Cultural appropriation and sugar drinks

Contrary to the utopian dreams of the early internet, the idea of a more democratic communications space has given way to a system of capitalist exploitation, including how we consume music.

Que Bajo?! performing at Red Bull Music Academy Culture Clash during the Red Bull Music Academy in New York, April 28 to May 30, 2013. Image credit Christelle de Castro via Red Bull

It’s the year of Bieberton. Drakeobeats. Sheerenhall. It’s also been five years since Okayplayer and Okayafrica had me sit down with Diplo, the DJ and producer, to talk about the ethics of appropriation in the global music industry. A lot has changed since then, and excuse the cliché, but unfortunately a lot has stayed the same. In my personal life I have just reached a milestone, accomplishing a goal that grew in the back of my mind that day we sat in an exclusive corner room in Manhattan’s Ace Hotel, while Diplo did a swift job of acquitting himself of any blame in the formation of the problematic industry we now inhabit. I realized in the midst of that 6-hour conversation (only a snippet of which made it to publication), that perhaps instead of trying to dialogue about these issues (I felt we weren’t doing anything other than displaying Diplo’s impeccable media training), I would perhaps get further illustrating my point by making content that was exemplary of it, and so after that meeting I was more motivated than ever to commit to a career in music.

One of the things that I didn’t know then is that the reason why Diplo agreed to do that joint interview, was perhaps because at that moment he was at the precipice of being untouchable in the music industry—one of the go-to producers that gets called on to magically engineer global hits. However, at that time something in my analysis of his practice struck at the core of what was wrong with it. Maybe he felt that because of the position he was precariously coming into, he needed to address that critique. But at the end of the day, I’m sure its because he didn’t want that messing with his money.

Lo and behold, the following year, Diplo would be named as one of Forbes Magazine’s top 10 most paid DJs and earn upwards of $13 million as a DJ/producer/brand ambassador. As it turns out, during our conversation the elephant in the room was exactly that.

So, while he talked about throwing $40,000 a year down the money pit that was Mad Decent, a platform for promoting global musicians—often from marginalized communities, the reality was that less than one percent of his annual earnings were going to that venture. What would ultimately be a tiny bit of startup capital that would reap him huge dividends in the future (as a Hollywood super producer for projects with million dollar budgets), was not even a splash in his bucket.

What was frustrating for me about the response to that interview was that many people focused only on the cultural appropriation aspect of my critique of Diplo (particularly those engaged in a certain kind of identity politics) and didn’t quite grasp that I wasn’t actually mad at Diplo for working with others or promoting other people’s cultures (which if the rest of the world was on even starting ground, materially, wouldn’t be as much of a problem). What I was mad at was that he turned cultural appropriation into a form of capitalism, the core critique of which is that wealth isn’t fairly distributed in proportion to the various parts’ input (labor).

As far as that personal goal that came up in the back of my mind that afternoon, that has manifest itself in a full length album called Salone. Salone is the name in the local language, Krio, for my father’s home country Sierra Leone. It is a collaboration with a blind street musician named Sorie Koroma, artist name Sorie Kondi. We are from different worlds, but for some reason our collaboration makes sense. Music writers and interviewers have been trying to wrestle with why. I don’t have a very clear answer for them. They often know me as the one who railed against cultural appropriation, for my pointing out neocolonialism in the African vinyl trade industry. How can I participate in another Western meets African musical collaboration without stinking of hypocrisy? But I fear that concentrating on those aspects of my critique is to miss out on the original point I was trying to put forward.

The current music industry landscape is one in which an artist needs capital in order to get heard. This capital often comes from corporate brands selling a variety of non-music related material, such as Red Bull, Heineken, Ray Ban, Levis, and an assortment of others. Essentially this has turned musicians, DJs, producers in to default advertising agents, just without the job security and benefits (healthcare, retirement savings, paychecks!) of their colleagues with full time jobs at the corporation. The freedom that freelancing allows you to create, set your own schedule, travel is seen as a fair trade off.

It is not.

As I write this, I’m sitting in a bit of limbo in London in one of my music partner’s dad’s flat (nice digs, but not a fancy Ace Hotel corner room by any means). I’m here because I’m on a promotional tour for the Kondi Band. Our label is based in London, and I know that Europe is a better place for us to tour this kind of music. They have tons of festivals, often funded by their national governments, that allow up and coming, experimental, underground, classic and lesser known acts to get their foot in the door or sustain a career. There’s one big problem: Sorie Kondi is not here since his travel has been put in limbo by the UK’s immigration agency. We have had several shows cancelled, even though we’ve offered an alternative set up that resembles more of a Jamaican Soundsystem-style show. So, we are losing money, and I’m stuck here waiting for my scheduled flight home (we don’t have enough money to change the flight.) I don’t know the future of the project because Sorie’s passport is also in limbo somewhere called Sheffield, and we don’t know if future tours will be put in jeopardy because of this situation. Add this to the fact that we are currently on a race against time to get enough attention to be able to justify the financing of the recording of a second album to our label and distributor. An international project like this needs infrastructure and capital to survive. The project as a whole is currently in several thousands of Euros debt, and after five years of hard work, it is in danger of falling apart.

Which explains my tweet tangent this morning:

I know, I’m a touring DJ. However, I’m not the only one who will tell you that the glamorous life of a touring DJ is not all it seems on the outside. People have little patience for DJs who complain about their trials on the road however, as evidenced by the popular Twitter account @djscomplaining. However, I am now in my mid 30s, have a new son, and have to deal with the life realities of adulthood that my 20-year old self (the age when I set off on this journey) hadn’t even considered. And this industry was not built for longevity for most people.

I chose to stick around. I don’t know why beyond a kind of lingering idealism. I originally saw this platform and my talents as one of the few ways I could affect some kind of change in the world.

However, the more I stick around the more disillusioned I become.

Perhaps another moment of truth for me was my participation in the Red Bull Music Academy in New York in May of 2013. I wasn’t an official participant, but because I was a Brooklyn resident involved in the local scene, the folks at the Academy (some of whom I know from the underground scenes we came up in) got me involved. I got paid $2,000 to write an exposé on African immigrant clubbing in New York. I remember sitting on the train the day it was published, gleaming with pride as I looked around at my fellow riders reading my cover story. While knowing at the time deep down that Red Bull Music Academy was problematic, I felt in many ways validated for that moment as a writer, DJ and cultural observer.

Friends of mine went even further with their engagement with Red Bull. The now defunct Latino-oriented bass music party Que Bajo!? participated in the Culture Sound Clash in Manhattan that year, and received $50,000 to put on a large show incorporating many members of our local community, and even flew in artists that influenced the formation of our scene. It was a fun moment. However, it was very flash in the pan.

That Que Bajo!? is now defunct, is fairly indicative of the problems we are dealing with in the contemporary independent electronic music scene. Money troubles eventually led to infighting and we realized that the temporary influx of capital only served to draw a wedge between members of our community rather than uplift it. It’s also a cliché that money causes more problems, but seeing it in action doesn’t make it any less painful. What I would chalk that up to ultimately is that in that moment during the RBMA, our expectations were temporarily raised, our potential temporarily realized, and when we could no longer live up to those moments our own self-worth was put into question.

I joke to friends that after leaving New York for Rio de Janeiro, I realized that everyone in New York City has the two-steps-from-Kanye disease. Meaning you are suffering through paying the rent and trying to survive in this creatively stifling advertising-agency-run industry and Wall Street oriented city, but you’re only two steps away from Kanye so you won’t quit. What that really means is that you’re in the center of capital. You can see it all around you, but like a mirage of an oasis in the desert you can’t actually hold any of it.

Five years after Diplo and I talked about appropriating underground New York queer culture, queer electronic musicians are now central to the mainstream music and media industries in New York. Some DJ friends (usually straight males) will joke: if you’re not a queer woman of color DJ in Brooklyn, you’re not getting booked in 2017. As I laid out in 2012, the industry like to focus on certain scenes as the flavor of the day, and while more representation for such communities in mainstream media is positive, I also know many of the queer women of color DJs in Brooklyn, and they’re just as frustrated as the rest of us. I imagine that is because even politically progressive identity politics can become fodder for corporate advertising agencies profit margins, eventually sowing the kind of internal community discord that I saw happen with Que Bajo. So, even with more representation for marginalized identities, something is still broken in the deeper system.

My Twitter rant continued:

Belgian producer collaborating with West African artists, Max LeDaron chimed in:




And what Max is pointing to is an unfortunate reality of the contemporary creative world. We are dependent on the rightwing-owned sugary drinks and jeans and sunglasses companies to allow our creations to be heard. Our value as creators (in the USA at least) is based on their patronage. Which is perhaps fine if you’re at the top of the food chain (capitalism is designed to have only a few people at the top). But, in reality, unless you own your own platform like Jay-Z, you really have no leverage, bargaining power or even really true creative autonomy (just ask Kanye).

Contrary to the utopian dreams of the early internet, the idea of a more democratic communications space has given way to a system of capitalist exploitation. Anything that challenges the core of the system we create in is forced to eek out an existence on the margins, that is until it gains a million likes on Youtube and Drake remixes it. And even if an entire community gets “put on,” ultimately all they want is the polished, likable, followable, palatable (sugary drink), exclusive-able content that will get these companies their virtual social capital, which only they can convert into cold hard cash.

And the truth is, even Jay-Z isn’t immune, since he has had to make deals with even bigger corporations like Samsung and Sprint to ensure his ability to have the reach he desires. Think about that. Even the richest creatives in the room don’t feel completely free without the underwriting of some non-music company’s ad budget. And it doesn’t matter what kind of politics you profess in the music, identity-based or otherwise (like Jay-Z and Beyonce’s politics of pseudo black nationalism and feminism), those corporations still get paid.

I know this isn’t going to sink in with everyone who reads this. I feel like much of the point on cultural appropriation I was trying to make was lost in the flash of the social media driven viral moment.

What I want however is for all individuals to really try and understand what’s happening in the current internet-driven creative economy, to look at the kind of world we want to create, and invest in the positive humanistic aspects that make us feel more like humans in a healthy supportive community, and society as a whole.

There are many alternatives as my friend Nati Conrazon likes to point out.

As for me?

Further Reading

Edson in Accra

It happened in 1969. But just how did he world’s greatest, richest and most sought-after footballer at the time, end up in Ghana?

The dreamer

As Africa’s first filmmakers made their unique steps in Africanizing cinema, few were as bold as Djibril Diop Mambéty who employed cinema to service his dreams.

Socialismo pink

A solidariedade socialista na Angola e Moçambique pós-coloniais tornou as pessoas queer invisíveis. Revisitar esse apagamento nos ajuda a reinventar a libertação de forma legítima.