i wasn’t going to talk about Miley Cyrus and twerking–but it’s relevant

Soundtrack in my head: Robin Thicke, “Blurred Lines”

Sometimes the mass media has this way illustrating my point for me, even if it’s a bit clueless in the way that it does so.  So that’s why I’m going to talk about Miley Cyrus and twerking. By now, everybody has probably heard about THAT VIDEO.  I hesitate to post it below, but it will help illustrate my point.

Would white feminists have a point if they were to say that Miley’s performance is degrading to women?  Absolutely.  Would African-Americans have a point if they were to say that Miley and many of Miley’s white feminist critics are being disrespectful to a sub-culture of African-American culture?  Absolutely.

The point is, whether one likes twerking or not, twerking has a history that needs to be at least respected.  Twerking came out of New Orleans “bounce culture” and bounce music.  Bounce music is a distinctly regional form of hip-hop music that came out of New Orleans in the late 80’s or early 90’s.  Its more unique characteristics involve a call and response style and Mardi Gras Indian chanting. Bounce music, like much of New Orleans culture, is also more gay-friendly than normally seen in hip-hop culture.

The best critique I’ve read of Miley Cyrus’s performance and the culture and race implications of it came from “bounce queen” Big Freedia, who has been involved with this culture since 1999.  Big Freedia said, “She was going too far. She’s trying to twerk, but don’t know how to twerk. It’s become offensive to a lot of people who’ve been twerking and shaking their asses for years, especially in the black culture. But it’s also helpful because it’s putting twerking on the map around the world. I’ve been transforming twerking for the last three years around the world and for her to just come out of the blue and just start twerking, a lot of people are very offended by it, especially in New Orleans. When something get hot, everybody want to jump on the bandwagon and act like they created it. That’s totally understandable but they have to give credit where credit is due.”

Big Freedia goes on further to say, “When you have my dancers, they’re professionals. They’re from New Orleans and know what they’re doing. When they started dancing, it was original twerking. Miley’s dancers were prop dancers. None of them were professional dancers. So yeah, she was trying to twerk…They’re just using anybody possible just to get that buzz since twerking is hot now…That’s why I’m working so hard; for it to happen on my end, not on the end of someone who’s not even familiar with the culture. That’s what’s so offensive, when you’ve been doing it for so many years and then someone who just jumped off the porch tries to do it.”

So if you take a look at what Big Freedia is saying, there’s a pattern that emerges here that’s very relevant to what I want to say about rock ‘n’ roll and cultural appropriation.  The pattern that often emerges looks like this:

  1. A cultural phenomenon develops among a marginalized racial and/or socioeconomic group that begins to attract attention outside that group.

  2. Someone from outside that marginalized group begins to cash in on that cultural phenomenon–somebody with more money, more connections and more ability to get media access.  They do so by either taking credit for it, using the culture to give themselves “street cred,” or simply ignoring the culture that created it before them.  They might or might not do a good job of imitating the culture.

  3. The person outside that marginalized group makes money off of this culture while those who created the culture continue to live with the poverty and/or racism typical of that marginalized group.

  4. In extreme cases, the person making money off the cultural phenomenon might not only take credit for it but even claim “ownership” of it and limit the rights of others to use that type of cultural expression.

What I found notable about Big Freedia’s statements were that she made no objections to white people actually engaging in the culture. “We want to empower women of all walks of life to express themselves through dance music. I definitely push that at a Big Freedia show and I have a lot of white fans who get up there and really twerk. I have some amazing white dancers who would get up there and shut Miley down. They could’ve used girls from New Orleans, even if they were not black, who knew what they’re doing.”

There are ways to work in cooperation with such cultures without engaging in cultural appropriation.  One of the best examples is the video below by Diplo and Nicky Da B.  Diplo is an Los Angeles-based DJ who grew up in the South, and who arguably has made a career of supporting, not appropriating smaller musical scenes from around the world.  I will give details in a future post dedicated to Diplo–the more I see from him and the more I read about him, the more I like him.  In any case, Diplo collaborated with Nicky Da B who comes out of the NOLA bounce scene.

A lot of people dislike this video for many reasons–primarly, its explicit nature.  Like it or not, though, you have to admit that Miley’s MTV Awards performance is a cheap, watered-down imitation of Diplo and Nicky Da B’s video.  Despite its explicit nature, I really like the video and keep on watching it for multiple reasons:  1) the video takes place in New Orleans and uses real bounce dancers, both female and male, 2) Nicky Da B takes center stage, while Diplo is in the background. (This is something that DJs I respect often do–letting the music speak for itself rather than it being about them), 3) The dancers are ordinary people, and not selected because they look like fashion models, and 4) Bottom line, the video lets the culture speak for itself.

By now, you probably seeing where I’m going with this in reference to rock n roll.  I’ll go into more details with this in subsequent posts.

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