Cultural Appropriation in Fashion and Italian Rap Music - GRIOT (2023)

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Cultural Appropriation In Fashion And Italian Rap Music

The widely debated idea of cultural appropriation has historical roots in colonial models of appropriation that continue to this day, writes Naomi Kelechi Di Meo, who explores the concept and discusses some recent examples

by GRIOT - Published on 21/07/2021

Cultural Appropriation in Fashion and Italian Rap Music - GRIOT (1)

Photo by Tony Webster. Via Flickr (CC by 2.0)

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Artists are constantly inspired by their surroundings, allowing them to come up with work that is widely appreciated by critics and the public. At times, the line between inspiration and appropriation is thin, leading to accusations of the latter. In the last decade, cultural appropriation has been a hotly debated topic. In fashion, cultural appropriation perpetuates racist and colonial stereotypes while rewarding the appropriators over the real creators. For a long time, fashion magazines and broadcast media commissioned and distributed images that portrayed cultural appropriation undisturbed. However, protest gradually developed online, mainly on twitter and Instagram (such as the Instagram page No White Saviors) raising consciousness on the topic and calling out designers and the media for selling a wrong idea of their heritage. Due to this pushback, magazines like Teen Vogue, have increasinglyembraced an anti-appropriation approach in their coverage.

Subject appropriation, content appropriation and object appropriation

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The term “cultural appropriation” is a contested concept, containing two words that have a lot of meaning on their own. In his article “Profound offense and cultural appropriation” James Young breaks down the concept into subject appropriation, content appropriation and object appropriation. According to Young, subject appropriation occurs when an outsider represents members or aspects of another culture. With content appropriation, Young describes a scenario where an artist uses the cultural products of another culture in the production of their own art. Lastly, for Young, object appropriation occurs when the possession of a tangible object (such as a sculpture) is transferred from members of the culture that produced it to the possession of outsiders.

Fashion designers have often been accused of the first and second types of appropriation. Ethnic prints, materials or hairstyles have been used in designers’ work without attribution; or models and musicians styled to represent, fish (as in Blackfishing) or bait (as in Blackbaiting) an ethnicity they don’t belong to.

Colonialism and historical roots of cultural appropriation

There are deep historical roots for these phenomena. In Scene from the Colonial Catwalk: Cultural Appropriation, Intellectual Property Rights, and Fashion Peter Shand describes how colonial attitudes legitimize cultural appropriation to this day. During colonialism, cultural appropriation was used by colonialists to claim and benefit from goods (work of art, materials, spices) taken from the colony. Through their display and dislocation, Shand argues, these goods became material for appropriation into the cultural language of the colonizer. This practise gradually became normalized, accepted behaviour in our society. Shand puts forward an important notion, which provided ground for social movements to criticize cultural appropriation: the notion of intellectual property. Though already established during the colonial period, it only applied to the work of European authors and artists as indigenous people were considered ignorant. As a result, Shand argues, colonizers did not acknowledge the owner’s rights to their own art, claiming it as theirs. A similar pattern is recognizable in fashion industry.

Cultural appropriation in fashion industry and possible solutions

Admittedly, cultural exchange will always take place, especially in creative environments. However, as Brigitte Vézina argues in Curbing Cultural Appropriation in the Fashion Industry “cultural appropriation is sometimes a case of blatant copying (a literal knock-off, a head-to-toe copy) or close similarity, where the appropriator simply recycles indigenous stereotypes, does not make his or her own contribution to come up with an original creation or fails to make the designs look any different”. In fashion, there is a failure to mix and merge different styles, in the course of which cultural theft is committed. Vézina draws attention to how transformation is different and harmful compared to replication. As a result, transformation must be analysed case by case, following copyright law and intellectual property rights principles for determining similarity, by comparing shapes, colors and arrangements. This will enable the artist to give attribution and show how a certain element has been merged into a new work.

Fashion can be understood as a system, in which different parts play specific roles with the goal of maintaining stability within a complex cultural context. Therefore companies, designers and artists have been trying to avoid cultural appropriation by considering different options. The most common ones are using models or photographers belonging to a specific (sub)culture, supporting local business providing a specific artifact, or explicitly attributing inspiration to cultures or individuals. In How to prevent your company from cultural appropriation Janice Gassam develops a guide to help companies avoid appropriation and foster appreciation. The key, for Gassam, is having an inclusivity and diversity team in the company to determine whether a certain fashion show or work is being respectful towards a culture or not.

Cultural appropriation in Italian rap music industry

In music, appropriation often takes slightly different forms. In Italy, for instance, hip hop and rap have drastically changed pop culture in terms of sound and production, as well as in language, fashion, and overall behavioural codes. Those who grew up listening to these genres are aware of the social and cultural context in which they developed and the dynamics they were forged by. Consequently, artists that wish to succeed in these genres have to be inspired by its particular histories. Still, it is one thing to be inspired by something because one likes it, and quite another to appropriate it because one wishes it were one’s own. Over time, cultural appropriation has led listeners to prefer tracks that enhance the sounds and style of the genre, rather than the themes and message that the song carries or “the real meaning” of a track.There are those for whom the meaning must strictly be connected to the lyrics and the overall sound, and those who prefer a different way of doing and understanding music. In Italy, the Dark Polo Gang, Rondodasosa, Capo Plaza (to name a few) have been leading this latter trend by interpreting the genre via the different realities it occupies: fashion, art, attitude and other social practices.

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Italian rapper Rondodasosa has quickly risen in the charts with his debut album Giovane Rondo, featuring artists such as Capo Plaza and Shiva. In many of his music videos and pictures, the rapper embodies genre-typical characteristics, some of which are embedded in cultural appropriation, because they are generally displayed by Black and African American artists. Culturally, durags, cornrows, other types of braids, slang and gang signs are attributes that ‘belong’ to the US. Many themes, such as crime wars, struggle, poverty, fame, money, and dreams are similar across contexts. Yet, the way they are approached by Rondo (shorter for Rondodasosa), and many other artists like him, flaunt an appropriated “blackness” which implies a stereotypical way of seeing Black people.

What distinguishes appropriation from appreciation?gr

There is arguably a grey area between appropriation and appreciation, and the lines that separate them are increasingly thin. Education, and an appreciation of the history and the cultural values of a heritage can help, but often, more measures are needed. In the aforementioned article, Vézina proposed “Implementing codes of ethics, norms, charters, or guidelines for the different industries encourage artists who use indigenous or peculiar cultural elements to reveal their sources of inspiration clearly and openly, [and] acknowledge their holders […]”. Recognition and respect for the cultures that inspire acts of creative or commercial borrowing are fundamental, as is the role of media in the debate about cultural appropriation. The music and fashion industries do not need encouragement to develop standards for defending fair collaboration, they need to develop adequate responses to legitimate claims of appropriation, ones that go beyond pulling campaigns, issuing standardized (non)apologies, and hoping the news cycle buries the mess. Being agents of diversity and inclusivity might be one viable route to bring potentially lasting changes to the music and fashion industries.

– Naomi Kelechi Di Meo

Naomi Kelechi Di Meo is a New Media and Digital Cultures student at the department od Media and Information Studies of the University of Amsterdam. The essay was translated by Marta Gori.

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What is an example of cultural appropriation in music? ›

The most famous example is Elvis Presley covering songs by Black artists, like “That's Alright, Mama,” “Hound Dog,” and “Don't Be Cruel,” and rising to fame as the “King of Rock 'n' Roll,” when Black artists such as Chuck Berry and Little Richard didn't benefit nearly as much from the genre they essentially started.

What is an example of cultural appropriation in fashion? ›

One of the infamous examples of cultural appropriation in fashion is when Gucci was under fire for listing Indy Turban for $790 as an accessory on their website. The product debuted during Gucci's Fall 2018/2019 runway on multiple white models, antagonized the members of the Sikh community.

What are the four types of cultural appropriation? ›

Defined as the use of a culture's symbols, artifacts, genres, rituals, or technologies by members of another culture, cultural appropriation can be placed into 4 categories: exchange, dominance, exploitation, and transculturation.

Why is Hip Hop important to black culture? ›

For decades hip-hop has spoken truth to power and challenge the status-quo. Protest and resistance have been common elements of the music, evoking the fight for racial equality and communicating anger at socio-economic conditions that shaped the lives of many Black people.

Can music cultural appropriation? ›

Cultural appropriation is nothing new. For years prominent White people have been accused of borrowing the fashions, music, and art forms of various cultural groups and popularizing them as their own. The music industry has been particularly hard hit by this practice.

How do you separate cultural appreciation appropriation in music? ›

Finding ways to honor the culture they are crossing into can be a way for artists to avoid appropriation, Welbeck said. Eminem, a white rapper inspired by Black music, showed respect to Black culture by diverting attention from himself when receiving awards and praise for his music, Welbeck added.

How are braids cultural appropriation? ›

So, when a hairstyle like box braids or cornrows becomes trendy for mainstream white consumers only because a white model or celebrity wearing it makes it acceptably fashionable, then such a practice erases the cultural and historical origins of that style. It trivialises that culture and reduces it to a fashion fad.

Are tattoos cultural appropriation? ›

According to EverydayFeminism, "Cultural appropriation is when somebody adopts aspects of a culture that's not their own," and that can apply to tattoos. If the meaning behind the tattoos chosen isn't taken into account, these tattoos could potentially fall under cultural appropriation.

How can we prevent cultural appropriation in fashion? ›

'Equal collaboration is the only way to prevent cultural appropriation in fashion'

Why is rap music so vulgar? ›

The reason so many rap songs tend to be entrenched in vulgarity is probably due to the culture that surrounds the artists that write them. Many of the most prevalent rappers came from low-income and high crime areas in which vulgarity is commonplace even amongst kids.

How does rap influence culture? ›

Rap opens doors for young artists to express themselves. Rap also allows for young blacks to articulate a certain cultural perspective and help others understand what is going on in the minds of young black people in the urban environment, he said. Price said the music was about expression.

How hip-hop influenced fashion? ›

Hip-hop fashion in the 1990s slowly evolved from the 1980s as the hip-hop community started getting influenced by traditional African-American dressing. Bright colors, large pants and headwear were the elements, which inspired the style of dressing in the early 1990s.

What is cultural appropriation clothing? ›

Consequently, cultural appropriation takes place when there are power clashes between different cultures. It is ignorant and disrespectful of fashion designers to discriminate against people of minority cultures and frequently label them as “different” or “wrong”.

Is wearing henna cultural appropriation? ›

The Rise Of The Popularity Of Henna Tattoos

To some, these beautiful, wearable artworks are harmless, but the nontraditional wearing of henna has been met with widespread outcries of cultural appropriation.

Is wearing a Mexican dress cultural appropriation? ›

So, is it okay for you to wear a Mexican embroidered dress, practice the art of smudging, or display Otomi art in your home? Yes, but only if you purchase said pieces from a Mexican designer, artist, or retailer. And, of course, you must be using these items in a way that honors and reveres Mexican culture.

How music has affected culture? ›

Music has shaped cultures and societies around the world, passed down from generation to generation. It has the power to alter one's mood, change perceptions, and inspire change. While everyone has a personal relationship with music, its effects on the culture around us may not be immediately apparent.

What is the meaning of appropriation in music? ›

According to the definition of music appropriation is: “the use of borrowed elements (aspects or techniques) in the creation of a new piece,” ( Now, appropriation of music styles in itself is not bad.

How is music used culturally? ›

Music Is a Highway of Shared Experiences

Music is an essential element of culture. Sharing music from one culture to another gives people an insight into another way of life. This is even more crucial during times of conflict when other methods of interaction are rendered impractical.

What is the meaning of appropriation in music? ›

According to the definition of music appropriation is: “the use of borrowed elements (aspects or techniques) in the creation of a new piece,” ( Now, appropriation of music styles in itself is not bad.

How music has affected culture? ›

Music has shaped cultures and societies around the world, passed down from generation to generation. It has the power to alter one's mood, change perceptions, and inspire change. While everyone has a personal relationship with music, its effects on the culture around us may not be immediately apparent.

What is considered cultural appropriation? ›

Cultural appropriation takes place when members of a majority group adopt cultural elements of a minority group in an exploitative, disrespectful, or stereotypical way.

How does music reflect culture? ›

Music and poetry reflect the culture and folklore of a society. This is seen in our national rhythm, compatriotic song, traditional songs, which emerge from classical literature, epics and heroic poems. Songs and music mirror history, values, norms and the mentality of a society.


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