Q+A: Stephan Pennington talks music history, cultural appropriation

Dr. Stephan Pennington, Assistant Professor of Music, spoke about his work on cultural appropriation. Nicholas Pfosi / The Tufts Daily

Assistant Professor of Music Stephan Pennington’s most recent research studies structures of cultural appropriation in the music industry. He describes three phases of cultural appropriation, by which the appropriated sound or style is taken farther away from its roots in steps. Pennington sat down with the Daily to explain these phases, point to past and present examples and talk about ways in which cultural exchange can be accomplished without appropriation or erasure.

The following is an abridged version of the interview.

The Tufts Daily: Talk about your research on appropriation. How is it defined and how is it harmful?

Stephan Pennington: There are different types of appropriation that happen in different moments … I’m not thinking about it only as, “I as an individual do this thing,” but, “What does it mean in a particular moment in time, in a particular moment of that particular genre?”

So I’m thinking about appropriation that happens at the very beginning of a particular genre or sound, which I call “enthusiastic appropriation,” and that’s when someone takes somebody else’s stuff — and will tell you that they took it — and that they’re very excited that they took it … it does something for them.

This is often accompanied with professed love of the people or the thing that’s being taken … It’s about being up front about the fact that you’re taking these peoples’ things, and they usually say they’re doing it out of honoring them, and often, there’s something you’re “getting” from that thing. Often with black music it’s rebellion, or maybe sexuality … you can’t get those things if people don’t know that you’re taking “the thing,” if people don’t realize that what you’re taking is Jewish music, then Jewish music doesn’t get to do “the work” for you.

TD: What are the next phases [of appropriation]?

SP: There’s a second phase, which I’m currently calling “unacknowledged appropriation,” where you want it to sound like the thing, but you deny it’s the thing … so in that case you would think about a lot of early rock, say rock from the ’60s or ’70s, where they’re taking the sounds of Robert Johnson and these blues artists, but they’re saying, “This is just the music of Led Zeppelin, this is just our thing.” But even though they’re saying it’s their thing, everybody knows it’s this other thing and that becomes quite important, because they don’t want to lose the connection, because they still need to get the “rebellion”: listening to black music makes them rebellious, makes them hypersexual, all that stuff.

Then there’s this third phase, that’s this phase that I really added to the discourse, which is I think [is] “obscured appropriation.” So with obscured appropriation, it no longer sounds like the thing anymore, and people no longer connect it to that thing anymore.

There are [some] great examples of this … when people do [gospel music] runs on “American Idol” [2002-present], no one knows where it comes from anymore, they just think it’s just generic universal singing, and so I think there’s this third phase where it no longer has this connection to the roots of this place … there’s this way in which now you can erase where you took that thing and you don’t even hear it anymore.

In this article that I’m going to present … I’m probably going to talk about hip-hop as well, and the ways in which I think a lot of the anger around Iggy Azalea is about her being a “transition moment,” so for the longest time people [said], oh, hip-hop is this black thing … She really represents in some ways that second phase of appropriation, where it still sounds black to many people but she’ll say, “No it’s not, this is just my thing.” And I think people are worried that hip-hop might go the way of the third phase. It becomes so universalized that it can be disconnected.

[This] of course has economic implications, because if you no longer think of it as being connected to people, then you don’t need to hire them anymore, they don’t need to get jobs or have their records sold … I can see elements of [hip-hop] sliding into that third phase, and I think that’s where a lot of the anxiety around Iggy Azalea shows up. People are really worried about what that will mean.

TD: Are people working in the first phase still doing something positive? Where does cultural exchange end and cultural appropriation begin?

SP: I would still say that people who are [contributing to the first phase] are still doing something negative because there’s no exchange: If there were an exchange there’d be some sort of equality, I’d be taking something and you’d be taking something, we’d both be sharing something. But that’s not what you’re getting historically, what you’re getting is a more dominant group with more power and access taking something from a less dominant group and then making all the money off of it.

People say, “Oh, but I just like this thing,” and you as an individual, that’s fine, you may just like this thing as an individual. I think it’s really important when thinking about appropriation or racism, sexism, to really think about it in structural levels. Elvis loved black music … [and] I actually think he’s a very good performer, and one of the reasons why he was so big was because he was really good at what he did. There were also black people who were really good at what they did, and they didn’t get to be as big as Elvis, because of many structural reasons … First off, you couldn’t even buy black albums in many stores, especially in the segregated South, and so some people feel uncomfortable listening to actual black people but they feel more comfortable listening to a white person doing black music. So Elvis Presley can then make huge amounts of money, whereas Big Momma Thornton, who sang “Hound Dog” [1952] first, made $ 200 off of that song.

I’m not blaming Elvis as a person, but we’re in a situation where he’s excited about these things and he’s making money off of these things, but at the expense structurally of people who created it … There are examples of really wonderful exchanges where people are sharing credit and sharing payment and sharing access on both sides, but when we’re looking at large scale situations that becomes a little tricky.

Hip-hop’s actually a little different than, say, rock ’n’ roll, because the vast majority of successful hip-hop artists are still black, which was not the case with rock ’n’ roll, wherein black artists tended not to get paid and white artists were the dominant force. So if you’re in that first phase of appropriation, in hip-hop, let’s say, considering that you don’t have the dominant power within that particular genre, it’s not that bad, because you’re not actually part of a situation of disadvantaging people … if a people that created a thing are actually able to profit off of that thing.

TD: As equals. But when listeners are more comfortable with white artists, and that takes money away from black artists, then that’s a problem.

SP: That’s what they say — the king of rock ’n’ roll is Elvis, the king of swing is Benny Goodman. The best person in this field is a white person, and people will forget or not know that rock ’n’ roll has anything to do with black people, so much so that when you get to the ’80s … black people get pushed out of the rock market completely, record companies will not hire them, will not give them record contracts, so this genre that was in part invented by black people, they don’t get to participate in.

TD: Is there anywhere further that you see this research going, or any other conversations you’d want to start about this?

SP: The thing that I think a lot of people get frustrated about … they want it only to be about individuals. So for example, “Well, I’m a good person, so I can’t be doing anything bad,” or like, “So you did something, you’re a bad person.” And you’re like, “Well, wait a minute, this actually might be about [structure].”

I think there are things, as an individual, that you can do. I think that you can name check people. You can say, “Hey, I didn’t invent this, this comes from this place.” You can do things to not gain unearned credit, you can do things to try to not obscure the roots of this thing that you’re taking … If you know that you’re in a system that’s going to advantage you and disadvantage others, that doesn’t mean that you should stop playing your music, if it’s important to you, but it does mean that you should think about what you’re doing with your privilege and with your access … The system itself is unfair, that’s the problem, so if you are in this system and you are working in an unfair system, what can you do to try and not exacerbate that unfairness?

If you come to some place, and you stay in that place, and you’re like, “Here’s the context, I’m going to do it [here],” people often are not super bothered.