Cultural Appropriation . . . Conversation . . . Incorporation

“Pentecost is God’s rejection of monoculture. It is a reminder that the very heart of God is diversity without division, and unity without uniformity. Pentecost gives us power to see the other, not as a threat to be guarded against, but a gift to be received. Pentecost is God’s promise that God’s perfect reign of peace and love will not be realized by violently imposing our will, but by softening, letting go, and allowing ourselves to be thoroughly possessed by the Spirit of love’s embrace.” — Rt. Rev. Craig Loya, Episcopal Bishop of Minnesota.

Every year, after hearing the Acts reading on Pentecost, I am taken back to an article I read five years ago: “Three Cheers for Cultural Appropriation.”

The term was relatively new to me. I had encountered it mostly in an un-cheered, negative way, as the full equivalent of cultural conquest and/or acquisition: out of respect for various cultures, their origins and integrity must be valued by never transferring them in any way to persons of other cultures. From the get-go this stringent approach to the encounter of cultures struck me as anti-Pentecost.

I know enough church history to realize that without the encounter and mingling of cultures, nearly all Christian history would cease to exist.

Of course, I also know enough ecclesial/liturgical history to realize that God’s reign was often pursued in precisely the way Rev. Loya tells us won’t work: the violent imposition of the will of one culture on another. The colonizing subjugation that flowed from Christian Europe for centuries still is visible today in wounds and scars from that time. Commerce and Church were on parallel zealous, sometimes extreme, missionary activity. (I am fond of Sarah Vowell’s definition of a missionary from her book “Unfamiliar Fishes” – someone who shows up uninvited to tell you that you are wrong.)

As a white church musician in the U.S., I am familiar with the horrendous subjugation of African persons that resulted in a body of exquisite musical repertoire: the slave spirituals. It must be stated time and again that the treasure of this music in no way warrants the horrors that brought it about. Since I am a person who has benefited economically from these spirituals, I also know that it’s my duty to participate in the various ways that reparations are beginning to be made.

A month or so ago the complex, evolving matter of appropriation came back into focus for me as I prepared a vocal audition for a local choral group. I’d decided on “Motherless Child” as my solo selection, keenly aware of my own cultural (and vocal) limitations in regard to presenting the piece. So I took steps similar to the ones I’ve taken when working as a composer/arranger with slave spirituals, or other Afro- or African American musics. I originally based this process on a section from a biography about Marian Anderson, the famous African American contralto, when she described how she’d prepared some Finnish songs for her first concert in Helsinki. My process, broadly speaking, has three steps:
1. Information I usually begin by trying to find out as much as I can about the original piece in its first context(s). This includes learning if the lyrics contained any sort of code, particularly about escape to the northern U.S. and freedom. In the internet era, great enrichment is possible through hearing/seeing performances presented various ways. We must always continue to learn and grow!
2. Respect This step serves as something of a bridge between the first and third steps. In gathering information, I inevitably come to grow in appreciation and respect for the cultural origins of the piece. I also come to grips with the many ways that its origin is completely outside my own experience and/or cultural heritage, a heritage I must also respect.
3. Authenticity Though I realize that I can’t arrange or perform in a 100% authentic way, I strive to reach a culturally-informed place from which to work. This hopefully keeps me from a surface imitation that is often mere mimicry—like the “plantation lingo” [“de” for “the”] that was common decades ago.

For my audition, I worked from an arrangement by Harry T. Burleigh, an African American musician who was an early leading figure in the dissemination of the slave spirituals through an encounter with classical art song tradition. Burleigh introduced Dvorak to this body of music when he (Dvorak) was head of the American Conservatory of Music in New York, and Burleigh a student. In addition to the authenticity Burleigh wrote into his arrangement, I intentionally applied some vocal techniques, such as adding weight to pitched initial consonants (the “m” of “mother” and the “l” of “long”). When a phrase was repeated, I would do some sort of variation, be it a small embellishment or an alternate note in the harmonic scheme of that point in the song. These are a few ways I attempted to prepare a sensitive and culturally-informed performance that still felt authentic both for the song and for me.

At the beginning of the audition, I said I’d sing “Motherless Child” and hoped it was being offered in a thoughtful way, and not as an exercise in cultural appropriation. The director volunteered that he finds it a difficult quandary to navigate between criticism about non-diverse programming, and criticism about appropriating music from different cultures. My way of expressing this situation is: we’re expected to stay in our own cultural silos, yet have cultural diversity as a goal.

I firmly believe that the Holy Spirit does not like silos—their walls or containments—and has, from the day described in Acts, desired that peoples come to know each other fully in the wind of Her wings. We can’t do that successfully from inside our monocultural silos, no matter how deep or rich a single culture is contained therein.

Let us ask the Spirit lead us through this endeavor, so we leave behind appropriation, enter into conversation, and in-corpus-orate these many blessings, becoming one Body, one Spirit in Christ.

One comment

  1. One key point for the musician: do I work with people of the culture I am exploring? Do I keep my distance? I was welcomed as an instrumentalist in the choir for the Spanish language Mass at my new parish in 2015. I had nearly no familiarity with the music or the genres of Latin America. But I learned and strove to listen. I’d like to think relationships resulted that helped inform my participation as I learned things like cumbia, merengue, son, etc..

    I think there’s a difference between “using” the music of other cultures for personal enrichment and allowing oneself to be formed by participating in a Gospel choir. I also remember a news item of two women who were hounded out of their food truck business, accused of cultural appropriation. Their critics perhaps operated in ignorance, not knowing the women had traveled extensively in Mexico and learned recipes and methods from homemakers, not resort chefs in Cancun. I think we need to listen to those who protest, and have a conversation. But not every complaint is valid.

    That said …

    https://www.wgbh.org/news/arts/2021/11/16/this-church-is-paying-royalties-when-it-sings-spirituals-composed-by-enslaved-africans?utm_campaign=npr&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social&utm_term=nprnews&fbclid=IwAR0dRQ8t0CUyPCnAL8D5LbGPAwP-7BpOtLzohvchyCi7gqhKAtpmIY4CD_U

    One church pays. There are a lot of spirituals filling up hymnals. Do publishers do their part?

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