Appropriation: Thoughts on world musics
It’s the nature of our art: we take someone else’s music and make it our own. Indeed, the act of appropriation, and how well we absorb and interpret the music, is what makes a musician successful.
As a choir director, cultural appropriation (and by extension, misappropriation) is something I am always considering. It’s something I think about as a flutist, too, but it seems a more pressing issue in vocal music because of the added responsibility of interpreting words.
It is our duty to perform a bit of research into the song’s roots. Who is the composer? Why was it written? When was the song first performed? What do the words mean? How has the song been used historically? If words are going to be changed, they must respect the composer’s intention. For instance, I have heard several groups add a verse of “gay and straight together” to “We Shall Overcome.” This seems appropriate for today’s struggles.
If we can’t sing the song well, we aren’t performing it. Period.
For songs not in the public domain, the choir is obligated to pay the composer and arranger. This means buying sheet music for all singers or buying the rights from the composer. Some composers have asked our choir to please make sure they are given credit in any social media mention or video.
All musicians must be sensitive to appropriation in music. However, we can’t let the fear of cultural misappropriation prevent us from sharing great music. In order for music to be alive, it must be performed. If our choirs want to be truly inclusive, we have to sing music that is representative of everyone, not simply a reflection of the cultural heritage of the members currently in the group.
Here are some writings by others on the subject:
What are your thoughts?
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Lesson times are available on Mondays, Tuesday, and Wednesdays. I teach flute and recorder (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) to students of all ages and levels. Prospective students should contact me about a free trial lesson.