Cultural Appropriation In The Music Industry

 Cultural Appropriation In The Music Industry 

By Troy Hunter

Culture today is the reflection of the people in it. One of the biggest aspects of culture in society today is music. The music industry is a perfect example of the effects of culture appropriation. Cultural appropriation is defined by Katie J.M Baker, in her article “A_Much-Needed Primer on Cultural Appropriation”, as “”Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.”  Cultural appropriation isn’t just stealing something from another culture, it can completely depreciate the real meaning and not only rip apart the cultural aspect but strip the original identity of what is being stolen from that culture so it loses meaning all together and becomes nothing more than a trend. The difference between culture appropriation and culture appreciation is that with culture appreciation the true meaning and symbolism given is upheld and respected and treated as a true part of that culture. With culture appropriation it is being re-purposed to something else demeaning the original symbolism and culture to make it something usually of less value and for nothing more than a trend. This is popular in the music industry because of the striving desire to stay current. A lot of artist takes things from other cultures for the purposes of trends to make their music and style current and interesting.


A very recent example of this is the Miley Cyrus’s new found career and style. Cyrus started out as a country pop cross over artist when she was very young on her hit show “Hannah Montana” aired on Disney Channel. Cyrus is heir to a country music dynasty with her Dad being Billy Ray Cyrus and her God mother being Dolly Parton. Cyrus has stripped herself from this culture and embraced a new career in a style she has coined as “Dirty Southern Hip Hop”. The problem with this is that Miley has used many forms of culture appropriation to accomplish her transition into her new style of music. People are upset because of Cyrus’s use of “twerking” and other aspects of African American Culture. By re-purposing these things for her own use she is taking away from another culture that isn’t hers and using it for a profitable gain. That is the source of most cultural appropriation in the music industry, the profit. “Twerking” has become a trend and instead of appreciating its African American origins Cyrus is only focused on the profit aspect of it. It has become a trend and by latching on to it , it will make her career more relevant and current and more appealing to an audience.


 We see the same process of culture appropriation in other popular artist Selena Gomez. In her debut performance for her top hit “Come and Get It”, Gomez sported a bindi, which is a highly regarded traditional omen in Hindu religion. Gomez completely disregards the actual meaning behind the bindi and repurposes it for nothing more than a fashion accessory with sex appeal. Gomez like Cyrus is using culture appropriation to suit her own personal needs and profit, disregarding the importance of the cultural origin behind it. By wearing the bindi she was ripping the religious meaning behind it and reducing it to no more than a prop. Even though Gomez most likely didn’t do this intentionally and go out of her way to demean the Hindu culture, it still has a negative impact. Being in the music industry makes her a public figure and when people see her doing this they don’t see the religious meaning to the bindi they only see it as a piece of jewelry. That is why it is harmful because things like this become trends and then eventually all together loses meaning and no one knows where it originated, only that it was a cool trend.

Selena Gomez was reprimanded for her choice on wearing the bindi, in the article, “Hindu-In-Chief Bullies Selena Gomez Out of Copping Forehead Jewelry”,  Nitasha Tiku explains how the Hindu community was very upset with Gomez’s actions but were very pleased when she decided not to wear the forehead jewelry in her music video for the hit song. This situation shows how cultural appropriation works and can be very offensive. An item very important to Hindu culture was stripped of its religious significance and not appreciated or respected like it should have been. Previously mentioned Miley Cyrus is also criticized for stealing aspects of black culture and using black culture as an “accessory”. The same issue occurs with the term “Ratchet” that has become increasing popular, especially in the music industry. John Ortved discusses the black culture origin of the word and how it is being used in the music industry today in his article “Ratchet: The Rap Insult That Becomes A Compliment”. The problem here is that these artists aren’t intentionally going out of their way to steal aspects of other cultures. The problem is they aren’t thinking at all. They aren’t considering the meaning behind these things they are treating them as trends that can be used for profit.

Cultural appropriation is very evident in the music industry, this being such a big influence on society a lot of it as carried over. A lot of people are confused however by the actual definition if culture appropriation. It seems clear but the question that rises is “Where is the line drawn?” Earlier it was defined as “”Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.” Is this too vague of a definition? A blog titled “Unsettling America” goes more in depth in an article titled “Cultural Appreciation of Cultural Appropriation?” The article stated “Cultural appropriation is the adoption or theft of icons, rituals, aesthetic standards, and behavior from one culture or subculture by another. It generally is applied when the subject culture is a minority culture or somehow subordinate in social, political, economic, or military status to the appropriating culture.” This definition goes farther than just saying its taking something from another culture without permission; they go on to say that it is generally applied with minority or subordinate cultures. This is harmful because not only does it strip away the meaning but it makes it non important. Like when Selena wears the bindi discussed earlier, it isn’t only changing the meaning but it says that is was nothing more than a prop or a piece of a costume. Culture appropriation does more than just re-purpose what is being taken from culture, it destroys it. The music industry isn’t likely to halt culture appropriation all together so it is the responsibility of the music consumers to be aware of what it is and that it is harmful so they do not replicate it.

Works Cited

Baker, Katie J.M. “A Much-Needed Primer on Cultural Appropriation.” Jezebel. N.p., 13 Nov. 2012. Web. 08 Nov. 2013.

“Cultural Appreciation or Cultural Appropriation?” Unsettling America. N.p., 16 Sept. 2011. Web. 08 Nov. 2013.
MileyCyrusVEVO. “Miley Cyrus – We Can’t Stop.” YouTube. YouTube, 19 June 2013. Web. 08 Nov. 2013.
N.d. Photograph. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images. Web. 08 Nov. 2013. <;.
N.d. Photograph. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. MILEYCYRUSVEVO VIA YOUTUBE. Web. 08 Nov. 2013. <;.
Ortved, John. “Ratchet: The Rap Insult That Became a Compliment.” The Cut. N.p., 11 Apr. 2013. Web. 08 Nov. 2013.
SelenaGomezColombia. “Selena Gomez – Come & Get It Live At (MTV Movie Awards 2013).” YouTube. YouTube, 14 June 2013. Web. 08 Nov. 2013.
Stewart, Dodai. “On Miley Cyrus, Ratchet Culture and Accessorizing With Black People.” Jezebel. N.p., 20 June 2013. Web. 08 Nov. 2013.
Tiku, Nitasha. “Hindu-In-Chief Bullies Selena Gomez Out of Copping Forehead Jewelry.” Gawker. N.p., 09 May 2013. Web. 08 Nov. 2013.


  1. You’ve got some good stuff here, Troy! Doesn’t it seem like the darn music industry is always the foremost offender of cultural sensitivities? Although, I might caution your assertion that these people aren’t aware of what they’re doing – I really wonder about them sometimes!!/entry/miley-cyrus-asked-for-a-black-sound-for-single-says,51b8662fc5f0cf15b37667ef/1 That’s a link (which might not work because I’m doing this from ipad) that talks about Miley Cyrus’ desire for a “black” song. I reckon that if she knows what sells, she probably is somewhat cognizant of why. Here is a link that I enjoyed as a source for my project that I think you’ll like as well: I thought it did a great job explaining some of the intricacies of cultural appropriation, and it puts the most important things in bold print, so you can pretty much just skim and get the gist of it. Its focus is “the line” and the messiness of cultural appropriation. I saw you didn’t touch on that much, so it may be worth the read for you. At any rate, great work! And have a nice weekend!

  2. I actually hadn’t thought about the Selena Gomez song until reading your critique. Now that I recognize that she was actually wearing, I can completely see the appropriation she used. I had no idea she actually wore the forehead jewelry in certain performances. I guess appropriation is all over the place, we just have to look harder to find it. This made me think of other such videos, and whether or not they cross the line of appropriation. In this Rihanna video, she uses dress and the tradition of dance from what appears to be an African tribe of some sort. It makes you wonder if this could be interpreted as appropriation, or if the items aren’t specific enough.
    There are many other videos like this as well. It is possible that everyone will start blurring the lines of appropriation even more than they already are in order to better get away with it.

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