Buraka Som Sistema's Kalaf Epalanga considers what cultural appropriation means when an artist creates global music.
Kalaf Epalanga is a member of Buraka Som Sistema, and a co-founder of the Lisbon-based label Enchufada with bandmate João "Branko" Barbosa.
Branko's first solo record Atlas arrives this week on our label Enchufada. To those who have already heard the singles "Let Me Go (feat. Nonku Phiri & Mr. Carmack)" and "Take Off (feat. Princess Nokia)," as well as the more recent "Louca (feat. MC Bin Laden & Marginal Men)" and "On Top (feat. Zanily, Capadose & The Ruffest)," I'm sure you'd agree that Atlas isn't just a great record—it is also important, representing the non-political cultural fusion that global club music, at its best, can bring about.
Branko is my bandmate in Buraka Som Sistema, and partner in many musical adventures, including the creation of Enchufada in 2006. In the last few months I've witnessed as the songs that make up Atlas started gaining life in hotel rooms, festival backstages and airport lounges around the world. The album was recorded in five different cities (Cape Town, New York, Sao Paulo, Amsterdam, and our hometown of Lisbon) and the 20+ artists who contributed to its creation could be part of a UN committee.
The flipside of a record like this is that it is impossible not to get involved in long debates about the state of electronic music today, the trappings of ethnic privilege, and cultural appropriation means when an artist is predisposed to create global music.
It's just as important to ask questions as it is to know when to shut up and observe, because not everything can be explained.
Nobody likes cultural vultures—people who are content with picking what's on the surface without ever bothering to go beyond the light curiosity of a tourist who visits a city, and after walking through the main avenues and buying a couple of souvenirs, thinks he has an informed opinion about the local culture. It's important to be sensitive to the sociological context in which a certain culture or subculture originates. It's just as important to ask questions as it is to know when to shut up and observe, because not everything can be explained.
I'd like to take this opportunity to discuss some ideas about when cultural appropriation or cultural intersection should be musically celebrated or condemned. In which situations is it legitimate to feel that a line has been crossed? And where is that line?
"Everything has already been invented" is a sentence that we've all heard many times. However, there is still room for surprises. In the last decade, with the massification of Internet, we've seen cultures feeding from each other like never before.
Who would've thought that the United States would be leading the pack economically, thanks to their constant recreation of genres that were exclusive property of European producers not long ago? Today, we can find hip-hop rappers in Japan, and in Germany, the reggae cult is so strong they named the movement "Germaican." We also can't forget the impact that genres like house, techno and rap are having in so many African capitals. Azonto, kuduro, kwaito, and afro-house all owe their existence to that inevitable thing called cultural appropriation. While some claim that the exchange isn't fair when those who benefit from this transaction are Westerners, others defend that when you invert cultural appropriation, it can be seen as a form of resistance to the dominant society, especially when the members of a marginalised group take and alter aspects of the dominant culture to affirm their own agenda.
There can be no secrets. We can't afford to hide our sources if what we're doing is being directly influenced by some remote place. It's vital to reveal what cultural elements have influenced us, and if you can connect the artists from that scene to the market where you're inserted, even better. Even if they are Buddhist monks secluded in the mountains, give them credit. An important exercise to do before we appropriate a certain culture is to take the time to ask ourselves questions like: what are our phobias? What issues do we have with certain ethnic groups? What problems do people's sexual orientations and religious creeds raise for us?
We need to understand ourselves as much as we need to understand the cultures we are approaching.
It's reprehensible to appropriate cultural aspects while marginalising or segregating their creators, so we need to understand ourselves as much as we need to understand the cultures we are approaching.
Even when it is naive, one can't undervalue popular opinion. UB40, a British band with a majority of white musicians, made a career of singing reggae music, and were welcomed and respected by the Jamaican community. The same happens with figures like David Rodigan, the English radio DJ who is one of the biggest ambassadors in the West to the culture of Jamaica. People like Brian Shimkovitz of Awesome Tapes From Africa are bringing to light a lot of African music that would never make it to the big musical distribution channels.
These days, the definition of identity goes beyond borders. Nowadays, a young man born in Lisbon to Portuguese parents is a European citizen in every aspect. However, the culture that defines him is very far from being the same as the Northern European countries. In reality, this young man is exposed to ways of looking at the world that are in tune with the ones shared by young African-Americans, due to the omnipresence of hip-hop. He's also sharpened his sense of humor with Seinfeld re-runs, and enthusiastically celebrated the US's legalization of gay marriage by adopting a rainbow-colored Facebook profile picture for the occasion—even if he didn't do the same back in 2010 when a similar law was passed in Portugal. This young man hasn't stopped being Portuguese, obviously, but it's undeniable that his identity has been pieced together from many sources. It's similar to when I see white Portuguese kids speaking Cape-Verdean creole and, most shockingly of all, using the N-word when speaking to each other, when they're all as unmistakably caucasian as the Norwegian royal family.
In other words, there is no cultural purity. Besides historical quirks like the recently discovered tribe of the Sentinelese people in the Bay of Bengal, who attack any stranger who dares come close, there are few cultures that can claim to not have been influenced by—or have appropriated aspects of—another culture. To simplify, this is largely a product of conquest, expansion and colonialism, from centuries past up to modern times. Even if the West is undoubtedly the dominant culture, nobody can deny that it grew and developed largely because of what it appropriated from Asian and African cultures, from religion to mathematics, agriculture and music.
No culture should be imposed in order to marginalize another to the point that the latter needs to go great lengths to affirm itself to former. We all steal something from somewhere, so it would help if we admitted this fact and started taking the necessary steps to abolish once and for all the cultural borders that we impose on ourselves. Let's adopt Atlas as the soundtrack for the ride.
Atlas is out September 4, 2015 on Enchufada. Watch Red Bull's excellent documentary series on the album's making-of here.
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