When the conversation of cultural appropriation comes up, many of us often find it difficult to differentiate between appropriation, homage, and or appreciation. Perhaps the most simplistic and arguably best way to know if something should be classified as cultural appropriation is to ask yourself, “if this was a written paper, would it classified as plagiarism?” Plagiarism isn’t a homage or appreciation — it’s downright stealing.
Much like plagiarism, cultural appropriation is what happens when a person or entity strongly connected to institutional power copies/replicates the work or cultural staples – think food, art, clothing – from a population that does not have strong connections to institutional power.
One of the most recent glaring examples of this is Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings” song AND music video. In June 2017, as part of the marketing and promotion strategy for his third album, Pretty Girls Like Trap Music, Rapper 2 Chainz painted a house in Atlanta pink and wrote TRAP on the front. The house became a staple in Atlanta and for Black social media consumers around the country. Not only did it provide a backdrop for great photos, it also provided FREE HIV/Aids testing for the community, was one day used as a church, and hosted community events.
In February 2019, Ariana Grande used the same exact concept in her music video for her new song, “7 Rings.” In an interview discussing how he felt about having his creativity copied by Ariana Grande, 2 Chainz revealed that when the two artists met to discuss this matter Ariana Grande essentially replied, “ ‘Well, yeah, I thought people knew I took it from you.’” To which he replied, “ ‘Well, how would people know that?”
Princess Nokia called out Ariana Grande on social media stating that the lyrics of the song were “very familiar” to the ones Nokia used in her song “Mine” and others noted that the flow of the song was very close to Soulja Boy’s “Pretty Boy Swag.”
This incident perfectly encapsulates cultural appropriation. Ariana Grande — a soft spoken white Italian women — takes lyrical, musical, and visual elements created by two Black men and a Puerto Rican woman in her music and music video under the impression that people “would just know” where she got these artistic elements from.
There is no doubt that Ariana was inspired by these artists but she didn’t stop at inspiration, she went on to copy them. She took part of these artists’ cultural elements, which they created, and packaged them like her own original and cultural ideas — the whole thing reeking of cultural appropriation.
Fashion brands have done this many times as well, taking “inspiration” from indigenous populations from North, Central, and South America for their new seasonal collections. Brands like Isabel Marant, Forever21, and Brand KTZ just to name a few. This has happened so often that a task force has been set up to monitor and help the populations in Central America affected to take legal action when their ideas and concepts have been stolen from them and used for profit.
In 2017, two white female cooks talked about going to Mexico to learn how to make tortillas. The local women in Mexico shared some insights but – as the cooks shared with Willamette Week – “ ‘They [the local Mexican women] wouldn’t tell us too much about technique, but we were peeking into the windows of every kitchen, totally fascinated by how easy they made it look. We learned quickly it isn’t quite that easy.’” These two white women from Portland travelled to Mexico to take, assumingly for free, knowledge from local Mexican women and when they weren’t given all of the information they were seeking they took the liberty of invading their privacy to steal the technique used.
If institutions or people with proximity to structural power are inspired by the art, food, or really any cultural aspect of another population they can pay for that population to provide it. Period. If they want to pay homage, they can do exactly that; pay the community they are moved by to provide it. It is 2019, and people with strong connections to institutional power can’t continue to have Ariana’s disposition of “I thought people knew I took it from you.” Assumptions aren’t capital.