Obama on cultural appropriation

I just finished listening to Renegades: Born in the USA, a series of conversations between Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen, with topics ranging from race and gender to the myth of the road to fatherhood.

As far as podcasts go, it counts among my favorites.

There are a million and one things that struck me, which I’ll inevitably write more about, but one of the most interesting things in the last episode came as Obama and Springsteen listed some of their favorite American musicians. As the conversation steered to Elvis, Obama takes a detour and says:

This issue of cultural appropriation–I have to say I’m not a believer in narrowly defining who gets to do what. I think we steal from everybody everywhere. That’s the nature of humanity, it’s the nature of culture. That is how ideas migrate. That’s how music gets created. That’s how food gets created.

I think what’s always been relevant about cultural appropriation is if a black person who writes the song and who performs it better, can’t also perform it and can’t get the record deal. That’s the problem…It’s the economics and the power dynamics underneath it.

Every artist steals. It’s a simply a matter of making sure you’re engaging in good theft. (There’s a fantastic discussion about this between Sam Cooke and Malcom X in One Night in Miami.)

Obama goes on to say:

One of the hardest things, whether it’s as an adult in our own individual lives, or as a nation–figuring out it is possible for you to see the wrong in people without negating everything about them. It’s possible to look at our Founder Fathers and say, “They were slaveholders,” and then also say, “But man, that Declaration of Independence is something.”

In the same way, I want to be able to appropriate any kind of music I want, or any tradition I want, or any cuisine I want. If it’s good, I want it. I also want to be able to appropriate and claim for myself the example of the good things that other people have done, even if they weren’t perfect.

None of us is perfect. We are flawed and limited by the out humanity. In direct contrast to our desire to “cancel” one another for embodying contradiction, we must learn embrace one another in spite of our shortcomings.