Appropriation is defined as the act of taking possession of something for one's own use, typically without the owner's permission. The taking of thoughts, ideas, culture; these are things people hold dear and there are those who seek to pillage and pass off as their own. Cultural appropriation and "whitewashing" have trending topics within the last two years or so with various music artists and other production media distributors being accused of engaging in such activity. Films like Exodus: Gods and Kings, Gods of Egypt, the Marvel's Doctor Strange, Marvel's Iron Fist Netflix series, and music artists such as Iggy Azalea, Robin Thicke, and Katy Perry have come under much scrutiny as of late. Some arguments have been valid, others have just been blowing smoke. Bruno Mars, whose real name is Peter Gene Hernandez, is now among the accused after his performance at the 2017 #BET awards. While cultural appropriation is a relevant topic, the question remains. Is Bruno Mars appropriating black culture? Another question to be asked is, are we stretching the cultural appropriation argument too far? Let's start at the beginning.
A tweet posted by doctorate student and Washington Post writer, Jenn M. Jackson, criticized Bruno for his performance of his uptempo funk song "Perm" from his latest album "24K Magic" citing its appropriation of black culture. Not only was Bruno criticized, but also his fans.
I do my best in listening to both sides of the issue, but here's where I have a problem with this argument. If we start from the early to late 2000s, Bruno went from getting his professional start at the historic Motown Records to producing and writing songs for artists such as Brandy and Sean Kingston among others prior to becoming a solo artist. He was also featured on B.o.B's 2009 hit "Nothin' On You", a hip-hop song, which helped launch his solo career. His 2010 album "Doo-Wops & Hooligans" was essentially a pop album, but consisted of multiple styles of music between rhythm & blues and reggae, but contained a doo-wop theme, hence the album name. "Grenade" and "Just the Way You Are" were only a small portion of that album. The same can be said about his follow up album "Unorthodox Jukebox" which also contains R&B and funk influences. It's safe to say that he's been contributing to the genre for a while now and not only contributing to it, but also honoring it.
The phrase most being criticized is that Bruno Mars is "bringing funk back." Well, when was the last time you heard a song like "24K Magic" on mainstream radio that wasn't released in decades past? What other new artist is doing what Bruno is currently putting out for mainstream audiences? You can maybe name two or three out of all the artists that have surfaced on major labels and get consistent radio play. The argument is being claimed as if Bruno Mars is said to be the "new messiah of funk" and no one is saying that. It just refreshing to get new music that actually has musicianship.
(From Unorthodox Jukebox, 2012)
Since there was a need to bring up that Bruno Mar is a "non-black" person of color, there are some key things that were overlooked. Bruno Mars is part Puerto Rican, with his father being half, and Filipino from his mom's side. You can trace both Puerto Rican and Filipino lineage to Pacific Islands, Asia, Middle-East, and Africa in addition to Europe. When it pertains to blackness, it is well documented that African roots still reside in Spanish countries to this day, even if there are a portion that don't want to acknowledge it. They are a mixture of different things like many of us are anyway regardless of how dark your skin is or how blonde you hair may be. Bruno Mars is multi-ethnic and at the end of the day, musica does not have the look of the "prototype" American (blonde hair, blue eyes) and on the wrong day at the wrong time, he would be treated accordingly. So what is the point of being hung up on him not being at least half or a quarter black? What does it have to do with him being talented and coming from a musical family that played multiple styles of music?
This is where the argument goes downhill. With his first major album essentially being a pop release, the assumption that most of his audience is automatically white and stating that said audience doesn't know or care about black artists is asinine. Even if they didn't know, wouldn't that open the door for the audience to learn more about it? Did black music in the 1990s not have crossover appeal for it to become as commercialized as it is today? I suppose the white audience didn't care then, correct? By this logic, Eminem or Machine Gun Kelly should have never made a rap album. Breakdancing started in Bronx, NY in the 1970s, but it has since grown to global status. Are we to tell people in other countries they are no longer allowed to breakdance? That's not how that works. If this is the case, then how about we bring up Pitbull, the late Big Pun, Fat Joe, Snow tha Product, just to name a few.
Another writer, Daren W. Jackson, makes a similar case against Bruno Mars. He cites the same issues Jenn does, but also mentions the lawsuits made against Mars and Mark Ronson for the song "Uptown Funk."
- Charly Garcia, an Argentine musician claims similarities for his song “Fanky.”
- Serbian artist Viktorija made similar claims saying it was borrowed from the song "Ulice Mracne Nisu Za Devojke."
- 1980s band Collage claimed it sounded like their song "Young Girls."
- Angie Stone and former members of The Sequence accused them of stealing sounds from the song "Funk You Up."
- The Gap Band was granted 17% of all publishing royalties from "Uptown Funk" claiming it borrowed from their song “Oops Upside Your Head.”
Now having listened to all of the songs listed, you would have to take it with a grain of salt. The only thing that sounds similar is the guitar riff on three the songs, but how many funk songs have had a similar sounding riff? In my opinion, it seems like you can be granted royalties if it remotely sounds like you sneezed the same.
When you say ‘black music,’ understand that you are talking about rock, jazz, R&B, reggae, funk, doo-wop, hip-hop, and Motown. Black people created it all. Being Puerto Rican, even salsa music stems back to the Motherland [Africa]. So, in my world, black music means everything. It’s what gives America its swag. I’m a child raised in the ‘90s. Pop music was heavily rooted in R&B from Whitney, Diddy, Dr. Dre, Boyz II Men, Aaliyah, TLC, Babyface, New Edition, Michael, and so much more. As kids this is what was playing on MTV and the radio. This is what we were dancing to at school functions and BBQs. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for these artists who inspired me. They have brought me so much joy and created the soundtrack to my life filled with memories that I'll never forget. Most importantly, they were the superstars that set the bar for me and showed me what it takes to sing a song that can get the whole world dancing, or give a performance that people will talk about forever. Watching them made me feel like I had to be as great as they were in order to even stand a chance in this music business. You gotta sing as if Jodeci is performing after you and dance as if Bobby Brown is coming up next. -Bruno Mars, Latina Magazine
^All that said, but Bruno is stealing black culture. People have to know the difference from stealing and being influenced while embracing it.
This isn't a case of early 90s Ice pretending to be from a black neighborhood or Iggy Azalea putting on a fake accent when she raps or even Robin Thicke who preemptively sued the Marvin Gaye Estate to protect the song "Blurred Lines" even though he clearly sampled one of his songs. Bruno Mars is an individual who understands what good music is and honorably pays homage to the artists who paved the way. On top of that, he's a proud man of color even if people want to denigrate him because he's only a certain percentage of this or that. As black people, we are responsible for many innovations in this country, but we get nowhere if we can't invite people into our world. We want people to understand us, yet still want to close ourselves off from fear from being robbed. If these are arguments we need to make, we need to choose our battles wisely. Otherwise, no one will ever take us seriously. Get the full story before making snap judgments.