Juicy J, ‘Dark Horse’, 2013, music video still

1  Jon Pareles, ‘David Byrne and Brian Eno: My Life in the Bush of Ghosts’, Rolling Stone, 2 April 1981 2

Vivien Goldman is an author, broadcaster, educator, post-punk musician and music journalist. Her archive has been acquired by Fales Library, New York University, USA, as The Vivien Goldman Punk and Reggae Collection. In 2016, Resolutionary (Songs 1979–1982), a compilation of Goldman’s music, was selected as a top re-issue by The Wire and Rough Trade.

Issue 190

First published in Issue 190

October 2017

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