By Peggy Chapman
Bruno Mars (Peter Gene Hernandez) won six Grammy awards this January, including Best Album for 24K Magic and Best Song of the year. His background is eclectic — his mother was Filipina, and his father is from Puerto Rico and also part Jewish. He was raised in Hawaii. His father nicknamed him “Bruno” after the Italian wrestler Bruno Sammartino.
After the Grammy Awards, there was backlash — primarily an online debate about how Mars was culturally appropriating music.
What exactly is cultural appropriation? The definition is broad, but in essence, it means stealing from a minority culture and benefiting for personal gain, without tribute or true appreciation for the culture. The argument can be reduced to stereotyping versus understanding. Blatant examples of cultural appropriation might be the “Mikado” opera or trend-setting restaurants that claim the unique food culture they are introducing as their own discovery. (“You have to eat it like this…the way they do.”)
The argument that stirred the Mars debate was a writer from The Grapevine, a website that focuses on African American issues. Seren Sensei Aishitemasu wrote:
“What Bruno Mars does, is he takes pre-existing work and he just completely, word-for-word recreates it, extrapolates it…He does not create it, he does not improve upon it, he does not make it better. He’s a karaoke singer, he’s a wedding singer, he’s the person you hire to do Michael Jackson and Prince covers. Yet Bruno Mars has an Album of the Year Grammy.”
(She stated Prince never won a Grammy.)
The social media commentary was overwhelming, ranging from agreement to “so what is he allowed to do?”
And…so what is he allowed to do? What are the guidelines when it comes to cultural appropriation, especially when you are trying to understand what “cultural appropriation” is? There is the strong argument that earlier artists had to work harder, were never acknowledged, and now others are being acknowledged. But was it because of their influence, or was it stealing? Does this mean what is garnered now is theft or contribution?
Isn’t all art appropriated?
I will keep dancing to Bruno Mars and around cultural appropriation and the big orange-haired elephant in the room while figuring it out.