On the most basic and general level, cultural appropriation happens when one culture adopts or borrows aspects of another. Since there has been a more or less continuous exchange of cultural artefacts and ideas throughout human history, it’s hard to imagine why this has become a contentious issue in recent times. No one has a problem with the fact that our alphabet has been ‘borrowed’ in successive stages from the ancient Phoenicians, via Greece and then Rome. There are countless examples from tea to tracksuits that don’t upset anyone. The problem arises where the cultural artefact is appropriated by a dominant culture from an oppressed culture, with the result that the benefits of the appropriation accrue only to the dominant culture, or offensive stereotypes about the oppressed culture are perpetuated. Disney’s Pocahontas is a classic example.
The question is; can cultural appropriation be done right? From a South African perspective, the answer is a resounding yes, and the best example would be Johnny Clegg. The way that Clegg has adopted and incorporated aspects of Zulu culture into his art actually gives a near perfect example of how cultural appropriation should be done. Firstly, Clegg has always been enthusiastic and sincere about his embrace of Zulu culture. As a teenager, Clegg crossed the colour bar and became a member of a Zulu dance troupe, while also learning the Zulu folk guitar style known as Maskandi. For his troubles, Clegg was arrested at the age of 15 for violating the Apartheid laws that sought to keep the races separate. At the age of 17 he met Sipho Mchunu, with whom he formed the bilingual and cross-cultural pop group Juluka. Not content to be fluent in Zulu language, dance and music, Clegg dove deeper by studying Anthropology at university. The mere existence of the bi-racial Juluka was enough to irk the Apartheid authorities in the late seventies and early eighties, but Clegg and Mchunu’s music also encoded political messages about human rights, and when they played to audiences at home and abroad, they raised awareness about the injustice of Apartheid.
Sure, Johnny Clegg is a white guy who got famous for singing in Zulu and for doing a Zulu dance routine as part of his stage act. However, in the final analysis, Clegg’s devotion to Zulu culture has been deep and respectful, and the net effect of his work has been to promote respect not only for Zulu culture but also for multiculturalism and human rights for all South Africans. I suspect that the current objection to cultural appropriation often has to do with the mistaken view that it’s a zero-sum game. When I adopt something from your culture, it doesn’t have to mean that there is less available for you. The example of Johnny Clegg shows that if I’m respectful and sincere about borrowing from your culture, we can both benefit.