You know the answer to the question above. According to Black Lives Matter, it’s a strong “YES!”, although nobody would have batted an eyelash about this five years ago. What happened in March is that Niki Ashton, a New Democratic Party member of the Canadian Parliament, emitted a tweet announcing that she was going to liberalize the NDP. Here it is (it’s since been deleted):
I’m not a huge fan of Beyoncé, but I do like the song from which this phrase came, “Irreplaceable“. Here it is to explain and to pep up your morning; it’s about a woman sending away her cheating man, noting that “I could have another you in a minute.”
The relevant lyrics:
To the left, to the left
Everything you own in the box to the left
In the closet that’s my stuff
Yes, if I bought it, please don’t touch
And keep talking that mess that’s fine
But could you walk and talk at the same time
And, it’s my name that’s on that jag
So come move your bags, let me call you a cab
Now a lot of people, including even me, recognize that song phrase. And I saw nothing wrong with using it as a campaign slogan. After all, lyrics are lifted all the time in various causes. Think of Dylan’s “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind”, or Hillary Clinton’s use of Tammy Wynette’s song “Stand by your man”. I’m sure you can think of many more.
The problem for some is that Beyoncé is black, or rather, half black and half Creole. And a white politician can’t just go around quoting songs from a black woman: that’s “cultural appropriation”, tantamount to racism. Never mind that Beyoncé’s song is not specifically about the black experience, as it refers to anyone who dumps a cheating partner; the Vancouver chapter of Black Lives Matter called Ashton out and demanded that she delete her tweet and stop saying “To the Left”. Canada’s National Post story about this tempest in a plate of poutine shows their tw**t:
— BlackLivesMatter YVR (@BLM_Van) March 14, 2017
Since when does the video above, showing a rich woman with a mansion and a Jaguar kicking out her man, represent “black culture”? But Ashton, a feminist concerned with social justice, capitulated and groveled.
TY @BLM_Van We removed it.Not our intention to appropriate.We're committed to a platform of racial justice+would appreciate ur feedback.
— Niki Ashton (@nikiashton) March 14, 2017
The Post goes on to blacksplain why Ashton failed the ideological purity test:
Some experts in race, music and culture say Ashton’s post exemplifies a theme in politics: leaders use black songs and culture to make themselves seem cool while not actually doing much for the black community.
“Politicians don’t have the same kind of clout they once did … and they have to go to pop culture to be relevant,” said Mark Campbell, senior research associate at the Ryerson University Faculty of Communication and Design’s forum for cultural strategies. “The piece around appropriation is really about flexing a certain kind of white power and privilege and co-opting the social capital” of performers like Beyoncé, he said.
. . . “The difficulty for some black community members might (be that) … for some politicians, their only engagement (with black culture) is in music and food or entertainment,” said Dalton Higgins, a publicist and author of six books about race, culture and music. He called Ashton’s effort an “awkward” reference that didn’t really reflect the spirit of the song, which is about a break-up. It reminded Higgins of Toronto Coun. Norm Kelly’s Twitter feed, which is full of references to Drake and other rappers.
Well, you know, if someone used Beyoncé’s lyrics for financial gain, or regularly appropriated the lyrics of black musicians for their own gain without giving due credit, I would see that as a problem. But that’s not the case here. We have a phrase about a breakup—an event not unique to black people—used in a clever way for political purposes. And it was a one-off. What happened was that Vancouver Black Lives Matter simply bullied Ashton, and she gave in. Perhaps she was conscious of getting black votes, or, more likely, the BLM movement played on her sense of racial justice in a way that made her ashamed.
But she shouldn’t have been. I doubt that I would have capitulated, since I see absolutely nothing wrong with using the phrase, nor do I see it as “cultural appropriation,” which is a pejorative term that is widely used but rarely comes from genuine bigotry. This is no more cultural appropriation than was Hillary Clinton’s “stand by your man” phrase (emphasizing that, as an independent woman, she wasn’t going to follow it) appropriation of the culture of poor whites in the American South.
This kind of accusation will keep being made, but we should keep calling it out rather than capitulating. In general, “cultural appropriation” is a good thing, and I can’t think of any culture that hasn’t borrowed from others. As they say, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” And I admit that sometimes appropriation is not particularly savory. But it’s not unsavory just because you’re “borrowing up”, as BLM implies. They’d presumably have no problem with blacks or Hispanics borrowing from “white culture”, whatever that is. What makes the world more interesting, and better, is each group using what if finds appealing from other groups. Tomatoes and chili peppers both originated in the New World, yet one of my favorite dishes is something you find all over north India, butter chicken, or murgh makhani, made with both ingredients. Is that cultural appropriation? Even if it is, is it okay because the Indians “borrowed up”? (And don’t forget how Italians also culturally appropriated tomatoes from the indigenous peoples of Central America.)
Would you have withdrawn a tweet like Ashton’s if you were called out?