Westerner’s Karma: Eurovision And Cultural Appropriation 101 Written by on April 21, 2017 | 17 Comments

One of the themes that’s been bubbling through the Eurovision fansphere this year is cultural appropriation. Ellie Chalkley looks at what you need to know about this topic, and how knowing it can help you be a more thoughtful, helpful person.

Cultural Appropriation? What’s That?

Cultural appropriation is a technical academic term, which can make this principle sound more complicated than it actually is. It’s the name for what happens when one culture picks up and takes over the creative ideas and symbols of another culture that doesn’t have as much political or social power.

It’s different from cultural exchange and multiculturalism. Cultural exchange has been around as long as there’s been culture and has lead to brilliant things like the English language and haggis pakora. Multiculturalism is a slightly more recent thing, and is about the political idea of having all sorts of different cultural groups co-existing in the same places without forcing everyone to adopt the same culture.

Why Are Some People Angry About Cultural Appropriation?

People don’t like cultural appropriation because of the power dynamics. It can keep marginalised cultures marginalised and entrench stereotypes. A cultural appropriation pattern often goes like this:

  • Culture B discriminates against Culture A
  • Culture A has a cool thing
  • People from Culture B start adopting the cool thing to show how exotic and cool they are. Some of them might start making money from it too.
  • People from Culture A continue to be discriminated against, sometimes even for doing their cool thing.
  • Culture B say ‘we’re doing this to show how much we appreciate you!’
  • Culture A doesn’t feel very appreciated, actually.

Appropriation can strip cultural symbols of their original context and reduce complex, intricate cultures to dressing up costumes. Think of it as insulting stereotyping, but with the painful twist that the privileged people appropriating the symbols get praise and recognition that the original culture just doesn’t.

Talking about cultural appropriation is not about policing what you can and can’t wear, it’s not about stopping people from being inspired by other cultures and it’s not about curtailing freedom of expression or forcing people to stay in their boxes. The conversation about cultural appropriation is about trying to be more thoughtful and considerate about using other people’s symbols, especially religious ones, and trying to make sure that the full context and meaning comes along with the symbol.

It’s also about starting to defuse the tangled web of racism in our society.

But I’m Not Racist! I’m A Eurofan!

No, of course you’re not. But our society is. And because our society has racism and discrimination built so deeply into it, it would do us all good to think about how our actions fit into this and how we can be more thoughtful about it, in an attempt to make society less racist in the future. That’s what we’re saying when we talk about cultural appropriation – it’s about how we can accommodate each other and make our entertainment and culture hurt other people less.

I can’t tell you hard and fast rules about what is and what isn’t cultural appropriation, but I can give you these questions to ask yourself when you’re looking at pop-culture & fashion from this point of view:

  • Are garments from another culture being worn as an exoticised or sexualised dressing up costume?
  • Is someone else’s religious symbol being used in a disrespectful manner?
  • What is the original meaning of this garment/accessory/action/song/dance? What am I using it to mean?
  • Is this making light of someone else’s historical suffering?
  • Would I let someone put a photo of me wearing/doing this on public social media?

But What About…

Yes! What about the blues? We wouldn’t have modern pop music at all if it wasn’t for cultural appropriation. In the early years of the recording industry, white record producers went out to record black musicians all around the United States in order to capitalise on their unique sound because it was exotic to the rich white city dwellers who could afford the new musical technology.

These records crystallised in a relationship between the black musicians who supplied the creative content and the white producers who ended up making the money. Modern rock music, which let’s not forget is quite painfully white, male and middle class, is a product of this original appropriation. It doesn’t stop rock music being fun or enjoyable, but it’s an unavoidable factor in considering it.

What can you do about this? Well, if you’re a rock fan you can go back to the work of innovative black musicians – Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker, the list goes on and on – and find out about them and give them their due.

 Why Are We Talking About Cultural Appropriation In Eurovision?

Primarily because of Italy. Before I looked at what the lyrics meant, the video for ‘Occidentali’s Karma’ made me do a sharp intake of breath. Straightforward culture as a costume there, I thought. We’ve got a white guy in Buddhist robes doing tea ceremonies and mucking about with incense and shrines. And then, oh my god, he does a funny dance with a gorilla – a primate who through no fault of its own is used in racist caricatures.

But when you put it in context and look at the lyrics, ‘Occidentali’s Karma’ is actually about Western cultural appropriation – specifically the kind of orientalism that the West has been indulging in since Marco Polo apocryphally came back from China with noodles.

In the first verse, the lyrics talk about various forms of modern existential doubt (il dubbio amletico) but the pre-chorus and chorus talk about how the philosophically challenged Westerners are searching for meaning in the stories of their lives and they look to the thought systems of other cultures (Lezioni di Nirvana). Linking it into the idea of evolution stumbling and our animal nature emerging (la scimmia nuda balla) sort of muddies the waters, but once examined, the song places Francesco as playing the character of a Western idiot indulging in pick and mix cultural appropriation in order to satisfy his soul.

So ‘Occidentali’s Karma’ is poking fun at cultural appropriation, which you can either view as a sly creative point, or an interesting way of being able to dress up in your fancy chinoiserie suit and stay on the right side of us social justice warriors.

In Conclusion

People are concerned about cultural appropriation, not because it’s the biggest problem in the world right now, but because it’s an easy to tackle sign that we live in an ignorant society that doesn’t equally value all the cultures within it. By being more considerate about how we represent other cultures and use their iconography, we can start working towards a society where we can be free to share our cultures on an equal basis.

Further Reading And Resources

About The Author: Ellie Chalkley

Ellie Chalkley is an all-round music, media and culture enthusiast and citizen of the internet. As an overly analytical pop fan and general knowledge hoarder she finds the Eurovision Song Contest bubble to be her natural home. She comments gnomically on Eurovision matters at @eurovisellie.

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17 responses to “Westerner’s Karma: Eurovision And Cultural Appropriation 101”

  1. Very informative piece – I suspect the trigger (Italy’s entry) will still be seen by most viewers as ‘that fun song with the gorilla’, with no thought towards the lyrics or what it all means…

    Just one thing I wanted to point out – your sub-title “But I’m Not Racist! I’m A Eurofan!” unfortunately doesn’t hold that true…everyone is a bigot in some respects, whether it’s with a very small or a very huge ‘r’. The reason I started my Eurovision blog was that I was tired of the cliquey nature of a particular Eurovision website, one that allowed its contributors to be openly racist and even homophobic – I wanted no part of that and chose my own path…

  2. Thank you for pointing out my inaccuracy, but I’m afraid that you are yourself not totally
    accurate in working out what I’m doing here.

    This article is aimed at people who don’t yet see what is wrong with Joan Franka’s headgear or folks dressing up as geishas. They don’t think of *themselves* as racist or bigoted, but they need to understand that they are part of a society and system that is pretty racist indeed. I’m trying to do it gently, because that way I can change minds. So, these people say to themselves “No, I can’t be racist! I’m a Eurofan!”.

    That is what is going on. Thanks again!

  3. Apologies for just focussing on a subheading that I obviously took out of context – I did get what you were saying in the article (hopefully) but this ‘old thickie’ Brit realises that us in the UK are probably amongst the biggest culprits of raiding culture from around the world and utilising it for our own ends. Could that, as a counter argument, have helped the UK become one of the most multicultural nations in Europe?

    I was interested about you using Kerli at the top of the article – was it due to the link to totem animals and paganism and if so, do you think that Kerli using that symbolism was more acceptable than Joan?

  4. Hi Martin. I’m not here making any judgements about what happens when cultural appropriation passes into history, but I feel you’re trying to say that appropriation is ok in the long run even if it’s painful for people right now? The UK is certainly multicultural but it is also bigoted and unequal, and it’s precisely that bigotry and inequality that makes the practices of cultures other than your own something to be careful and thoughtful about adopting.

    I didn’t pick illustrations for this article. Kerli is certainly an artist where there’s been a debate about her inspirations and whether it is appropriative or not. I’ve been listening to some of her vlogs about spirituality and it seems like she’s sincere in adopting her assortment of symbols and practices from about 2/3rds of the planet. I can’t be the arbiter of whether or not something is offensive to Native Americans or Buddhists – the idea behind thinking about cultural appropriation is that you go out and do the thinking and the research and find out the views of the people who might be hurt by whatever it is you want to do.

  5. John Egan says:

    OK I will then: Kerli is racist. Not hatefully so, but the way she’s integrated First Nations’ imagery and spirituality at a very superficial level into the song that she performed at Eestilaul is racist. The way she staged it with a sort of a Disney princess version of dream catchers and heartbeat drums is racist. More importantly, the fact that she tried to commodify indigenous culture–i.e. make money, increase profile, clicks and streams–makes it cultural appropriation .

  6. Black n Blue says:

    Thanks for what was an interesting perspective on culture in the music industry.

    What you said particularly about rock struck a chord. Here in Ireland, rock was a white man’s hobby, and then you had Thin Lizzy led by Phil Lynott bringing into the industry a different cultural flavour, and what d’ya know, people loved it.

    With regards to Italy, I agree that there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye, and in some respects I can understand why few might say “Ohh that’s racist!”. It’s a man poking fun at an eastern culture. However I like you see it as a double entendre. Occidentali’s Karma isn’t trivialising eastern cultures, rather it’s mocking those who engage in the trivialising, and it helps that the song is so damn catchy!

  7. David says:

    Thanks for this article, Ellie; it’s just made its way onto a syllabus next year. 🙂
    Occidentali’s Karma strikes me as one of those few songs where lyrics in a more commonly understood language would actually help – at least for those of us who are sensitive to cultural appropriation – which itself is something of an irony, no?

    Even knowing the meaning of the lyrics, the gorilla still makes me queasy. And given that the lyric is that the “_naked_ ape is dancing,” shouldn’t it be a human, not a gorilla with Francesco on stage?

  8. @John Egan – I wish that Kerli hadn’t entered Eesti Laul with this song and performance. I wish that she’d realised what she was doing, and I wish that she’d had someone in her US team tell her that this was (at best) a very misguided attempt at homage and likely to be identified for the appropriative act that it is. I wish that the ERR team hadn’t selected it, or that they’d asked her to put something less dodgy in instead.

    I’m glad that she’s not taking it to Kyiv, because she’s an interesting & creative pop star who has made an extremely avoidable mistake. I think she’s lovely & exciting, but she’s also exactly the headdress-wearing Coachella-goer that is part of the problem. My fave is problematic.

  9. @Black & Blue – Phil Lynott: what a guy. Another lost legend who had more to say than he had time to say it.

    The language problem for Occidentali’s Karma is a huge one – maybe even bigger than that brutal excision of the 2nd verse. I feel like the people who are looking at the performance deeply enough to ask ‘is this racist?’ are also the same sort of people who will do a quick google to see what the deal is, but maybe there’ll be a much larger group of people who only get the ‘Ale!’ the ‘sex appeal’ and the dancing gorilla. We’ll have to wait and see.

  10. Ali Nella Houd says:

    Let’s not be too hard on Joan F. After all, she did manage to talk her agent out of the original proposal that Joan be dressed up as Zwarte Piet.

  11. Luke says:

    I am a regular reader of this website, but this is one of the most ridiculous articles I have read here. I was also confused about the significance of Kerli on the page, and the analysis that was made in the comments about her seems pretty dumbfounded.

  12. @Ali – that comment made me lol in horror. I lived in NL for 2 years and found the Piet thing (and the lines trotted out in defence of it) really shocking.

  13. @Luke – thanks for your comment! I strive to excel.

    If you’re looking for the most ridiculous article on ESC Insight, may I suggest this one about hipsters and memes: http://escinsight.com/2016/01/27/hipsters-memes-eurovision-song-contest/

    As I say in the intro, cultural appropriation is a phrase that people in the wider fan community have been using in relation to performances like Kerli’s, like Occidentali’s Karma. I am trying to explain the whole concept in simple, non-judgemental language, for people who might be hearing the phrase for the first time. If you aren’t sure about my explanation, please feel free to ask any questions.

  14. John Egan says:

    @Luke

    Ask a First Nations person or 20 about whether this is ridiculous. “Ridiculous” was a “journalist’ in Vienna not understanding why the Polish delegation having lift their wheelchair user artist by hand to get into and out of the Green Room was unacceptable.

  15. First of all, the song is not about cultural appropriation, it is about modern-day society and its addiction to new fades, electronics, etc. and, in the right of this, how ridicolous people look when they try to indulge into eastern/western philosophic and meditation practices without knowing what they truly mean, just for the sake of appearance.
    This is not directed to cultural appropriation (for reasons i will explain later) as much as to hipocrisy.

    Second of all, cultural appropriation is not even on the radar here in Italy, which makes this essay completely invalid by default, no punto intended.
    You are writing from an anglo-saxon perspective, I’d guess, which means you’re imbued with ideas like cultural appropriation, x-group privilege, etc.
    That does NOT apply here. Certain aspects of our culture have been adopted by foreign, often non-european people, and NOT via colonization/invasions; furthermore, we’re constantly being stereotyped and the likes in pretty much the whole world.
    Guess what, we don’t make a big deal out of it and we don’t call japanese “racist” for having created Super Mario.
    Also, East Asians and Indians, whose cultural practices are mentioned in the video, DO have plenty of political, economical and social power in their own spheres of influence, just like we do in ours, which is by no means larger than theirs.
    To sum it up, don’t shove your anglo-saxon white guilt complex in our throat.
    If you believe that what applies to ONE white ethnic group should apply to every other white one and NOT anyone else, which i hope you don’t but strongly suspect to be the case, you are no better than the people who accuse.
    With that being said, have a good evening.

    P.S. that remark to Polo bringing here pasta is proven to be false, pasta existed centuries before he was even born. I’m aware it’s more of an ironic remark but still it needed to be pointed out. You know, i’ve seen plenty of anglo-saxons legitimizing other people appropriating an aspect of our culture just to feel better with themselves, so i tend to erase this type of errors as i see them.

  16. […] had its own challenges: Kerli losing the melody at times, some sloppy choreography, and the whole matter of cultural appropriation of First Nations culture […]

  17. Liina says:

    Kerli has pagan ancestors…I think she paying homage to that. It is very unlikely this is “racist” it’s her heritage even if it shares characteristics of Native American tribal elements. Many cultures use elements of this because it’s very instinctual. Maybe you should do some research on pagan rituals. Maybe enstonian neo-pagan rituals share these characteristics Kerli is emulating.

    Maybe you should research her own heritage and where she comes from before blaming her for something else..lazy article.

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