Is Sampling Of ‘White Rockers’ By Hip-Hop Artists Cultural Appropriation?

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Someone asked me the other day whether hip-hop artists sampling rock artists’ music falls under the “cultural appropriation” term that gets kicked around so much these days.

Short answer: No. That’s not what we mean when we say culture (which includes art, language, history, etc.) has been “appropriated.” Actually, we should take care to use the more accurate “misappropriated,” because that’s what’s really happening when we use that term. There’s a difference between a cultural outsider learning about and appreciating a culture, versus duplicating aspects of it for the outsiders’ gain and erasing the originators’ involvement (i.e. selling it under a different name, or changing its context to remove important spiritual or historical connections).

So, sampling rockers’ music isn’t quite the same as misappropriation, for two reasons: One, credit, and two, compensation.

Basically, when a composition is sampled, the artist doing the sampling must credit the original composer, and compensate them for use of their intellectual property. There are laws in place that protect the original composer’s copyright, because the original creator did the hard work of composition, and most people would agree that work requires compensation and credit.

For example, on Jay-Z’s infamous declaration of war against Mobb Deep and Nas, “The Takeover,” producer Kanye West sampled The Doors’ “Five To One.” We know this because copyright law required Jay-Z to credit The Doors, as well as pay for the rights to use the sample in the first place.

This may have entailed a one-off payment, or a split deal to pay The Doors a percentage of every sale of “The Takeover,” but the point is, The Doors were both credited and compensated for their composition.

Now, what’s interesting is this: The Doors, and other white “rock” artists play a style of music originated in the 1950s by Black artists. In fact the “King of rock and roll” is Elvis, a white singer and guitarist whose most famous hit, “Hound Dog,” was actually a cover of a blues song originated by Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton in 1952.

Elvis’ version — which changed and removed lyrics from the original composition, taking it from an indictment of a no-good ex-lover to a song about a literal coon hound — is one of the best-selling rock and roll songs of all time, with over 10 million copies sold.

In an interview with Jet magazine in 1984, Big Mama Thornton said, “That song sold over two million records. I got one check for $500 and never saw another.”

It’s true, Big Mama is credited with originating “Hound Dog,” but she was never fairly compensated, and her copyright was never protected, because America, for all its purpose and potential, has never really protected the rights of Black people, in any arena, but certainly not in the realm of the arts.

The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and literally thousands of other white rock bands have given credit to Black entertainers for originating their musical style, but very, very rarely were those Black entertainers compensated in the same way as those white rock bands — and, in many cases, were not compensated at all.

Had Kanye West sampled “Five To One” without The Doors’ permission, the band had every avenue of legal recourse available to them to redress their lack of compensation and credit, including discontinuing the distribution of “The Takeover” until any disputes were resolved. But Big Mama Thornton had to watch as Elvis Presley accumulated fame, adulation, and most importantly, truckloads of money for her hit song while she was relegated to the sidelines of her own success.

Here’s the thing: It wasn’t just Big Mama Thornton. Hundreds of Black bands and entertainers saw their hits stolen, and/or their contributions to pop culture ignored or co-opted, even as their rights as Americans were being systematically denied. In the 1950s in America, Black people could not so much as share a bathroom or a water fountain with “white” Americans; they were denied access to education, to public office, to credit, even to the voting booth where policy that affected their everyday lives was decided.

And now, even in 2017, our rights are still precarious, as the Voting Rights Act has been dismantled, the War on Drugs has been escalated, our very lives are threatened on a daily basis by militarized and prejudiced agents of the state, and the income gap has never been wider.

Entertainment is one of the very few avenues to generational wealth with a barrier to entry low enough for most of us to clear, and so, many turn to music as their best shot at leaving violent, drug-infested neighborhoods behind, giving themselves and their families the chance to live the American Dream.

Even when we enjoy the culture we created, we are considered to be threats. Trayvon Martin was hunted and killed because he wore his hood pulled up; Jordan Davis was murdered because he played his music too loudly (he was playing “Beef” by Lil Reese). Our culture makes us targets, while mis-appropriators receive all the compensation with almost none of the risk.

That’s why Black Americans are so protective of hip-hop culture and music; like blues, rock, jazz, and disco, hip-hop represents many Black Americans’ hope for a better life. If for no other reason than hip-hop allows a form of self-expression that we are not normally allowed, simply because power has always been imbalanced in American society.

And that’s why it’s offensive for outsiders to profit from watered-down versions of the culture. They co-opt the aspects they like, cull the aspects they don’t, and neither credit nor compensate the originators, then push out the originators, continuing to bar them from access to the wealth that can be generated from rapping or dancing or scratching up records.

Every label deal, every tour gig, every minute of airtime that is given to outsiders is one that doesn’t go to originators. Sampling can’t erase the original creators of a composition because every composer must be credited and compensated. If anything, it enriches the composers who already extensively borrowed from Black culture in the first place.

True misappropriation is what happened to Big Mama Thornton and Little Richard and Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry. When hip-hop artists sample rock musicians compositions they are really just continuing the tradition of Black American influence in popular music. The only difference is, The Rolling Stones get paid.