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Op-Ed: Does sampling count as cultural appropriation? - Magnetic Magazine
Is art in the form of sampling exempt from the boundaries of cultural appropriation, or are there standards of awareness to which everyone should be held?

In an amusingly tone-deaf gaffe, a European DJ at Tunisia’s Orbit Festival played a track that included the Muslim call to prayer, causing the government to shut down the nightclub where it was played and commenced investigations. Soon thereafter, The Scumfrog wrote an intelligent and considerate Facebook post about his stance on the subject, having previously (and unsuccessfully) solicited a Navajo tribe elder to deliver a sunrise prayer during his Burning Man set. From these two interactions, it seems religious leaders in other cultures aren’t too keen on Western culture appropriating their rituals for the purpose of dance music.

Here in San Francisco, I regularly witness a baffling paradox in an electronic music scene almost run by Burning Man collectives. As I dance alongside some of the most liberal and outspoken individuals in the country, nobody mentions the obvious cultural appropriation of a dreadlocked DJ wearing a serape and playing deep house dominated by Middle Eastern chants ... although, I hope this goes unmentioned because nobody should speak on a dance floor in the first place. Sure, this city can be quite the melting pot (albeit with its own set of problems), but do we ever educate ourselves on the cultures from which we borrow?

This raises an interesting question: Is art in the form of sampling exempt from the boundaries of cultural appropriation, or are there standards of awareness to which everyone should be held?

Person with dreadlocks

On one hand, we have the value of artistic expression, which often angers people of the religious ilk. After seemingly innocuous incidents, musicians regularly have their work banned, and are sometimes themselves banned from entire countries. This comes with the territory of working in an industry that can be forward-thinking, spans cultures, and controversial at times. In fact, there is a common stance in music, and the arts in general, that the more controversial a piece is, the better. With all the outright references to drugs and sex in electronic music, it’s no surprise that some people find it offensive.

The conversation around sampling specifically has traditionally focused on remuneration: Who can sue whom in order to get their fair share? But, for obviously sensitive reasons, we don't often discuss the cultures being borrowed. Perhaps it’s because, despite their skin color, Daft Punk come from a similar cultural tradition as the disco artists they sample, and The Future Sound of London are of the same Western industrial complex as Kraftwerk. You could even argue that rap and hip-hop have so thoroughly permeated American culture, that young trap DJs feel right at home sampling ‘90s Dr. Dre. In fact, I feel like Dr. Dre has made a career off being a household name, and is delighted by being sampled by the most suburban of artists.

Then, we have the question of whether or not cultural limits apply to music. After all, didn’t the Belleville Three find inspiration in Kraftwerk? Weren’t UK hardcore and Berlin techno two ways in which electronic music from thousands of miles away was interpreted, and eventually spread to audiences larger than its original creators could muster? It’s safe to say that music, especially in the cheap and free forms to which we now have access, allows for rapid dissemination across continents. A listener in Minnesota can come across a Pakistani DJ’s Soundcloud page and connect to it unlike anything else they’ve heard, without the culture behind it being an obstacle.

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But we aren’t talking about Pakistani DJs making music that is an amalgamation of Western media they consume with a mix of their own heritage. In the words of Simon Reynolds, “To take a chunk of living time – which is what a sample is – and chain it into a loop isn't just appropriation, it's a form of enslavement. But to pluck several different segments of live playing from separate space-time contexts and force them into unholy congress with each other … that's sorcery.”

Here is the line between easy appropriation and sampling as an art form. Throw a sitar sample over your average deep house beat, and all of a sudden, your track seems exotic (to some). This is the lowest common denominator to which many people gladly cater. Reynolds's sorcery comes into play when a musician breathes new life into the sample or many samples in their track. 

I don't expect every musician to be a sampling wizard, like the likes of Massive Attack or Bomb the Bass. But why not acknowledge when someone is taking the easier route? And doesn't it take a much more creative mind to find the exotic in your own culture, à la Andy Warhol turning a mundane soup can into one of the most iconic art pieces of his century? I’m all for artists challenging their audience, if not also challenging themselves. That’s not to say producers should be constrained to only portraying the familiar.

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DJs spend quite a bit of time touring and engaging with people from other countries. After all, through the touring, producing, and promoting, is it reasonable to expect them to spend 30 to 45 minutes reading up on the countries in the next leg of their tour? In the instance of Orbit Festival, it's not necessarily the customs of Tunisia, a country with roughly the same population as New York City, to which Dax J was ignorant. However, the morning prayer is one of the most recognizable aspects of the Muslim faith, which itself is one of the world’s largest religions and happens to be in the news every day. Not knowing the fundamentals of Islam, is like not knowing the capital of Spain (Ibiza, duh).

Education may be the key here. If Diplo and JSTJR incorporate baile funk into their own music, does the fact that they are avid students of the genre make it more respectful? You don't have to be part of a certain culture to become a practitioner of it and want to spread the influence to others. Also, baile funk isn't part of someone's religious text or heritage. Art can be controversial and people can be as offended as they like, but if a sample comes from something considered holy, musicians should educate themselves about it first. Maybe ask someone before incorporating something religious into your art performance ... and vet it as thoroughly as you would a Chinese character before getting it tattooed on your chest.

From The Scumfrog’s personal anecdote about the tribal elder who did not want to lead a prayer during a Robot Heart set, to the call to prayer debacle at Orbit, there are pockets in the world that still believe in the sanctity of their culture or religion. Should artists be expected to adhere to what is considered sacred, or do they have license outside of that? If a sample is a disembodied snippet of another art piece or culture, does the artist have a duty to have an idea where it’s coming from? 

If you have examples of appropriation in music or opinions on its relevancy, please leave comments below or on our Facebook page.

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