Culture, Society and Popular Music; Cultural Appropriation in Music

This is the sixth and final installment of my Culture, Society and Music blog for my Music and Audio Production degree coursework. This week I will discuss cultural appropriation in music. This blog also includes an accompanying playlist.

Cultural appropriation occurs when an artist from one culture takes elements from another culture in their work and gives nothing in return. The other culture may be used in the completely wrong way, misinterpreted or just used for commercial appeal. That culture doesn’t benefit at all.

Many examples exist in modern pop culture, the first one that comes to my mind is Selena Gomez “Come and Get It”. I actually really like this song as piece of pop music with it’s catchy stutter-effect vocals, EDM influences and use of Indian samples and loops. Yet the video shows Selena (a Latina, Western lady) wearing a bindi and other forms of Indian clothing. She hyper-sexualised Indian traditional dancing in the video. This shocked South Asian culture. Furthermore Selena called the song “tribal” in interviews.

Anisha Ahuja from writes of her disgust toward Selena Gomez:

“My tabla is the music I grew up to and not a sample for you to pretend to understand with your “twisting the lightbulb” dance moves. My tabla is the music that has been understood at my family members’ weddings, and not in your safe place in Billboard’s top ten hits.

My bindi is not a way for you to present yourself as being friendly to South Asian culture while exotifying it. My bindi is from my mother, put in my drawer because it is another mark of my internalized Otherness, on top of my brown skin. My bindi is tainted by Western celebrities trying to be “cultural” or “bohemian” or “tribal.” My bindi is not just a piece of plastic, my bindi is not for sale, and my bindi is not for you.”


Rihanna’s “Where Have You Been” is another example of a Western commercial pop star hyper-sexualising Arabian dance and clothing in her video. The song in my opinion isn’t half as likeable as Selena Gomez’s, though it also takes influence from EDM. The music itself has no reference to Arabian culture. It’s the video that causes offence.


A fine example of cultural appropriation has just hit the ground running- this time form Avril Lavigne with her new song “Hello Kitty”. Lavigne wrote the song with her husband, Nickelback front-man Chad Kroeger. It is a bizarre hybrid of pop and dubstep! This song has no musical reference to Japenese culture but the lyric alone “Hello Kitty” sparks Kawaii appropriation.

Kawaii is the art and culture of cute, Japenese cartoons- Hello Kitty brand being the most famous.

Kawaii art on Pinterest
Kawaii art on Pinterest

Lavigne’s video absolutely violates this culture with the use of Asian women dressed up in matching outfits, Lavigne eating Asian food (using slick editing to make a comedic show out of the affair). The video was removed countless times from the Internet. I currently can’t find a link.

The video sickened me, as a fellow 29 year old musician, a guitar player (Lavigne dances around with a pink Strat covered in fluffy teddys and stickers) and I was appalled at the display of Japenese culture the video.

Ladies of pop music are not only guilty of cultural appropriation. Haitan-American Jason Derulo’s R&B track “Talk Dirty to me” uses an alto sax sample from 2007 single, ‘Hermetico,’ by Tel Aviv/New York City’s Balkan Beat Box. Ori Kaplan’s brass playing has kept Eastern European dance floors dancing for years atop Tamir Muskat’s beatmaking. The video shows hyper-sexualised women playing trumpets! A fine example of Western music taking a piece of culture that was successful in it’s own right and turning it into profit.

Lastly is Lady Gaga with a new low. Her video for “Burqa” shows her wearing Muslim clothing as a fashion statement, not as symbol for religion. She also hypser-sexulaises the burqua with her lyric “I’m not a wandering slave I am a woman of choice, my veil is protection for the gorgeousness of my face.” This song promotes the trivialization of the religious clothing of Muslim women.



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