Collaborative Genius or Cultural Appropriation?

With the increasing crossover of genres and cultural influences, it's important for artistes to evaluate their approach to co-opting in a manner that doesn't erroneously parade them as appropriators.

In the first episode of Suits' second season, Mike Ross is faced with a serious dilemma. His client, a publishing company, had been charged with stealing a novel idea from one of its workers. Assigned to dispute this fact, Ross racks his brain to find a solution to the problem, facing his client's overwhelming guilt. In proper Suits' fashion, the key to unlocking this legal door is given to him by his grandmother, who tells him "there is nothing new under the sun." This seemingly innocent and trivial idiom forms the basis for his argument as he discovers that the idea in question had appeared in similar forms in prior novels before.


The question of originality and authenticity in music is an eternal one, with musicians priding themselves on creating a unique sound or style. However, as Mike Ross demonstrates, music is like language, and ideas are cyclical. No matter how far the field explores, it will forever be full of cycles. The question, then, is not about originality or authenticity but rather about what extent an individual musician/composer achieves originality within his cycle? This uniqueness is sometimes difficult to demonstrate. To circumvent the stagnancy that comes with repetition, musicians, like all artists, occasionally reach out past their immediate settings to incorporate elements from other spaces into their work. Most times, this means looking past geographical borders to dip their hands into musical styles from other countries. Although these international crossovers have resulted in some great collaborations and sounds, the danger of cultural appropriation looms large.


To fully understand the discourse around cultural appropriation, it is necessary to understand what it means. So, what is cultural appropriation? Cultural appropriation describes the act of taking or using elements of culture that are unique to one's country or culture without knowing about the rights and ownership of that culture. It also describes breaking cultural taboos by having someone appropriate another person's cultural identity or way of thinking, regardless of whether they have permission from their source. But why do people do it? Well, research suggests there are many reasons. The most important being that it can be a way to revitalize the source culture or expand its reach to a broader audience. Like everything else in life, there are two sides to the cultural appropriation coin. It can enhance collaboration, innovate and create unique sounds, but simultaneously, in an industry that enables exploitation and, like the music industry, an unfair balance is created. When this happens, the mainstream artiste completely hijacks a sound, disregarding its origins, which are rooted in the practices and identity of another culture, and is credited for being the one bringing such sound or style to light, while relegating the creators to the background.


Toronto rapper Drake is one person always at the heart of cultural appropriation conversations. From hopping on Wizkid’s “Ojuelegba” with Skepta to doing drill songs while rapping in Arabic, a significant part of his success and appeal has been his versatility and readiness to always tap into different sounds to expand his catalogue. Although that feature was instrumental to the recent boom in the global acceptance of afrobeats, it unintentionally propelled a false narrative crediting "One Dance" as the sole reason for the genre’s success and discredited afrobeats’ own rich, storied origins in the process. But, how can you bring to light something that has existed for many, many years? By agreeing to that sentiment, are you saying that acknowledging a particular section of the world is the line between importance and irrelevance? Is the creative work and effort of the indigenous people worthless now that an A-List star has decided to hop on their sound? Finally, where do we draw the line between collaboration and appropriation?

Despite the different ways it is produced and composed, music has universal elements that cut across cultures and genres. Beats, rhyme schemes, and instruments are found everywhere, all doing the same job of giving flavour and order to sound. This universality is the major appeal when artistes decide to hop on another sound. When Drake decided to cross the Atlantic and gain an English accent for his drill songs, it was because he could see the similarities between his sound and that of drill artistes. At the end of the day, it was hip-hop; it was rap. It’s not Drake’s fault that the children of the internet and proponents of stan culture are severe sufferers of recency bias and have an aversion to taking history into account. Still, at the same time, narratives are dangerous if they erase identity, and history is identity. The journey and all its experiences and struggles are just important as the destination and future progressions.


"The line between co-opting and stealing is very thin and it’s really all down to intent."

Appropriation is not particular to Drake or white artistes, like we all assume. Although a critical element of the definition is the majority or minority of the cultures, context is also essential. With emphasis placed on collaboration between musicians from different African cultures, the shadow of appropriation hovers loosely on local partnerships as well. In 2017, musician Mr Eazi tweeted that Ghanaian music had a hefty influence on Nigerian sounds back then – as it did and always has – and he got attacked a lot because of that. But afrobeats – Nigeria’s main sound – has its roots in 1920s Ghanaian highlife. The backlash Mr Eazi got was primarily thanks to a not-so-subtle battle for cultural dominance between the two countries. Nigerian music fans felt insulted by the insinuation that their music industry was built on borrowed sounds (even though it was, and there is absolutely nothing wrong about that). The problem arises when one side takes the other’s style and claims it as theirs. In other words, the line between co-opting and stealing is very thin and it’s really all down to intent.


Take the Azonto debacle, for instance. FuseODG released a viral hit based on the “Azonto” dance to widespread acclaim. In true Nigerian fashion, the dance was absorbed, reworked and presented as “Alingo” by pop duo P-Square. This led to uproar from the Ghanaian music industry, culminating in a “diss track” by Ghanaian artiste Samini. This whole fiasco became a distraction from the fact that a couple of Nigerian artistes did azonto-centric songs without trying to repackage and resell as their own. Asides P-Square's version, other Nigerian acts like Wizkid released songs dedicated to the dance, but P-Square trying to reframe it as theirs became a highlight, relegating these other artistes to the background. On the other hand, amapiano – a South African music genre heavy on log drums, synth and bass lines and known for its slow, cascading buildup – became a sensation in 2020 due to catchy beats and even catchier dance moves . Nigerians readily accepted it, adding their own twists to cater to local audiences. However, despite these tweaks and labels like “omopiano”, the genre’s identity and origin have never been in doubt.

Mike’s grandma was right: there really is nothing new under the sun. All ideas can be traced to something prior, something preceding it. Collaborating with peers from other countries and drawing inspiration from different places is necessary for creative expansion and fostering growth. However, artistes need to pay proper respects to the creators of whatever foundation they are building on. Cultural appropriation is not inherently wrong because it can help give publicity to something not known or appreciated by a certain audience, which is never bad for a work of art. However, adopting and presenting something as your own for profit is not only disrespectful but is a direct contribution to the erasure of creative work that, in some cases, has weathered the storms of time.