When Israel was in Egypt’s land
Let my people go.
Oppress’d so hard they could not stand
Let my People go.

Go down, Moses
Way down in Egypt’s land
Tell old Pharaoh
Let my people go

When I was in my twenties I attended an acapella concert performed by a group of talented young blacks from the south. Their flawless and energetic performance of black spirituals lifted me up. I thought it was the most beautiful music I had heard in a long time.

That was forty years ago. That I still remember their music is a testament to their skill as performers and to the power of their message.

Their performance of Go Down Moses had special meaning for me as a Jewish-American. The lyrics are based on the Jewish Bible: “And the Lord spake unto Moses, Go unto Pharaoh and say unto him, Thus saith the Lord, Let my people go, that they may serve me.” (Exodus 8:1).

This wonderful song also had special meaning for the enslaved blacks who sang it during their bondage in America. Having been ripped from their homes in Africa, prohibited from speaking their native language and observing their tribal practices, Go Down Moses was a way to use the white man’s words and history to tell their story. It offered a comforting analogy. Just as the Jews were enslaved under Pharaoh, southern blacks were enslaved by their white masters. And just as the Jews, after years of suffering, found freedom in Israel, so too, blacks hoped to find their freedom. This was a shared message of hope.

What is Cultural Appropriation?

I started thinking about Go Down Moses after reading a few recent articles about what has come to be called cultural appropriation. Some racial minorities make the charge of cultural appropriation when white people borrow elements that originated from minority culture in order to create song, food, clothing, mannerisms or other cultural items. At first reading I wondered if the cultural appropriation advocates would think that Go Down Moses was a case of cultural appropriation. After all, the slaves who sang this song lifted the story and lyrics from the Jews. But I soon realized that this is not what critics of cultural appropriation are saying.

Key to understanding the cultural appropriation argument is the power differential between a privileged and a disadvantaged group. The critics object when a powerful group borrows the cultural elements of a powerless group without permission. The offense becomes all the more egregious when the borrowers then use these elements to enrich themselves. So for example, many people criticize Elvis Presley and the early rock musicians. These performers, so the argument goes, adopted a style of music and performance pioneered by poor blacks and then used that music to advance their own careers and bottom line. Fair enough. But I wonder if the arguments against appropriation have become so severe and reflexive that they stifle creativity.

Rapping Rap

Consider a 2015 article by author Nicole Phillips, “Modern Blackface: The Cultural Appropriation of Rap.”1 Phillips explains,

Rap emerged at the heels of the Civil Rights Movement. It was a way to bring attention to important social issues within the black community. It was the music that helped characterize a revolution in race relations. It was a way to survive a world where discrimination, racism, and notions of inferiority were still a reality despite the fact that the Civil Rights Movement was legislatively successful. Coded language and jokes resurfaced in rap in order to mobilize a movement.

According to Phillips, rap music evolved as a way for blacks to communicate with each other and convey a message to counter the racism blacks experienced in their lives. When white performers appropriate rap style they serve as an “antagonist” to the efforts of black rappers. This nefarious development is “fueled by the capitalist machine.” It denies the reality of oppression that blacks face. In the past, blacks were dominated by sheer physical force and law. Phillips argues that today the “majority culture” dominates minorities by allying itself with key players in the minority subculture in an attempt to force that subculture into “submission.” This serves to keep the dominant culture on top and the subculture on the bottom. This is a form of cultural “colonization.” Rap music uses satire to oppose this colonization. But when rap music is appropriated by those who have not experienced the oppression of blacks, it ceases to be legitimate.

Part of Phillips’ argument is her complaint that rap music has become what we used to call “commercialized.” That is, rap music has lost its original message of opposition to white domination. Instead it has focused on making a profit. Along with this development, rap acquired a new audience: the young people of the very group (“white oppressors”) rap music was meant to counter. To the affluent white suburban fan of rap, the music is about rebelling against one’s parents. In this sense, rap lost its original purpose of black rebellion and self-defense.

Much of Phillips’ argument makes sense to me. And I understand the resentment some black artists feel when white artists profit from a genre that black artists have created. Still, there are some things about Phillips’ approach that bother me.

Some of the criticism of white rappers is needlessly mean-spirited. And it often relies on knee-jerk accusations directed at the usual roster of offenders: colonialists, capitalists and privileged whites. This tack encourages the critic to blame others rather than to self-reflect. This is evident in Phillips’ critique of white female rapper Iggy Azalea:

Iggy takes a piece of “land” (rap) that doesn’t belong to her and digging [sic] in her white flag of privilege. In the context of history, this is colonization. As she adopts a southern twang native to parts of Georgia, like Atlanta, she both stereotypes rap and appropriates it. This is a two-fold endeavor that complicates both her misdemeanor and its effect on Black identity.

What is Wrong Here?

I am not convinced that white rap artists have somehow damaged black identity. That is a racist argument in that it assumes black people are not smart enough to avoid being duped. Black people have a keen understanding of their position in society and no one’s music lyrics are going to change that.

I also wonder about the validity of the notion that “appropriating” cultural elements from a culture that is not one’s own is an offense. Any student of history will tell you that the borrowing, mixing, adapting, abandoning and re-arranging of cultural elements has been going on since homo sapiens began walking upright. My favorite black spiritual, Go Down Moses, is just one of countless examples.

In recent days I have been reading historian Bernard Lewis’ book, Islam and the West.2 In his book, Lewis describes the ebb and flow of conquest, colonization, and re-conquest that has characterized the interaction between the Christian and Muslim worlds since the twelfth century. As the two great religions each acquired and relinquished territory, great masses of people interacted across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. As they did so, cultural elements were repeatedly shared. That is uniquely human. So for example, 20 per cent of the modern vocabulary of Spanish consists of words drawn from Arabic, reflecting the centuries-long occupation of the Iberian Peninsula by the Muslim Ottomans. And beginning in the eighteenth century, Muslim countries adopted a wide range of western innovations such as time-keeping and military technology. Many of the foods and recipes we know today are borrowed or adapted from other cultures. The modern phenomenon of “fusion” cuisine acknowledges this.

Phillips’ charges about white appropriation of rap music are overblown. Yes, the practice is offensive to some black people. But exactly how do white rappers force black culture into “submission”? I don’t believe that white rappers reinforce white domination over blacks, any more than white chefs serving traditionally black foods dominate black diners who eat their food. And if white rappers benefit from “capitalism,” so do all musicians, black and white, as well as their fans. Without a free market economy there would be no one to reproduce and distribute music, and there certainly would be no rap musician millionaires, as there are today.

What would happen if critics ignored the offense they feel about white rap music….if they just let white rappers do their thing? Minority communities would be no worse off.

What is Really Wrong

Critics of “culturally appropriated” rap are worried about the wrong things.

Instead of worrying about music appropriation, they should worry instead about another aspect of rap music that critics of appropriation rarely address: the violence, sexism and racism of rap lyrics and rap music videos. Consider the following example:

I tied her to the bed, I was thinking the worst/But yo, I had to let my ni**as f**k her first/Yeah, loaded up the 44 yo/ Then I straight smoked the hoe.

This lyric comes from an album titled “Ni**az for Life” by the popular rap group N.W.A., produced by rap artist Dr. Dre. Admittedly, this is one of the most violent and misogynistic lyrics in the rap music scene, but it is by no means unusual. Some observers have even published extensive lists of “the most violent”3  and the “most misogynist”4 rap lyrics.

If the reader has never heard of recording artist and record producer Dr. Dre, he might be familiar with rap artist Snoop Dogg, who recently appeared in a number of videos with lifestyle guru Martha Stewart. I wonder if Martha Stewart ever listened to these Snoop Dogg lyrics?: Bitches ain’t sh*t but hoes and tricks/ Lick on these nuts and suck the d*ck.

Rap music is populated with lyrics like these.

Might there be a connection between violent and misogynist rap lyrics and problems in the black community? Violence within black communities has reached epic proportions. Last year, over the Fourth of July weekend, over 100 people were shot in Chicago’s predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods. In the same time frame, Chicago experienced 762 murders and over 4,000 shooting victims, the vast majority occurring in these neighborhoods.5 Seventy-three per cent of all black infants in the US are born to unmarried mothers, and 67 per cent are raised in single-parent families.6 Do misogynist rap lyrics contribute to a culture that devalues women and leaves them without male partners to help raise their children?

I am glad that black slaves in the rural south were not deterred by charges of cultural appropriation when they popularized the spiritual, Go Down Moses. Thanks to them, people from every group are able today to enjoy this beautiful and inspiring music.

Charges of cultural appropriation against white artists have some merit. But these charges have been blown out of proportion. There are many more important things to worry about.

Footnotes

  1. Phillips. N. Modern Blackface: The Cultural Appropriation of Rap. Odyssey. September 2, 2015. Retrieved July 18, 2017 from:
  2. Lewis, B. Islam and the West. New York: Oxford University Press. 1993.
  3. Ettelson, R. The 25 Most Violent Rap Songs of All Time. Complex Music. Retrieved July 18, 2017 from:
  4. Miller-Rosenberg, D. The 15 Most Misogynist Lines in Rap History. Music News, October 16, 2013. Retrieved 18, 2017 from:
  5. Bacon, J. More Than 100 Wounded, 14 Killed in Chicago Over July 4th Weekend. USA Today, July 5, 2017. Retrieved July 20, 2017
  1. Jacobson, L. CNN’s Don Lemon Says More Than 72 percent of African-American Births Are Out of Wedlock. Politifact. July 29, 2013. Retrieved July 20, 2017 from: