Can you copyright culture? Our students discuss cultural appropriation with the award-winning writer and psychologist of Native and African-American heritage Red Haircrow, along with Dutch producer Charlton Ravenberg and cultural advocate and intercultural negotiation specialist Cavana Hazelton.
Like trees, we all have roots. Together, they stretch across the globe, intertwining as they grow. Intricate and ancient, our cultural roots give rise to all shades and varieties, a humanity flourishing with diversity. Culture in its very essence is beauty. As an outsider looking in, it’s easy to appreciate – or take it too far to fetishise or appropriate. But to truly understand other cultures, the only starting point is dialogue.
Last Wednesday, we came together for the second panel discussion of our diversity-themed season of Dialogues: Can You Copyright Culture? On the panel was award-winning writer, educator, filmmaker and psychologist of Native (Chiricahua Apache/Cherokee) and African-American heritage Red Haircrow, whose multimedia work often focuses on identity, indigeneity and intersectionality. He was joined by Dutch producer and veteran of Berlin’s techno scene Charlton Ravenberg and Polish rapper and Creative Audio Production & Sound Engineering student Augustyn. The fascinating talk was facilitated by Screen Acting vocal coach, cultural advocate and intercultural negotiation specialist Cavana Hazelton.
Our panellists unravelled the controversial topic together with the audience, exploring inspiration versus appropriation, when hybridisation becomes homogenisation, and how we navigate these surroundings in the search for authentic creative expression. Scroll down for our recap of the top five things we learnt on the evening.
You can love in the wrong way
“It’s that love is there, but they’re doing it in the wrong way, in a harmful way“
Red Haircrow’s thought-provoking documentary Forget Winnitou! explores the question of what a world that respects indigenous peoples would look like; a world working actively to end racism, colonialism and oppression. The film’s tag line, “loving in the wrong way” is telling. “It’s that love is there,” he told us, referring to the appropriation of Native cultures by the West, “but they’re doing it in the wrong way, in a harmful way.”
Winnitou is the American Indian character created by German author Karl May in the 19th century. To this day, stereotypes of Native Americans continue to be romanticised in German popular culture. “For a lot of the different Native or indigenous people that I speak with,” Red Haircrow continued, “it’s not so much that you don’t want other people to be a part of it or learn about it, it’s that you want them to know more about it, but on your own terms.”
We should watch our privilege
“For most minorities, you have a very limited reach and environment in which to market accurate information about your culture and history”
Cavana shared an eye-opening statistic. In the UK alone, £8 million every hour is generated from copyrighted cultural works. It begged the question: who exactly is profiting from culture, and what is the relationship between culture and business? Red Haircrow proposed that those profiting from culture – be it their own or others – are able to do so because of privilege.
“Indigenous people don’t have that opportunity,” he explained. “For most minorities, you have a very limited reach and environment in which to market accurate information about your culture and history, and to express yourself in whatever art form you’re using.” He also shared the example of French fashion house Isabel Marant, which was called out for plagiarising a traditional Oaxacan Tlahuitoltepec blouse in a collection it dared to describe as “tribal without being too literal.”
Augustyn suggested that a respectful approach, and offering both ample recognition and financial compensation to those that inspire us is the way forward. Being aware of our privilege, Cavana stressed, allows us to actively cultivate equality.
The digital age is blurring cultural lines
“It’s one big monoculture now; you can just go online and copy someone instead of putting your own soul in'”
There’s no question that information overload has allowed us to exchange ideas like never before, in an endless cycle of inspiration and imitation. “It’s one big monoculture now,” Charlton commented. “You can just go online and copy someone instead of putting your own soul in.” This culture of copying makes it difficult to discern the origin of certain ideas. Because as one audience member pointed out, we unconsciously absorb concepts or images from our immediate surroundings or the content we consume.
This is an issue for both creatives and cultures in general. For creatives – who as Augustyn pointed out have dramatically changed the way they consume in recent decades – it’s getting harder and harder to be truly original. For cultures, it means that many sacred traditions and practices are reduced to mere trends, disrespecting heritage and discrediting complex and often turbulent histories.
Diversity is essential to understanding
“We need to be around different people because it stimulates us to look at things in a different way and to change environments”
Furthering the point that our perspectives are strongly influenced by our environment, Red Haircrow highlighted the importance of engaging in diversity. Berliners may have a bear as their mascot, but Red Haircrow grew up actually encountering the animals in the remote countryside. “I’m going to have different ideas [to somebody who grew up in Berlin Mitte] and I’m going to connect them differently,” he explained. “This is why we need to be around different people; because it stimulates us to look at things in a different way and to change environments.”
Change is a personal choice
“It’s a choice to respond to other cultures with compassion or with denial or apathy. Those are choices that we can make on an individual scale”
The sentiment of the day was that it’s our personal responsibility to make a difference. Cavana wrapped up the discussion with an inspiring message: “It’s a choice to respond [to other cultures] with compassion or with denial or apathy. Those are choices that we can make on an individual scale.” Talking of her own privileges, she continued, “when I realise those are things I value, then I can choose to respond compassionately. When I see someone doesn’t have those things, I have the power to do something about it.”
Read our round-up of the previous Dialogue on identity here.
Follow the panellists below.