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Jeff Miers: Bruno Mars did not invent cultural appropriation

Jeff Miers

This whole "Bruno Mars is guilty of cultural appropriation" thing has got me thinking. And the more I think, the madder I get.

Last week, cultural commentary site the Grapevine released a two-part video documenting a roundtable discussion on Mars and cultural appropriation. One participant was YouTube commentator and activist Seren Sensei Aishitemasu. She went off on Mars in a sometimes on-point, sometimes less-so rant.

"He is not black at all and he plays up his racial ambiguity to be able to... cross genres and go into different places," Aishitemasu said in the video. "Bruno Mars has an Album of the Year Grammy - Prince never won an Album of the Year Grammy. So, how are you going to say that people who are originators in the funk genre, originators in R&B, New Jack Swing—Bobby Brown and New Edition don't have no Album of the Year Grammy.

"Bruno Mars got that Grammy because white people love him because he's not black, period. The issue is, 'We want our black culture from non-black bodies,' and Bruno Mars is like, 'I'll give it to you.' "

Clearly, Aishitemasu has a point. Mars took home six Grammys in February, among them the most sought-after trophies – Record of the Year, Album of the Year and Song of the Year. Mars swept the Grammys, essentially, and many industry commentators – myself included – suggested that he did so because he's safe, comfortably mainstream and far from controversial.

[Related: Miers' take on the Grammy Awards]

Mars makes music that is clearly indebted to African-American funk, R&B, soul, pop and various offshoots of hip-hop. He was born in Hawaii, and is of Filipino, Puerto Rican and Ashkenazic Jewish descent. He is not African-American.

I've been to three of his concerts, the first of which involved a then-unknown Mars playing low on the bill during a University at Buffalo Fall Fest performance. I've reviewed his albums and his television appearances. I've watched him grow a bit as an artist, and I've been critical. Here's a slice from my review of his June 2014 show at what was then called First Niagara Center.

"Monday’s gig felt like a textbook-recitation on how to put on a modern pop show. But the one thing that can’t be taught is that ephemeral glue, that otherness, that blend of sex and soul and sweetness that carries a gig of this variety. That’s something that needs to be earned, and then honed over time. You can’t just walk into it, and drape it over yourself, like a cape.

"Mars wants to be Michael Jackson and Prince rolled into one, he made plain throughout Monday’s show. He’s got a long way to go before he can even think about filling either one of those artists’ shoes."

I stand by those words. Mars is, at present, a wholly imitative artist. It's clear who his influences are. It's also clear that he is abundantly talented, driven and genuine in his love for the music that has so deeply influenced him. Like most imitators, his art does not penetrate as deeply into the soul of the in-tune listener as does the original music he has taken as his leaping-off point. In this, he is far from alone.

Cultural appropriation is not a new topic, but thanks to social media, it has been tossed around as if it's some sort of formal legal charge in recent weeks. It is worth noting that most of the people employing it to tear down Mars are cultural commentators. They are not musicians, journalists or record producers, but people with opinions that may or may not be ones they've earned through rigorous study or disciplined approaches to critical thought.

Everyone can be a cultural commentator. In fact, everyone is a cultural commentator. It's their right to be one, though it might not be their calling.

By contrast, many of Mars' fellow musicians rushed to his defense.

The Grammys have always been about playing it safe. Is there racial bias going on in the Grammy decision-making process? Probably. It goes on pretty much everywhere else in the country. Blaming Mars for it is unfair.

Being imitative is an artistic failure, but is it an ethical one? Perhaps, in some cases. But if Mars was African-American instead of Filipino-Puerto Rican-Jewish, would that make it OK for him to pillage the past while essentially adding nothing new to the conversation? From an artistic standpoint, the answer should be no.

The list of artists who have begged, borrowed and stolen from African-American music is incredibly long, and it grows longer by the day. The Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin – let's just save some time and say that every rock, pop, R&B and jazz artist to emerge from the 1950s to today has appropriated African-American music.

The best of these artists make it clear where their inspiration comes from, they celebrate their mentors, they turn their fans on to those mentors, they pay it back and they pay it forward. There are some who fail to do so, and they are not difficult to spot. You can hear it in the music. Because you can't steal funk and you can’t appropriate soul. You've gotta earn it.

And so, Mars has Grammy awards on his mantle, but he'll never be Prince. That's the trade-off, for now.

The music speaks, and it always tells the truth. But if you never stop talking, you won’t hear it.


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