The Bruno Mars Controversy Proves People Don’t Understand Cultural Appropriation
Bruno Mars poses with the five Grammys he won during the
60th annual show Jan. 28, 2018, in New York City. Photo:
Michael Loccisano (Getty Images)
Before we begin any discussion of Bruno Mars and cultural
appropriation, we must lay out a few ground rules:
This will not be a debate about the quality of Bruno
Mars’ work. That discussion is too subjective, and
no one will ever reach a consensus on any kind of art. Plus,
some people have shit taste in music, and I’ll be damned if
I’m about to argue music with anyone who believes
21 Savage is better than Nas.
For the sake of this argument, Bruno Mars is not
black. He has a mixed racial background that
Ashkenazi Jew, Puerto Rican and Filipino. One can debate
where he fits in the African Diaspora, the meaning of
“blackness” or whether race is an artificial construct. I can
almost guarantee that if I called him right now and asked him
to list his top five macaroni-makers, he’d have to think
about it for a minute, and none of the names in his top five
would begin with the word “aunt.”
Black people created every form of American
music. But there is a specific, indefinable genre of
music that begins with R&B and encompasses hip-hop that
we will heretofore refer to as “black music.”
The furious debate about Bruno Mars and whether or not he is a
cultural appropriator has bubbled beneath the surface of his
career for a while. It existed before he remade Earth, Wind
& Fire’s “Uptown Funk” or Bell Biv DeVoe’s “Finesse.” Even
Wait … I’m being told that the previously mentioned songs are
Bruno Mars originals. But I’m pretty sure the S.O.S. Band made
“24 Karat Magic.” I think it was the B side to “Take Your
Time,” so let’s use that as an example. What? That’s an
original song, too? OK, I’m going to have to do a
little more research on this and get back to you.
But before Bruno won a Grammy and Meshell Ndegeocello called
him a karaoke singer, there were always people who thought that
someone put Michael Jackson, Prince and James Brown into a
blender with a quarter cup of lukewarm water, a dollop of
mayonnaise and a smidge of racial ambiguity, and out came the
next pop sensation.
The conversation was reignited when this clip from the
Grapevine (not this one; the other one) began circling the
Seren Aishitemasu, the woman in the clip makes a convincing
argument breaking down why Bruno is a derivative artist
who—willingly or not—gets to trade on his racial ambiguity.
But does that necessarily mean he is guilty of cultural
There is no universally accepted definition of the term, but it
generally relates to the use of the art, artifacts, symbology
or anything of cultural significance to a minority or
nondominant group of people by a person who is not in that
What separates cultural appropriation from a cultural exchange
or paying homage is when someone “borrows” an item or symbol of
cultural significance without acknowledgment, attribution or
permission. One of the other hallmarks of appropriation is
using someone’s culture to demean, make fun of or diminish it.
Understanding the definition and the power dynamics involved in
cultural appropriation is the key to understanding the concept.
When Kim Kardashian put cornrows in her hair and
called them “Bo Derek braids,” it was cultural
appropriation because she made no acknowledgment of the culture
from which the style came.
I usually try not to pay attention to the Kardashians,
because they are a family full of well-known …
And yes, black people can be cultural appropriators. When a
black woman wore a Native American headdress to Coachella
as a costume, she was appropriating by using part of a
culture’s sacred ritual as cosplay. In fact, I am often accused
of cultural appropriation. When people ask how I can use the
white man’s internet and type on a keyboard that a white man
invented and not be considered an appropriator, I want to
explain to them how stupid they sound, but I don’t because they
probably wouldn’t understand the concept.
But when it comes to music and art, cultural appropriation is a
tricky thing to decipher. A non-black person’s involvement in a
traditionally black art does not rise to the level of
appropriation in and of itself. Bruno Mars is 32 years old,
meaning that he grew up during a time when hip-hop and R&B
ruled the charts as the most popular music in the world. Anyone
making popular music in 2018 is—by definition—making black
music, regardless of their color.
To be honest, it is incumbent on white artists to acknowledge
that, even if it seems unfair.
Beyoncé is only doing what Janet Jackson did before her and
Diana Ross did before her. But Beyoncé doesn’t have to bear the
burden of acknowledging that every time she steps onstage
because—as a black woman—she is an inheritor of that legacy.
However, when Taylor Swift makes an album that looks like an
unsweetened, gluten-free version of Beyoncé’s
Lemonade, it comes off as cultural
appropriation, even though it is quite possible that Taylor
Swift was influenced by the same artists as Queen Bey
(although, judging from the fact that Swift looks like she’s
doing trigonometry in her head when she’s doing dance
choreography, I doubt it).
Some might call it a double standard or reverse racism to
demand that Swift and other white artists give a nod to
borrowing from black music and culture while not requiring the
same of black artists. However, being black means you are born
into the legacy of the culture. I can walk into my
grandmother’s house and open the refrigerator without asking
permission. You cannot.
But here is the fault line:
Being a part of a culture—whether one is born into it or
not—also comes with the responsibility of being a caretaker of
it. If we kept our mouths closed, non-blacks artists would suck
our artistic heritage dry without caring what happened to
whomever they left in the discarded heap. We gave Justin
Timberlake a 2-decade get-out-of-appropriation-free pass. When
he was finished doing his 20-years-long impression of an
R&B singer, he became a “Man of the Woods” and distanced
himself from black music like it was Janet Jackson’s left
There are black artists who have
leaped to Bruno Mars’ defense, saying that he is not guilty
of appropriation. As someone who is only marginally aware of
his music, every time I have seen him perform, give an
interview or receive an award, including the Grammy, he has
made sure to acknowledge that he was influenced by black music
So, based on the definition of cultural appropriation, is Bruno
Every single word Seren said was correct, but none of it
defined cultural appropriation.
But I have a theory about the people who accuse Bruno Mars of
Maybe they are tired of seeing people like Post Malone take
bits of black culture and use them to make derivative,
unoriginal content meant to be palatable for white mouths.
Perhaps they are tired of seeing more-talented black artists
outshone by beige newcomers who pass the paper-bag test and
don’t give white people the heebie-jeebies. It is possible that
they are overzealous custodians of their culture.
Or maybe they’re just tired of seeing Bruno Mars. Maybe they
saw his act when Janelle Monáe was doing the same thing for the
past decade. Maybe they saw Bruno when he was Chris Brown. Or
Bobby Brown. Or James Brown. Or MC Hammer. Or Prince. Or
Michael Jackson. Or Janet Jackson.
Or, even if he is always careful to give props, maybe they
understand that Kenny G is the
best-selling jazz instrumentalist in the modern era,
Eminem is the best-selling hip-hop artist of all time and
there isn’t a black face in the
top five best-selling music artists of all time.
But they all make black music.
Trust me, they know it.