Mixed Messages: On Appropriation

Hello there!

I spent last weekend at another festival, which means two things; first, I am again facing a number of odd tan lines, the worst of these being a sunglasses mark, particularly visible on my nose. The second is that the time has finally come for me to think about some negative things that go on at festivals. As I’ve been looking into the messages festivals market to audiences through their websites and advertising, I spent a lot of time thinking about the ideas being pushed on audiences. While doing so I saw mostly great things, like love and the spirit of cohabitation, but I also started thinking about some no-so-great parts of festivals. From drug use and public intoxication, to theft and violence, music festivals do not always provide a positive experience for festival-goers. Something I, and many others before me have grappled with is the presence of cultural appropriation in the clothing, marketing, and performances at festivals.

Before you click off the page or get the wrong impression I’d like to preface with the probably clear fact that I love music festivals. I am spending a full year researching all about them simply because I think they are the site of a remarkable cultural phenomenon, and I would like to examine why. Additionally, they make for some great views, like the image below, and a lot of exciting memories!

Here's a picture of this week's "study spot" not a bad view, I must say!

Here’s a picture of this week’s “study spot” not a bad view, I must say!

So when I decided to call out the cultural appropriation I have noticed, it is not out of some attempt to discredit festivals as a generally positive experience. More specifically, though I will be using examples from the most recent festival I attended (All Good in West Virginia), I am not by any means discouraging people from attending this festival in the future (I truly enjoyed myself!). I also do not mean to claim that this is the only location in which I’ve witnessed negative appropriative behavior.

So on to these instances of appropriation I keep talking about. As a global studies and history student, I completely understand the need for cultural exchange; in fact I think it is a vital method through which we can advance society and has resulted in a number of amazing shared experiences since more or less the beginning of humankind. That being said, I also recognize the value of knowing the difference between sharing cultural elements and cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is defined on its wikipedia page (check it out for more basic information!) as “the adoption of elements of one culture by members of another cultural group, especially if the adoption is of an oppressed people’s cultural elements by members of the dominant culture”.

For many, the term contains a very negative connotation, synonymous with stealing, disrespecting, and distorting cultural elements. The format of this negative appropriation ranges from offensive use of sacred symbols, to reinforcement of prejudiced stereotypes through media, to appropriating clothing and hairstyles in an effort to be funny or edgy. From my perspective, cultural appropriation results from actions or representations that, when enacted by a member of the dominant culture, are celebrated at the expense of the oppressed culture. This “celebration” can come in terms of the action being seen as funny, edgy or cool, or attractive–but only when the action is done by a member of the dominant culture.

As an example of this, let’s talk about “All Good’s Gangster Time.” Once a day, a group of people on stilts would come out together in matching costumes and walk through the festival. It was unclear if these people worked for the festival, or simply were a group of patrons who had come to entertain. On the first day I thought this was a cool, idiosyncratic part of the All Good festival. However, on the second day, a set was interrupted by sharp whistles. And there, clad in all gold, fake afros, metallic dollar sign chains, and even some aluminum foil grills stood the stilted people. They wove through the crowd holding large posters, one of which declared that is was “All Good’s Gangster Time” and pausing to take pictures with people doing “gang signs” and leaning their shoulders in a “thuggish” manner.

These words conjure a certain image to mind. It’s no secret that thuggish is coded language for black, or that black people wear their hair in the afro hairstyle. The problem with this costume is just that: white people dressed up in this manner as a costume. Beyond reinforcing negative images of black people in society, as well as linking hairstyles, which are integral to black culture, to a certain socioeconomic status, Gangster Time was just another way for white people to participate in a joke about a group which excludes those that it is about and gets its humor at their expense.

In addition to this event, the All Good Festival also featured a large white statue of a laughing Buddha. The platform around it acted as a meeting point and seating area, especially at night when fluorescent lights illuminated it. While I don’t know much about the teachings of Buddhism, I feel that using a religious figure as a large advertisement probably crosses some boundaries. This goes along with, at least two Native American headdresses I saw, another symbol often appropriated by people of dominant cultural groups.

The problem here is not the intent, for I don’t believe any of the events occurred purposefully to offend anyone. The problem is that when you use a symbol from a culture that is not your own with the intention to get a laugh, create a mascot, or as a purely aesthetic fashion choice, you disregard the significance of that item for those to whom it belongs. It is not cultural exchange in a meaningful way, stemming from understanding of the symbol’s past or uses, it is appropriation. And it’s a part of music festival culture that needs to stop.

I know this post is kind of heavy, but again I think it’s important to consider the behaviors we take part in that are damaging. Unfortunately I have never attended a festival without seeing these and other items used in a disrespectful manner. Despite this, the messages of festivals are overall really positive, and All Good was a very fun experience. From the Hollywood-esque illuminated letters reading “Welcome to All Good” (pictured below) and later “Come to Love All”, to performers telling the crowd “Thank you for letting me be myself” and to “Stay Good” everyone at the festival encouraged optimistic views on living and a healthy respect for fun. I would certainly return to wild and wonderful West Virginia, I just hope that someday soon I could do so and see a little less of these off-putting images.

The good vibes abounded at this incredibly laid-back festival and I can't help but think "Come to Love All" could be the catchphrase of festival culture itself. 

The good vibes abounded at this incredibly laid-back festival and I can’t help but think “Come to Love All” could be the catchphrase of festival culture itself.

Until my next post, thanks for reading!

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About genevajackson

I am an aspiring music industry professional. I listen to a lot of music and it makes me feel a lot of things. Check out my spotify @geneva_jackson.