When rapper M.I.A. boldy announced via Twitter this week that she wanted to discuss cultural appropriation, I thought, "Do go on."
Rare is it that a significant figure of pop culture would broach the subject of her own volition — let alone suggest she was capable of co-opting the garb, dialect, or traditions of a largely underrepresented subculture to satiate a temporary fascination with it, as her pop peers have often been indicted for.
Miley Cyrus' twerk alone launched a million think pieces on the starlet's passing fancy with hip hop and rap, with dissenters underscoring how she exploited black female sexuality to titillate and shock mainstream music audiences. The wrath Smiley Miley's dalliance with "urban culture" wrought was only intensified by her defiant, flippant attitude towards the criticism, she once telling W, "I don't give a shit. I'm not Disney, where they have, like, an Asian girl, a black girl, and a white girl, to be politically correct, and, like, everyone has bright-colored T-shirts. You know, it's like, I'm not making any kind of statement."
So it was refreshing for M.I.A. (Maya Arulpragasam) to weigh in on — and consider the implications of — the visuals for her unreleased music video showcasing "the world's best dancer" who ostensibly hailed from the Ivory Coast. It reportedly took the British-Sri Lankan performer two years to track down this man, and as her tweets explained, her project was already being censored due to its potentially offensive nature.
M.I.A. has always courted controversy — her video "Born Free" was banned from YouTube in 2010 for its graphic portrayal of a mass genocide. With the new clip, the rapper is openly wrestling with how her appreciation of this young man's talent may be misconstrued as a hijacking of sorts. Her fans have weighed in, reminding the singer that her "World Town" ethos — a belief that encourages people of the third world to evoke sites of resistance — has been imbued in her work since her start.
This global outlook has informed her ability to blend cultures, from hip hop to Middle Eastern influences, to compelling results. However, M.I.A. seemed generally confused about whether this video ran the risk of being considered cultural appropriation, she explaining in follow-up tweets that if her video had been shot in America or Germany, she would hardly be met with such resistance.
Whether she was growing defensive over criticism surrounding her creative intentions, or questioning her own privilege involved in the video's production is unclear, but it is worth noting that Azealia Banks decreed that by being a woman of color, M.I.A. would not be usurping African culture.
Banks' crude reasoning certainly speaks to the racial power dynamics surrounding cultural appropriation, how far too often white privilege emboldens the "Columbising" of subcultures, but it doesn't necessarily speak to how we can appreciate practices and skills of others. Being of color does not preclude one from a responsibility to cultural sensitivity.
It's certainly a precarious endeavor to be sure, but one that FKA twigs — another pseudonymous British avant garde performer — perhaps tackled with grace.
twigs, born Tallulah Barnett, is a fierce and provocative entertainer, and has endeared herself to the music world with her ethereal vocals over the stretch of two cult-favorite mixtapes and a critically-acclaimed LP. Through striking signature stylings, such as finely appointed gelled baby hair and face paint, and near acrobatic vogueing dance moves, the performer has come to represent a new approach to expression and representation.
While dancing has always been at the root of the Londoner's artistry, voguing has recently become a central component to her performance. Seeing her onstage, mastering the dance style's aggression, passion, and precision, Barnett seems like a natural…but she's certainly not a member of the Harlem gay ballroom subculture that gave rise to this art form in the '80s and '90s. Instead, Barnett knew well enough to learn about its origins and originators before fully implementing the "duck walk" or twirls into her repertoire.
As she explained to New York Times just this week, "A lot of music artists don’t respect the roots of [vogue] dancing. I never want to associate myself with something that I don’t understand. I would never want to be guilty of cultural appropriation.” twigs' reverence for the artistry of voguing prompted her to work closely with voguing master, Benjamin Milan, to help develop choreography for her three-night New York extravaganza, "Congregata," taking place in Brooklyn this week.
Just months prior, Barnett enlisted voguing vets to stage a dance battle for her video "Glass & Patron."
It's this immersion into the culture twigs is referencing that proves that cultural appropriation is avoidable; that questioning one's own motives, as M.I.A. has done, can keep an artist from further silencing or suppressing a subculture that doesn't necessarily have a public platform.
Artists are inspired by a myriad of places and mediums, and to cut them off from exploring their creativity seems to be a deterrent to the process. twigs and M.I.A.'s artistry — questioning and exploring the sources — only makes the work better, honest, and authentic.
Marjon Carlos is a style and culture writer for Fusion who boasts a strong turtleneck game and opinions on the subjects of fashion, gender, race, pop culture, and men's footwear.