Cultural Appropriation- The silent unjust benefits derived through “pop culture”

With the evolution of modern pop culture, cultural elements from different groups have been adopted to diversify and better represent diverse global races, tribes, and ethnic groups. However, for others, elements of culture are sacred and should therefore be preserved and enjoyed within the ambit of their tribal group.

Cultural appropriation dates back to 17th century, were the forerunner to the three piece suit was appropriated from the traditional dress of diverse Eastern European and Islamic countries. The Justacorps frock coat was emulated from the long zupans worn in Poland and the Ukraine, the necktie or cravat was derived from a scarf worn by Croatian mercenaries fighting for Louis XIII, and the brightly coloured silk waistcoats popularised by Charles II of England were inspired by exotic Turkish, Indian and Persian attire acquired by wealthy English travellers.

Charles II of Britain | Lisby | flickr


The concept of cultural appropriation has received vast media attention when various pop artists and designers  incorporate “tribal elements” into their artistic canvas. This has sparked controversy amongst different groups, who regarded this as cultural appropriation, were elements of a minority culture by members of a dominant culture are adopted and given a different name. This is different from equal cultural exchange or appreciation due to the presence of a colonial element and imbalance of power. Examples range from artists such as Miley Cyrus, Macklmore, and other artists from the white racial class adopting the musical style and elements of rap music, which is known to be an indigenous form of artistic expression for black people. For some these artists adhere to a colour blind ideology and dully profit from it on a cross-cultural level. Furthermore, these artists do not receive the same level of backlash about perpetuating violence through music as the black racial groups that are the indigenous co-founders of this style and language.

Cultural Appropriation- The silent unjust enrichment through “pop culture”
Maclemore | Mathewjs007 | flickr


Closer to home, in South Africa, a classic case of cultural appropriation was witnessed when Louis Vuitton “adopted” the Basotho garment and put a R33000 price tag on it. This was seen to be a violation of the collective intellectual property rights of the originating, minority indigenous cultures and those living under colonial rule.

There is a notable difference between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange. The expressed violation of the secrecy of cultural elements is seen in cultural appropriation, were there is no consultation, in depth engagement and understanding of the origin of a particular element, and rightfully consulting with the custodians so that no exploitation or misrepresentation takes place, especially in mainstream media were secrecy can be reduced to appeal, taste, and preference.

When does cultural appreciation, become cultural appropriation

When it comes to cultural appropriation versus cultural appreciation or exchange, the lines are becoming more blurred by the day. Stepping outside one’s culture to familiarise yourself with other cultures, cannot possibly be seen as means of cultural pilferage, provided that one recognises how certain characteristics are sacred and that one will not violate the collective intellectual rights of the collective minority groups. In essence, adopting a cultural element, giving it a different name, and failing to acknowledge the original founder of that element is, without a shadow of a doubt, cultural appropriation. Understanding the context of borrowing is important for preventing exploitative cultural appropriation. Intellectual property law gives a basis for this as it recognises the underlying implications, context, and the rightful ownership rules.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.

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