Out of Context #7: Owning the Language of our Oppressors

“Out of Context” is a 10-part series that addresses the topic of cultural appropriation as it intersects with both Western European-based classical music and the broader social landscape. Commissioned by American Composers Forum and I CARE IF YOU LISTEN, the goal of the series is to offer information and diverse perspectives to those seeking to acknowledge historical context, honor cultural traditions that are not their own, and expand their sphere of knowledge with awareness and respect. A culminating collection of these articles and other resources will be shared for continued learning and dialogue.


I am a black woman as much as I try to break free and push against the stereotypes and expectations that accompany that definition of a human… a black woman. Yet within that visual stamp of “black woman,” I have an extremely varied history of cultures, including those of white people. This is not a unique reality for black people in the United States. Slaves were property, and they were treated as property, and that included sexual property. In Africa, white barbarism parading as supremacy led to the construction of a racist belief system in which blacks were seen as less human and more beastly than white people. All of this subjugation resulted in black women frequently being raped by white men and the birth of babies who struggled to find a place in the world in between the white lie of race.

In the present reality where people rail against the concept that BLACK LIVES MATTER with the response that “All Lives Matter,” we must have the unpleasant but necessary conversation about why it is impossible for black humans to appropriate the culture and artistic traditions of white people. Appropriation is a facet of exploitation whereby aspects of identity are stolen and used by someone outside of that identity, often in an attempt to make the thief seem more interesting. We frequently associate this practice with white people taking hair styles from black people (see: Kardashians wearing cornrows), but it can also happen when artists co-opt the styles of other artists’ practices. White composers who use African-American spirituals or attempt to access black trauma to appear relevant to the zeitgeist are glaring examples of current trends in musical appropriation.

Photo by Julio Rionaldo on Unsplash

Photo by Julio Rionaldo on Unsplash

When oppressors move in and take over a culture—or participate in human trafficking and the assimilation of captives into a foreign land for further exploitation—the oppressed humans survive by adapting to the cultural whims of their oppressors. My enslaved ancestors learned to play instruments that were wholly foreign to them to please their oppressors, and they learned to play the music that would hopefully cause their captors to brutalise them less. Through years of adaptation for survival, these tendencies become embedded in cellular memory, and white cultural predilections become a part of the lexicon that black artists refer to in improvisation and the creation of new work. It’s never appropriation—it’s survival that becomes second nature.

The truth that white genes are embedded in the cells of present day black people has even been used by whites to substantiate racist eugenics theories that black intelligence is only the product of their genetic ties to white ancestors. (These theories are particularly apparent in the work of William Shockley, head scientist at Bell Labs, one of the founders of Silicon Valley, and author of Shockley on Eugenics and Race: The Application of Science to the Solution of Human Problems). Whilst this eugenic theory is a farce, black artists do have an ownership to white culture genetically as much as they do through the hundreds of years of cultural suppression and the impression of white culture on black bodies.

Yet there’s a difficulty and inner struggle that comes with perpetuating survival tactics and the white barbarism of a notated musical tradition reaching back to the castles and churches of Europe—there is still the tinge of oppression. This constant fight with what has become organic to some degree is actually intrinsically problematic. In my own practice, I have struggled with my output under the oppression of music school and industry rules and aesthetics that fetishise systems and works by old dead white dudes as the pinnacle of artistic creation.

Elizabeth A. Baker--Photo courtesy of the artist

Elizabeth A. Baker–Photo courtesy of the artist

Those black artists that are able to continue writing within the iron boundaries of the white man’s music theory rules are praised for their ability to create harmony with their backgrounds. Examples include talented artists like Carlos Simon and Courtney Bryan, who have found success with large ensembles and orchestras because their works retain language that is accessible to those conservative-leaning communities. Focusing on the abilities of black artists to create within the boxes of militant music theory rules and white aesthetics of beauty and high art is akin to the problematic act of saying that a black person “speaks so well,” which inherently means that black people are illiterate and incapable of articulating their points whilst putting emphasis on white speech patterns as the supreme form of communication.

Beyond the identity and oppression tumult going on inwardly is the mountain of “common practice,” a standardisation of white communication in the musical medium. Due to the fact that academia and music education are built on white domination principles, most musicians believe that the ways of Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Wagner, Schoenberg, Verdi, Stravinsky, and rotating cast of other dead white dudes are the greatest expression of mankind’s understanding of music. And so, somehow and very illogically, the “functional” harmony rules and compositional aesthetic founded in the 1600s with adaptations through the 1940s have prejudicial bearing on the proceedings of modern music-making practices.

Music theory is taught as dogma, and this creates a culture where the prevailing body of performers today are not equipped, or in many cases willing, to deviate from the white communication methods that they’ve been brainwashed to consider high art and proper technique. Because this hierarchy still exists, as much as black artists may seek to shed the oppressive jail of lines and spaces, they are in many ways forced to comply with the regulations set by performing ensembles and organisations, which are particularly conservative and stringent in America. Here we (black artists) are in modern times, surviving by putting on another coat similar to our ancestors on the plantations of the South, in the meeting tents of the Americas, and in the courts of European royalty that fetishised our quick adaptability to white musical traditions.

Photo by Elizabeth A. Baker

Photo by Elizabeth A. Baker

Oppressors taking the culture of those that they oppress continues to be nothing more than exploitation—in the same way that white composers using black trauma to further their names and wallets is the exploitation of black tragedy. Appropriation in music is nothing more than a new way for whites to mine the resources and expressions of black and brown people. Amplifying and appreciating black voices does not mean co-opting our identities to make your own white works more appealing… that’s appropriation… that’s exploitation…

Oppressed people have ownership to the language of their oppressors because in survival, our identity becomes warped and hewn and imbued with the qualities of our surroundings and our behaviours that help us to walk out alive. A black artist’s incorporation and use of white culture in their work is a statement on the oppression that has been felt in our bones, in our cellular memory from our ancestors. A black artist’s use of white culture in their work is assimilation for the purpose of survival in a system of inequalities and injustice. A black artist’s use of white culture in their art is an act of resistance in a world where racism constantly acts as a distraction from black creation, black life, black love, black passion, black joy… A black artist has a world of expression at their fingertips because the world has battered and stolen and warped their identities such that all manner of cellular memories and techniques should be available for them to communicate the incredibly complex amalgamation of being black in a world that is still violently unjust agains black bodies and black thought and black creation and black joy.