Rapper Lil Debbie says that she’s “just a white girl in this world” and that she is just as entitled to rap as anyone else is. But others see her music, attitude, and lifestyle as offensive and an example of cultural appropriation — a white girl sampling and stealing from black culture. Which side is right?
Cultural appropriation is the use of specific elements of one culture by another cultural group, which doesn’t fully honor where the cultural influence came from.
Selena Gomez faced criticism recently when she wore a bindi in her music video “Come and Get It.” According to Hindu statesman Rajan Zed, “The bindi on the forehead is an ancient tradition and has religious significance… It is not meant to be thrown around loosely for seductive effects or as a fashion accessory aiming at mercantile greed.”
Cultural appreciation, on the other hand, takes place when someone refers to or makes use of elements from another culture, but honors the source. Jazz is an excellent example of cultural appreciation, since it honors the significance and historical context of the black musicians who produced the genre.
But even when the definitions are clear, when is something cultural appropriation or cultural appreciation? And who decides?
Debbie is a white rapper hailing from the Bay Area who has grown popular in collaborations with (WARNING: EXPLICIT CONTENT) Kreayshawn and Riff Raff, white rappers who come from Oakland and Houston, respectively. Rap music has traditionally been a male-dominated genre, but a number of various underground female rappers have increased in popularity. Female Urban students listed rappers (WARNING: EXPLICIT CONTENT) Brooke Candy, Iggy Azalea, Noname Gypsy, M.I.A., k.flay and Lil Debbie as artists they enjoyed.
Interviews with a half dozen Urban students showed support for Lil Debbie’s approach, which leans towards cultural appropriation – she once was a part of a group who called themselves the “White Girl Mob.”
“It’s not my favorite thing in a rap song and I sometimes find it offensive but not nearly as offensive as other songs”, Kendall McCready, (‘16) said, in response to how she felt about white rappers who sample other cultures in their music and music videos. “I don’t feel any specific way about it,” said Kaya Bandele, (’15).
Among recent media examples of cultural appropriation, Miley Cyrus has been notorious for twerking at the VMAs. Cyrus had black dancers wearing masks used as a literal background for her dance number, which involved her twerking up against singer Robin Thicke.
Iggy Azalea’s music video “Bounce” was filmed in a Bollywood style on location in Mumbai, India, and shows Azalea in a traditional Indian sari leading a dance troupe and riding on top of an elephant, which was criticized for cultural appropriation but was also hailed for honoring Indian culture. Which view is correct?
“Women need to watch what they’re doing,” said Eleanor James, (’16).” “Because (women of color are) … such a small group of women, they should (be represented) as best they can,” James said.
Lil Debbie’s controversial 2013 video, entitled (WARNING: EXPLICIT CONTENT) “Rachets,” shows her singing in the middle of a number of dancing black women, dressed in Budweiser leotards. The video has prompted backlash.
Lil Debbie said in an interview that she was “insulted and … offended.
“Because I’m just a white girl in this world,” Lil Debbie said. “I’m just a rapper … I’m just here. I was thrown in this shit.”
James agrees, saying, “I think that rap is typically seen as something people of color are a part of, but it’s also seen as a men’s game, too. So (rappers like Lil Debbie) just take these risks on their own, and they are really awesome, no matter what.”
Appropriation versus appreciation is definitely a trending topic among female students at Urban. Some sport large hoop earrings and heavy eyeliner, and jokingly label themselves “cholas” (a term once used to describe poor Mexican-American women). Though it can be difficult to draw the line between appreciation and appropriation, affinity clubs such as Students of Color, and evens such as Multicultural Awareness Week, will be taking up the topic this year.