David Gilbert: Who Owns Black Culture?: Racial Appropriation and the Marketplace

The Product of Our Souls: Ragtime, Race, and the Birth of the Manhattan Musical Marketplace, by David GilbertWe welcome to the blog today a guest post by David Gilbert, author of The Product of Our Souls: Ragtime, Race, and the Birth of the Manhattan Musical Marketplace. In 1912 James Reese Europe made history by conducting his 125-member Clef Club Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. The first concert by an African American ensemble at the esteemed venue was more than just a concert—it was a political act of desegregation, a defiant challenge to the status quo in American music. In this book, Gilbert explores how Europe and other African American performers, at the height of Jim Crow, transformed their racial difference into the mass-market commodity known as “black music.” Gilbert shows how Europe and others used the rhythmic sounds of ragtime, blues, and jazz to construct new representations of black identity, challenging many of the nation’s preconceived ideas about race, culture, and modernity and setting off a musical craze in the process.

In today’s post, Gilbert explores the idea of black music past and present and how calling out white appropriation of black culture is a way of highlighting ongoing social inequalities.


Every six-to-twelve months, it seems pop music critics headline the latest example of white appropriation of black styles. Whether it’s the most recent examples of white ladies’ dance moves, white rappers, the “Harlem Shake,” or white R&B singers “singing black” on American Idol, critics are quick to criticize. And for good reason. It is clear that white performers have access to most any style, genre, or performance practice they’re interested in. Just as it is equally clear that entertainers of color rarely have the luxury to perform a dance or piece of music without assuming some form of racial identity, or receiving some form of racial pigeon-holing. What is more, while white “stars” of stages, videos, and webcasts often make significant earnings, black innovators rarely earn comparably. It is a hallmark of the history of pop music in the United States, the black artists who invented new styles of blues, jazz, rock, and rap rarely received fiscal compensation commensurate with their innovations.

Because the racial inequities that pop culture highlights are the same ones that undergird so much of American society more generally, critics are right to call attention to them. Often, single cases of racial appropriation and unequal cultural access highlight social norms that many white Americans prefer to ignore. Yet to peruse online notices of racial appropriation, one might think this was a new or at least recent phenomenon. A turn to American cultural history may help us see that distinguishing an authentically racial sound from an inauthentic one is more problematic than many realize. Not only does the language of black authenticity assume a very constricted, homogenous conception of “black music” and black people, but this game of locating the essential sound of blackness—and documenting white people’s borrowing of it—elides more fundamental issues about social, economic, and political inequalities in the United States, issues that find revealing expressions in pop culture, and music history specifically.

First things first. It is inarguable that black musicians, living and performing in all- or mostly-black neighborhoods, created most of America’s tremendous styles of pop music: ragtime, blues, gospel, jazz, bebop, R&B, rock, soul, funk, hip-hop. Although whites have worked alongside blacks in creating and codifying these styles, they have much more frequently borrowed blacks’ cultural practices, acknowledging neither the roots of the music nor the act of appropriation. One may recognize racial appropriation, in fact, by the degree that white “popularizers” of ragtime, swing, rock’n’roll, or rap claim ignorance, rather than admit their observable source materials. But does this mean these styles of music belong only to African Americans? What does the term “black music” mean in the context of a marketplace where goods, ideas, and cultural forms become transmogrified into commodities, available by purchase (and emulation) to anyone who can afford it?

Even looking back before mass music markets existed in the United States, there are few indications that any music style generated from a single race. Historians have traced aspects of West African music, dance, and singing forms through U.S. slavery and into the Reconstruction period, and echoes of their influence remain in most pop music today. Yet scholars also emphasize the cross-race borrowings that Irish, French, Spanish, Dutch, English, and Native Americans had with Africans throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially in urban areas and along waterways connecting the coasts with the hinterland. Whether it’s the African origins of the banjo, the convoluted history of the slave-era Cakewalk dance, or Appalachian fiddle-play, it is hard to locate any essential qualities of a racially homogenous black music in America. Yet questions of racial ownership and origin become both accentuated and concealed in the marketplace.

Music markets obscure original artistic authorship, making a commodity out of the very idea of an “original artist.” The notion of “authenticity” becomes a selling point and promotional strategy, regardless of whether we’re talking about Delta blues, gutbucket country and western, or the endlessly updating features of “real” hip-hop. Commercial culture markets also allow anyone with money to relate with, and even own, all types of cultural commodities. After the advent of recording, you don’t have to be able to play jazz to own jazz—buying Kind of Blue on CD makes it “yours.” And if you transcribe and memorize Coltrane’s solo on “So What,” who’s to say those blue notes don’t also belong to you? Once culture becomes a commodity, ideas of ownership become fluid and effervescent. But what does that tell us about black music—or, more pointedly, whites’ relationships to African Americans’ musics?

Markets are not only where items are bought and sold, they’re also where cultural forms find meaning and take on social significance. While a study of U.S. music markets may demonstrate the unequal terrain that Bessie Smith, Lester Young, or Curtis Mayfield had to negotiate in contrast to Benny Goodman, Bing Crosby, or Eric Clapton, it also reveals the ways a society’s ideas of race, gender, power, and privilege work. The history of American pop culture shows us that because African Americans could only play black music in 1896—the year that the U.S. Supreme Court legislated “separate but equal,” legitimating Jim Crow–era racism and upholding the idea that blacks and whites are inherently different from one another—blacks embraced their racial difference and invented new notions of “black authenticity” as a way to capitalize on their performance practices. This allowed thousands of African Americans to become professionals during a time when very few escaped the cotton fields of the rural South.

Just as black entertainers like Bert Williams and Aida Overton Walker were proud to invent new forms of what they called “Negro music,” they also wanted to be performers of “American culture.” They hoped their success as professional entertainers would prove the lie of “black inferiority” and that their unprecedented popularity on Broadway Avenue would allow them to become recognized as Americans, deserving the dignity and protections due all U.S. citizens under law. Black culture, they hoped, was a road to acceptance by white America. Williams and Walker were unable to transcend race in a Jim Crow society obsessed with re-invigorating white supremacy. But their strategy to capitalize on racial difference and to sell their culture as something naturally and inherently distinct from white culture worked, almost too well. It left a long legacy promoting the idea that American culture must be either black or white, even as the United States has become more and more brown and beige.

Even so, over the last century, black musicians have generated powerful linkages between racial identities and music styles, especially during periods of political action and demands for social justice. Blacks’ engagements with politics, economics, and identity formation have created unprecedented levels of artistic ingenuity: as Duke Ellington, Nina Simone, James Brown, and about 10,000 other artistic geniuses invented new forms of black culture, they both created pride in their communities and entered into mainstream U.S. society as cultural arbiters. The idea of black music, then, illuminates a very specific history, one founded in white supremacy and black resourcefulness—both wrapped up tightly together in the exigencies of industrial capitalism and the churning marketplace.

The reason social critics and entertainers still point out white appropriation when they see it is because the American public, and its leaders, have not matured the way black music and culture have. Even though millions of whites may profess to love and respect black music, their daily decisions—and those of their elected and institutional leaders—indicate that they do not love black people. Commercial success for thousands of individual black entertainers has not garnered the dignity and lawful protections due American citizens for the majority of African Americans. The music industries that blacks have dominated for generations have not expanded to raise the jobs, income, and education of millions of blacks.

Just as troubling from an artistic standpoint, “black music” has come to signify only very specific, race-based styles in ways that hearken back to Jim Crow–era ideas of racial essentialism. If an African American violinist in 2015 seeks to play in a symphony, the logic of “black music” implies that she is no longer playing black music, as if the European canon only belongs to whites. When African American Anthony Braxton aims to create new forms of composition and suggests a desire to transcend some of the limiting tropes of jazz, his music threatens to no longer fit into the box of black music either.

Like the revelations that expose myths for what they are, contradictions and seeming paradoxes often crop up throughout the history (and present day) of pop music. In the Internet Age, with so many consumers having access to so much culture, it seems inevitable that the history of racism and inequality will appear frequently. Cultural critics point these contradictions out, helping highlight the transparent absurdity of our society’s reliance on notions of racial essentialism, even as many critics reveal important new considerations for our shifting conceptions of identity, community, and cultural innovation.

But to limit the discussion to racial appropriation, especially as it so often suggests outdated notions of natural, biological, or essential differences between the races, misses important opportunities to talk about the deeper, more structural and economic, facets of our racialized society. There are many problems with the inequities that black artists face in relation to white ones—and it may be infuriating for many to see white folks make millions by hawking mediocre interpretations of black innovations. But the inequities indicate a much longer history of racism, sexism, representation, and power than the seemingly blithe ignorance of a teenage pop star.

David Gilbert is an independent scholar who received a Ph.D. in U.S. history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina. His book The Product of Our Souls: Ragtime, Race, and the Birth of the Manhattan Musical Marketplace is now available. Read his previous guest post, “The Streaming Music Debate: Some Historical Context.”