author – activist – faculty – mom
The Web series “The Grapevine,” recently featured a panel in which young writers and artists answered the question “Is Bruno Mars a cultural appropriator?” A short clip went viral, in which Seren Sensei said the following:
Bruno Mars is not an original artist in the same way that…Prince was an original artist…What Bruno Mars does is he takes pre-existing work and…extrapolates it…He does not improve upon it…He’s a karaoke singer…He’s the person you hire to do Michael Jackson and Prince covers. Yet Bruno Mars has an album of the year Grammy and Prince never won an album of the year…So how you gonna [fail to recognize] people that are originators…in the funk genre…the R&B, the new Jack Swing…Bruno Mars got that Grammy because white people love him cause he’s not black, period. The issue is [white people demand] ‘we want our black culture from non-black bodies.’ And Bruno Mars is like, ‘I’ll give it to you!’
I would add my own critique: after he won big at the Grammys, I looked up the lyrics for Bruno Mars’ “24 Karat Magic” to use in my poetry class, figuring he had said something worth quoting. He hadn’t. The lyrics are utterly mindless and forgettable. He’s talking about partying and designer brands. It is particularly hard to stomach in the age of Tr*mp, as black people die in the streets, Nazis and white supremacists have the sympathy of the highest office, and policies to subjugate women continue to roll out at the state and national levels. Not to mention his policies at the international level, but more on that later…
I also have two areas where Seren Sensei and I aren’t fully aligned. One is when she says “he’s not black, period.” Does she mean he’s not African American, or not black? According to my sources, two of Bruno Mars’ grandparents are Filipino, one is Puerto Rican, and one is white. So here’s the thing. Puerto Ricans have African heritage. Some have more than others, but almost all of us have some. So what rules are we playing by here? Are we playing by the African American “one-drop” rule. Because that single “drop” would be enough to keep his ancestors in the condition of slavery. I don’t make the rules, I’m just asking what rules we’re playing by. Because we know that anti-black racism also means that multi-racial, lightskinned, or racially ambiguous looking black people are more palatable to mainstream audiences. It doesn’t make them not black, it’s just a manifestation of colorism. So I’d push back on the idea that he’s “not black, period,” but that doesn’t invalidate the appropriation claim.
My second disagreement is this: some of the music Bruno Mars is using, namely funk, is heavily influenced by salsa. Funk’s horn lines and multi-instrumental rhythm sections, and the specific percussion instruments used, are derived in part from salsa. During the 60s and 70s, the era in which funk, in particular, was developing, many of those non-African American musicians who influenced funk were Puerto Rican. Funk was also heavily influenced by jazz, which was also heavily influenced by Latin music. This doesn’t make Mars an innovator, but it does make him an heir of one of the legacies that contributed to the music. And right now, anyone trying to make the argument that Puerto Ricans aren’t black needs to notice how Puerto Ricans are being treated in this latest debt crisis and post-hurricane disaster. It’s a total rerun of how George W. Bush treated African Americans during Hurricane Katrina, except it involves the devastation of a whole nation, and Mos Def’s words from “Katrina Clap” are fully applicable:
None of this invalidates the critiques of Bruno Mars. It makes sense that we African Americans are on the alert for cultural appropriation, after having had so much culture stolen from us by white people over the generations. I would simply argue that we sometimes mistake other African heritage communities of color—with whom we have a history of mutual influence—for white appropriators.
And how do we define black? Who has the right to black culture? How do we hold lighter people of color or lighter African heritage people accountable when they are disproprortionately rewarded for doing the same things as non-mixed or darkskinned black people? Is Bruno Mars the same as Miley Cyrus, Eminem, Vanilla Ice, Madonna, The Average White Band, Elvis, Pat Boone? Also, can people within the diaspora borrow from each other or is it the same kind of appropriation as when white people do it?
I don’t have all the answers, but I really appreciate the continued importance of asking the questions. Thanks to Seren Sensei and The Grapevine for having the conversation.