Sampling, Stealing and Influence: Why cultural exchanges must work both ways

by Georgina Quach

Since her chart-topping ‘7 rings’ dropped in January, waves of outrage against Ariana Grande for appropriating Japanese and Black culture spread across social media. It inflamed accusations against Ariana of plagiarism; after the single was released, Princess Nokia and Soulja Boy posted videos accusing the singer of stealing their rap flows, slipping into a fairly gray area about ‘inspired’ verbal rhythms and rhyme patterns. ‘You like/ my hair?/ Gee, thanks/ Just bought it’, chimes Ariana, projecting an image of maturity. The lyrics seem a bit too reminiscent of Princess Nokia’s ‘Mine’, with its titular refrain ‘It’s mine—I bought it’, where Nokia refers to new hair extensions and the efficacy of a good weave—a particularly charged aspect of black female identity (Nokia is a mixed-race woman of Puerto Rican descent) that Ariana adopts. That line ‘Just bought it’ takes the relationship between black women and their hair and puts it in the context of ‘flexing’, and Ariana receives praise for originality without receiving any actual repercussions of the female black experience. The saucy hook, ‘ayy’ flow and trap house setting in the music video got people questioning what appeared to be rather unusual for Ariana’s style. Controversy ranged from accusations of her miming a ‘blaccent’ to cultural appropriation because of her misspelled Japanese tattoo. Does Ariana’s infused pop suggest her insensitivity? This is where invoking another culture to cultivate your own music also puts you under scrutiny for what you’re doing with it. Whether or not such a gesture ought to be raised to the level of offence is a contentious matter.

Cultural appropriation is perhaps inevitable in the modern-day phenomenon of musical sampling. This musical technique has created a matrix of continual cross-fertilisation, the layering of old styles with new ones, and the weaving of soundscapes from diverse cultures. Indeed, this is what has made pop music what it is today—an intrinsically mixed genre made up of rhythms and lyricism drawn from all over the world. Yet, sampling from other nations and their diaspora raises stubborn questions about context, access and accreditation. At what point is being influenced by something celebratory, and at what point does it become cultural hijacking? And what can festival organizers and music producers themselves do to ensure that cultures are not being appropriated?

In 2019, the cross-pollinating legacy of the sample needs to promote a two-way, mutually beneficial relationship: transforming and enjoying art from further afield while ensuring that those who create it can also share it and have the same opportunities granted to them. A slippery example of where this might have failed is dancehall. Dancehall—and by extension, Jamaica—has amassed a powerful cultural and social currency worldwide, yet largely speaking, it has not received the institutional and public recognition it deserves. Jamaica’s dancehall scene, inseparable from its geographically-specific sound system culture, has laid the rhythmic foundations for the works of many of today’s pop artists, from Justin Bieber to J-Lo to Tyga. Dancehall emerged from the tumultuous socio-political response to post-independence governance in 1970s Jamaica. These underground protest songs grew from the dance hall spaces that were vital platforms for shaping forms of resistance in Jamaica during the late ‘70s, reflecting the lifestyle experienced by the country’s disenfranchised communities of the period. Our current decade’s pop artists have brought new dimensions to dancehall, taming its sonically arresting, unapologetically raunchy and occasionally homophobic ‘riddims’. At the same time, they have also appropriated and depoliticised this genre of resistance, renaming it ‘tropical house’—a slower style of house music. Its boisterous and raw themes have become tailored to suit mainstream tastes, whilst removing it from its original context within the very unique pressures of Jamaica’s ghettos.

Producers such as the Norwegian DJ Matoma are now responsible for introducing the tropical house and dancehall gloss to the summer hits of Jason Derulo and Sean Paul. Yet, the cultural context of their Jamaican origins has become so effaced in this process. For example, Rihanna’s 2016 track ‘Work’ was a product of the dancehall resurgence, remaining top of the charts for two months when it was first released. Soon after, Rolling Stone was quick to label it as ‘tropical-house flavoured’ instead of crediting it for what it actually was: the Barbados-born singer championing her Bajan heritage, by using explicit Caribbean intonation and Bajan ‘patois’. Resorting to the genre term ‘tropical house’ suggests mainstream media’s discomfort with identifying the track with its undeniable dancehall-influence and its black creators. The label ‘tropical house’, generically tied to sounds of bongos, flutes and saxophones, is not the same as Jamaican dancehall. When compared to the beachy instrumentation of tropical house, dancehall stands as a much more rugged genre. In the process of taking on its warmer influences to produce a ‘summer’ or ‘tropical’ pop tune, dancehall’s specific origins lose their cultural and Jamaican distinctiveness. Singing proudly with a Bajan accent, in ‘Work’, Rihanna reclaims the patois ruggedness that this popularised ‘tropical’ strives to dilute, and she reaffirms her position as a member of the Caribbean society. The 2011 smash ‘Run the World’ (Diplo and Beyoncé's rendition of Major Lazer's 2009 hit ‘’Pon de Floor’), was a dancehall track—though not explicitly labelled as such. Borrowing a handful of dancehall musical aesthetics, the song has toned down and supplanted its raunchier cultural associations in an effort to become more marketable. Such sampling becomes morally questionable because this repackaging speaks to a deeper failure to truly grasp the political significance of dancehall culture and the lived realities of the Jamaica’s inhabitants.

Jamaican producer Lee 'Scratch' Perry at Matrix Studios in 1989 (credit: Adrian Boot, All Rights Reserved.)

Jamaica is currently enjoying a latter-day conscious roots revival headed by artists like Chronixx and Jah9. But even though they’ve brought back the iconic ‘One Love’ vibes of Bob Marley, this doesn’t undo their appropriation of the genre and lack of rightful accreditation. In 1982, the Jamaican dancehall recording artist Sister Nancy released ‘Bam Bam’, a freestyle for her debut album One, Two. The track has been sampled over 100 times since by artists such as Lauryn Hill, Kanye West and Jay Z but a poorly written recording-contract saw that Nancy didn’t receive any royalties until the song was used in a 2014 Reebok advert, when she decided to legally reclaim entitlement and, after 34 years, her just payment was awarded. This demonstrates the internal politics of sampling, problematizing the way artists borrow from and recontextualize the subcultures that have preceded them.

There are more questions to ask – many of them point toward an imbalance of power. Is the appropriating artist profiting off a culture that remains marginalized? Diplo has tried to ‘give back’ through his experimental Mad Decent label and Heaps Decent, its Australian-based nonprofit associate, which promote emerging young artists from marginalized communities. But, as musician and writer Boima Tucker’s report on Diplo on the radical site ‘Africa is a Country’, less than one percent of his earnings actually go towards these efforts. Beyond this economic aspect, cultural exchange is also about working collaboratively with artists at a local level, and publicly recognizing the political and social arena of resistance from which dancehall emerged.

It’s not just artists who aren’t properly crediting their influences—festivals are also guilty of it. Although the iconic Dutch festival actively brands itself as a global multicultural event, Dekmantel’s recent announcement of its 2019 program suggests otherwise. The electronic and dance music festival hosts a Brazilian version in Sao Paolo, but this year, there’s a glaring lack of Latin American artists in the European line-up. The Chilean-born Brazil-based DJ, Valesuchi, highlights in her Resident Advisor article from January 2019 the need to nurture those Latin American collectives left in the shadows—always a key influence in her mixes:

 

Dekmantel's proposed role represents an opportunity to expand and enrich a musical experience for everyone involved, but that loses weight when they avoid our community in their main event of the year. They have the means to get to know our scene firsthand, visiting cities and mobilising collectives that even we can't reach sometimes, and I wonder if they recognise this as a privilege that many of us don't have yet. If Latin America can still be forgotten when the party is in Europe, it is hard for us to believe that the pervasive colonial logic has been truthfully left behind. 

Valesuchi movingly expresses her justified anger towards this complete disregard for local Latin American artists at the Amsterdam festival, especially given Dekmantel’s groundwork in collaboratively empowering the music scenes of undeveloped countries like Brazil. Her point raises important questions about depth of understanding; sampling is essential to ‘expanding and enriching a musical experience for everyone involved’, but can this genuinely be mutually-beneficial if western producers mindlessly lift samples without acknowledging their cultural weight and origins? There’s a difference between when Floating Points, for example, actively seeks out records in South America, investing a lot of time, passion and respect into this process, and when Solardo take a looped vocal sample that used to literally come up in the first video you find when you type in ‘African vocal samples’ on YouTube. If Europe remains the dominant authority in deciding who gets showcased and Latin America gets forgotten, it becomes hard to truly draw a line underneath a lingering colonial logic and asymmetry.

There are promising signs of resistance to this defacing kind of cultural ‘revival’, and a way of repositioning those artists and cultures often left at the fringes of reaping its credits. One promising example of a group of friends creating a real sense of international community is Nótt Collective, a feminist project based in Medellin, Colombia, that also spotlights electronic music artists from Latin America. Frustrated by the lack of platforms for female Colombian artists in clubs and festivals, DJs Andrea Arias, Marea and Julianna began in 2016 to create Nótt’s network-expanding database of Latin American artists, running workshops and lectures to help women experiment more with sound. Despite the smaller budgets and obstacles that come with producing electronic music in a country that’s been at war for almost 60 years, Nótt has shaped a thriving scene of Latin American artists and DJs in the capital, and shown that frontiers in music don’t need to exist.

A stunning EP from Julianna's (Nótt Collective) Move Label 

The internet can help musicians in the developing world get their music beyond their borders. New York’s pan-global DJ, producer and writer DJ/rupture spoke to The Guardian’s Dan Hancox in 2016: ‘It feels like the technology is almost in place to allow that, if someone makes a beat on their laptop, they could sell it on their phone, and get all the money for it, direct. It comes down to this basic thing—how to give, say, a weird Angolan techno producer their dues?’ The web allows these smaller artists to be justly rewarded. But this last question appeals less to the need for ‘money’ to go to the right place, and more to the natural right of marginalised communities to be respected and heard. Jamaica is at risk of losing its status as the wellspring of reggae due to developed countries such as the USA and Japan, who have now acquired of 90% of Jamaica’s vinyl catalogue. Proper accreditation and recovery underpins Brian Shimkovitz’ blog Awesome Tapes From Africa, a repository of cassette tapes from artists who remain almost wholly obscure in the west but deserve better global celebration. Since 2011, Shimkovitz’ blog has expanded to become a record label, reissuing its cassettes (on vinyl, CD and download) by artists who were often either passed over or lifted by the western world without credit. ‘A crucial thing for me’, writes Shimkovitz in The Wire, ‘has always been finding a way to promote the music among people who would not normally have access to it.’ Turning back to Ariana Grande, we should be cautious to unfairly label her as ‘culture vulture’, and see her case as symptomatic of complex wider issues facing the music industry—after all, Grande has often voiced her appreciation of Japan’s culture and language. But it’s important that she uses her digital platform to credit and support the cultures which she borrows from.

Awesome Tapes From Africa boss Brian Shimkovitz 

(credit: The Irish Times)

In addition to proper pay, the global visibility of a country’s musical histories, seminal figures and linguistic origins will help level the asymmetrical playing field. This isn’t an act of aggression, or sympathy, but one of necessity. With the growing sophistication of archival technologies, which facilitate the storage of a nation’s sonic memories as well as the history that sculpted them, we’re also charged with a cardinal responsibility. This requires us to reflect upon what it means to be ‘global’ and to label something as ‘world’: whether that be questioning the imperial provenance of many European museum collections, acknowledging the roots of dancehall or even the simple act of ensuring that embedded Soundcloud links are properly credited to their respective creators. Starting these conversations does not oppose the sharing of the distinct colours of a country’s vibrant culture. Rather, it opens up dialogues between experimental contemporaries and long dead jazz saxophonists. There’s undoubtedly a rich history behind all these interconnected genres. Future generations need to respect this, rather than reducing cultures to commodified curiosities soon to be washed away with the wave of the next musical trend.

Words by Georgina Quach