There’s a popular quite often attributed to Frank Ocean. “When you’re happy, you enjoy the music. When you’re sad, you understand the music.”
I think this is an integral part of the conversation about appropriation of black art and culture. When a song released by a black artist about their experiences gets white washed, its meaning is lost because the pain that came with penning that lyric is lost to the new singer. The subject matter becomes satirised.
Music has been an important avenue for telling the black experience, particularly rap music and R&b. However, traditionally R&B artists are now referred to as Urban Contemporary by the Grammys, perpetuating the distillation of the black voice into something permissible in caucasian markets. Many a prose has surely been written about Macklemore’s grand larceny of Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy for best hip hop. Nonetheless, are we going to pretend like this systematic exclusion is a new thing, or it ended with Macklemore? I mean, Macklemore is pretty much the face of white privilege in the music business. Taking rap music and removing the raw emotion from it, so it doesn’t threaten those who don’t live these experiences. You have Iggy Azalea who is basically audio blackface. Blackface was used to create a caricature of black people, tell me thats not what iggy is doing. This is an Australian who has no idea what the pain of being discriminated against for being black carries, yet uses what one can only call an alter ego to pick and choose the parts of being black she finds palatable.
Kendrick Lamar’s most commercial song, Swimming Pools (Drank), was about substance abuse. Yes, it had a dope beat to mask the depth of the lyrics, but it was addressing an issue that affects millions of people regardless of demographic. When blackness is often tied to those who experience violence and economic struggle there can be a rush by those who don’t face those struggles to claim that as part of our story as well. That’s where the problem with cover versions that soften rap songs lies. Particularly in their removal of the anger, frustration and desperation that the original narrator had in their song. A whitewashed cover comes out sounding like a parody. And maybe thats the intention: to parody the black experience. After all, without pain you can enjoy the music without understanding the lyrics.