Appropriation, Advocacy, and the Road to Hell

Being a good friend can be a tricky business.  And it can get much trickier when you’re trying to be friend to other cultures, or to a culture in particular.  Assuming that you know I’m part of a Klezmer group that also branches out into related genres of music, it’s not difficult to see where this is going.  Pretty much from when we started this band, we knew we wanted to include Romani music in our set.  This was for a few reasons: 1. We love it and it’s fun.  2. We wanted to highlight the dialogue between Romani and Klezmer music – that since we see them as two sides of the same coin, we wanted to show both parts of that coin. 3. We wanted, in whatever measure we could, to promote Roma culture and bring something of fairly authentic Romani music to people who may not experience it otherwise.  Although I don’t think our conviction on all three points has ever wavered, we were also aware that we were treading on territory that wasn’t necessarily our own, and this did give us pause.

Because, let’s face it, there is something of a dark side to the new, multi-culti, global age of teh internetz.  There was a time when you actually had to engage in a culture to learn anything about it.  *Maybe* you could find a book or field recordings, but still.  Compared to the modern days of YouTube, when folk songs from Mongolia to Macedonia are a mouse click away, when do you get to decide what culture’s riches are yours to play with?  We could start throwing in half-ass versions of Uzbeki music and it’s not as if anyone could *stop* us.  With Roma culture in particular, the success of Gogol Bordello has brought some awareness, but with that it has made the term “gypsy”a very chic adjective to attach oneself to these days, and that’s something we’ve grown increasingly uncomfortable with, and would rather distance ourselves from.  You might ask, if we truly valued Romani culture, why would we even take the risk of being part of that bandwagon?  Because for us, it still comes down to the above three reasons – nothing about the mode du jour changes that.

Anyway, before all of that started getting hairy, what made me personally get over my own self-consciousness was actually a show that we played fairly early on, with a group that did (does) traditional African drumming and dance.  Now, half the drummers, and all of the dancers, involved were white.  But color aside, their authenticity was astounding – the precision, the energy, the exact flavor of the enthusiasm was so spot on that their emotional connection to what they were doing was without question, even though their heritage was apparently different.  So when someone that obviously dedicated feels a connection that deep to a culture, even one they weren’t born into, and can express it, who is *anyone* to slight them for it?  And then I thought about the issue from my own perspective as a Jew.  A number of non-Jews are involved in Klezmer, some as members of some of the most prominent Klezmer bands currently playing, others as complete non-Jewish ensembles playing in, say, Germany.  And certainly, it doesn’t take a foreigner to exploit a culture – a Jew could make a hash of his own heritage, as could a Rom.  Really, as a Jew, all I could ask would be that anyone who approached my culture (be they of it or not) to do so with respect.  So I at that point, I figured that, so long as we continued to study what we were doing, and did our best to represent well, we were doing okay.

But there’s also another consideration which occurred to me recently, while reading about another issue in advocacy.

I may or may not earn some looks of consternation for mentioning this movie (in retrospect, it was rather ridiculous), but I remember there was a line that stuck with me towards the end of “Soul Man”, when, after reviewing the disciplinary action against the main character for impersonating a black man, James Earl Jones’ character comments something to the effect that at least perhaps now he knows something of what it’s like to be black, and he replies, “No, I don’t.  Because if  I didn’t like it, I could always get out.”  This is the liability of those who advocate for others, and it’s one that’s often overlooked with the best of intentions.  When the effects of your advocacy don’t benefit or hurt you directly, you walk a fine line that the nobility you feel in your cause does not make any broader.  I could attend every “pro-something” rally and stir every pot to be stirred, but when I put my sign down and step away from the crowd, I go back to looking like your average white guy, no matter how “connected” I feel to the cause.  Thus, what I do in these realms affects others much more than myself, and nothing will ever change that.  Does this mean refraining from advocacy?  Some would argue that this is the safer and more respectful option.  While I see the sentiment and the logic in this (an incompetent ally can certainly be worse than an enemy!), it isn’t one that I can personally accept.  Because, aside from truncating our band’s set list, most of what I’m interested in doing professionally involves this kind of advocacy.  And with few imaginable exceptions, the best way to learn to do anything is to do it as best you can, AND to always look for ways to improve.  And in the meantime, to understand that intentions are no substitute for responsibility.