Editorial: Elvis Presley and cultural appropriation

On this day 63 years ago, Elvis Presley’s first single debuted – “That’s All Right,” written by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, who never received the royalties he deserved.

What’s interesting about this anniversary is that our society is currently embroiled in a heated discussion about cultural appropriation.

Simply put, cultural appropriation is when people from one culture (typically white and European cultures) adopt or use elements from another culture in their works. In recent years, this is sparking outrage among some.

For example, in March, a group of black artists demanded that a painting of black lynching victim Emmitt Till be burned – not just taken down – because the artist is white.

And in May, two white women in Portland, Oregon were forced to shut down their burrito shop after being accused of cultural appropriation – of stealing the recipes from cooks in Mexico, after they took a trip there and felt inspired.

And up in Canada, three editors have lost their jobs after defending a white author’s right to create characters from minority backgrounds.

Here’s what’s wrong with this approach to cultural appropriation. First, it’s not like the theft of property. It is qualitatively different.

“In the case of culture, however, what is called appropriation is not theft but messy interaction,” writes New York Times contributor Kenan Malik. “Writers and artists necessarily engage with the experiences of others. Nobody owns a culture, but everyone inhabits one, and in inhabiting a culture, one finds the tools for reaching out to other cultures.”

Those who decry cultural appropriation may have good intentions, but the results are destructive.

“Critics of cultural appropriation insist that they are opposed not to cultural engagement, but to racism,” he explains. “They want to protect marginalized cultures and ensure that such cultures speak for themselves, not simply be seen through the eyes of more privileged groups. Certainly, cultural engagement does not take place on a level playing field. Racism and inequality shape the ways in which people imagine others. Yet it is difficult to see how creating gated cultures helps promote social justice.”

He, too, brings up Elvis Presley – a young white man playing music from black cultures.

“A white boy playing the same tunes was cool,” Malik noted. “Elvis was feted, (Chuck) Berry and other black pioneers largely ignored. Racism defined who became the cultural icon. But imagine that Elvis had been prevented from appropriating so-called black music. Would that have challenged racism, or eradicated Jim Crow laws? Clearly not. It took a social struggle – the civil rights movement – to bring about change. That struggle was built not on cultural separation, but on the demand for equal rights and universal values.”

When culture is shared, both sides benefit.

Of course, Sun Records should have paid Crudup the royalties he deserved. But the tragedy of Crudup’s story wasn’t that Elvis Presley never recorded his music (Elvis went on to record two more of his tunes) but that copyright law and practices in that era robbed many original artists.

Think how much poorer we all would be without Crudup – and Elvis.

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