At the heart of cultural appropriation
Last Sunday, at the egging on of my partner, we walked into the kind of space I would normally avoid. I’m over markets, especially those that seem like thinly veiled enclaves for old South Africa nostalgia.
By no means am I suggesting that that particular setting was a carefully curated zone of influx control.
But by virtue of the entrenched geography, many suburban and peri-urban spaces invariably are.
As it turned out, the decision to enter through the gates would have predictably disappointing, if eye-opening, consequences.
After finding a shop to satisfy her seaweed craving in Johannesburg’s Cyrildene, my companion suggested we go to a nearby market for some lunch. Perhaps normal by South African standards, the market, set on what looked like the sprawling lawn of a school or some kind of club, was Tutu’s Rainbow Nation, with its demographics inverted.
There were rows of stalls selling things like food, clothing, sweets and toys. Families and couples were sitting at the wooden tables not far from the makeshift stage, either enjoying food or making small talk. At one table, a teenaged girl was working her hardest to communicate boredom to her parents. On the southern edge of the field, in front of the tables, a trio of white men was playing cover songs, mostly the blues.
In the parking lot separated by a gate and a fence, black men washed cars and others in uniforms helped the patrons park their vehicles. Others were manning the stalls, as assistants to their white employers. A few Indian traders were running their own stalls at R200 for the day, as one told me. (The stalls, depending on position, range from R150 to R300).
Outside the gates, a man, the very picture of marginality, sat outside the premises selling his paintings to passing cars at a traffic circle.
Near a children’s play area, we bought lamb curry and two drinks in jars before considering where to sit. The band announced they would play a mix of covers and their own material, before we found a table where we could view them from an angle, but up close nonetheless.
It was probably something to do with being near the source of the sound that made me comment to my partner about the oddity of how one man’s chain-gang music could be another’s sonic aesthetic.
Save for a few haphazard listens to disparate participants, I have not even a passing knowledge of the blues. I wasn’t there for the music. I was merely indulging a whim.
But as someone who often thinks about the origins of particular styles, no act of music-making or playing is innocuous. My first impression of the band was that the setting, of families out for some winter sun as opposed to music fans out at a concert, dictated their loudness and perhaps their interaction with the music.
Their blues-based rock was being delivered with too much restraint for my liking, even stunting the heat of fires, like Cream’s Sunshine of Your Love. It might have been at the end of this song, which followed a couple of unannounced songs, that the singer declared that the band had been playing “back-to-back” Clapton.
They played a few more songs, before announcing that the next tune would be their last number. I didn’t hear them announce the song’s title or the name of the singer. As the opening riff started, I could recognise the beginnings of Gary Clark Jr’s Bright Lights. With no prior announcement, the band was setting themselves up as plagiarists, but still, there was the end of their set to consider.
“No babe, we must call them out” was the response from across the table. “Ag, babe, just leave it. I’m not in the mood. How do you know they won’t announce it in the end?”
The song came to its end. Before I could think of what to do, I heard a mocking shout of “And Gary Clark for the win ...!”
A little stunned, the lead singer turned and acknowledged the culprit — my partner, seated at my table. “Yes. Did you Shazam it?”
“No,” she said, a little incredulous. “I just know him very well.”
“Yes, she is a stan,” I chimed in, feeling a little protective. What followed was a lot of inconsequential muttering under people’s breaths.
As the band packed up its gear, we got up and left the table. I thought of the nagging need we had for them to acknowledge Gary Clark Jr, a person who headlines festivals and doesn’t need a leg up from my barely breaking-even self.
Thinking about it now, that was the moment of synchronicity for me, where a single act of appropriation came to be synonymous with the environment in which it was enacted. In that exchange, I felt I had come to the heart of the mentality behind cultural appropriation.
At its core, it is a fragile ego feeding its misguided sense of supremacy while simultaneously trying to conceal its mediocrity. South Africa, with its half-hearted transition that didn’t tip the scales of power, is fertile ground for these daily aggressions that, frankly, I have little will to confront with the regularity with which they occur.
As for the Gary Clark Jr song, I hope they won’t try to pass it off as their own next time they play it. After all, one of its refrains is: “You’re gonna know my name by the end of the night.” And, damn, he sings it with conviction.