Wednesday, 31 January 2018

US Cultural Imperialism or Cultural Appropriation?

The Spinoff is weird in some respects. It's definitely a magazine but it seems to write about anything under the sun. That's not a bad thing, don't get me wrong (look at that list of labels at the bottom), but it's just that it comes up with stuff that are from my point of view totally out the blue.

This article about "Baby Mama Drama" was one such thing.

Now, the truth is that I'm only caught in the spotlight by this headline because I only read beyond headlines if I think elaboration is needed. Jacinda Ardern's pregnant! Doesn't really require further attention. Except for the fact she's 37... which is why I did read one article early on. But once I found out that answer the only other one I read was this. So, you see, I had no idea that James Shaw had referred to Jacinda Ardern as "baby mama".

The above article talks a lot about African Americans. That's not a bad thing. The article is really rather interesting. In broad strokes, Lana Lopesi's article proceeds as follows:

  • James Shaw
  • the linguistic history of baby mama shows movement from AAVE to mainstream usage and a broader meaning (although, I feel that maybe a statement noting that Kanye West is African-American ought to have been attached to using him as an example)
  • eagerness to adopted American Black culture by New Zealanders (which is not just something we do to ourselves... Black America is a product exported by Americans whether or not we want it, same as everything else American) and associated contexts (why it's different when it's Friends or Spongebob and when it's, say, rap)
  • closing remarks
I first encountered the term "baby daddy" when we were coming up with our devised piece in 2012. Now devising is a process in drama where you stick a bunch of people together and they come up with a performance. Sometimes this can involve brainstorming. Sometimes this can involve quasi-improvised scenes that are then repeated. Sometimes this can involve inspiration or working from a prompt. There's lots of different ways of devising but perhaps the key thing is that a devised work is always going to reflect the people who make it. Ours was to be on teenage pregnancy... which is why the term baby daddy (or maybe it was baby mama) came up.

Now, I take a particular View of Americanisation. I'm against it. I firmly believe in American Cultural Imperialism and I stand firm against its on rushing tide. So, when I see 16/17 year old girls using the term "baby daddy" the conclusion that I draw is, "Ah, they're just repeating language that they've grown up around... to them it's completely normal". I'm not sure what the context of Hanna L. Smokoski's work was but I think it's a fair bet she's (a) an American studying Americans and (b) not working from the reality of teenage girls originally from the North of England going to college in NZ. Maybe Smokoski or Jane H Hill would disagree, as Lopesi seems to, but when I see young non-Americans using American language I don't see prima facie evidence of appropriation, I see prima facie evidence of enculturation born of globalised living. That is, quite literally, the opposite thing.

Of course, it's pretty possible to, say, not listen to rap or hip hop. I loathe the genre(s?) for example. This is unusual. Rap is completely, and I mean completely, mainstream. The reason why it's possible to avoid rap is because it's one thing. It is not possible to live in NZ without being inundated by American accents, American media and even American news. We just can't do it. An American can go their whole life not knowing what Wellington is... there will be (already are?) NZers who think the Windy City is Chicago. But even I am quite familiar with what rap is these days (when I was eight... not at all) and it is fairly ubiquitous in mainstream films. For whatever reason, most people don't perceive a sharp dissonance between the "lyrical" qualities and the music. If you do, and it really shouldn't be very difficult, you can see why the stuff is quite intolerable. This may be the point, of course, in which case I just don't get it. And the fact is, I don't care if I don't get it. And I shouldn't have to... it's not made for me. But, if you want to bring it here, thousands of kilometres from whence it came, I should be able to understand it if I so choose. Which is an enormous difference between a "white" American and an NZer of any ethnicity (none of whom are the target audience for the original hip hop).

Of course, one of the implications of being constantly assaulted by America is that the way we think is Americanised. It doesn't take much effort to notice that when American media wants a marginalised group it uses African Americans. There are fairly obvious reasons for doing this. I really hope they don't need explaining. And it's quite likely true that many of the issues and themes of African American produced media speak to the underprivileged, dispossessed, marginalised and oppressed in other countries. But it is entirely inappropriate to read the broad strokes of African American history, which is very particular even with a large brush, in, say, the history of Maori post-contact. I think that is something which is done. I think that it's a natural way to think when your mental model of what marginalisation is, is American but the reality of the world around you is New Zealand... we have a distinct shortage of Americans of any sort here, but I am very sad to say that we have oodles of Maori and Pasifka people left marginalised, dispossessed and underprivileged by our society. Thus, it seems to me, Baby Mama's Club.

Hopefully it's been pretty clear that Lopesi and I are talking about different things. For instance, I happen to agree with Lopesi's final words...
We don’t need to borrow from others for the sake of proving our own currency – but if you are going to use ‘baby mama’ for that reason, you should at least know what it means.
It just so happens that what Lopesi chose to write about inspired me to write about a kind of chicken and egg problem. It's very likely that the reason we get so much stuff from Black America in New Zealand is due to appropriation in the USA. Very likely. I mean, we also get the appropriating media*... Blaxploitation films screened here, for instance. But the difference in context is quite substantial. If I see an old fart like James Shaw (44) saying "baby mama" it comes across as being entirely different to my friend's usage of "baby daddy".... and remembering that Jacinda Ardern is likewise kind of ancient (37) we should think the same there, also (were she to use the term herself). Hell, NZ is now substantially more Americanised than it was 10 years ago... I am in a different generational frame, myself, to these poor souls we're robbing of NZ-centred cultural touchstones (let alone Maori ones) through our complete indifference. That's what I'm talking about. And it's a conversation Lopesi literally noted was different to the one she was making. I can't help how inspiration's cruel lightning strikes!

*Hence, why I agree with a lot of Lopesi's comments even though I obviously I believe in some ideas which make disagreeing very easy. I have no idea what the Watermelon or Fried Chicken things are about, but I know that they are Things. That means something. We, in NZ, are not metaphorically this simply because of distance.

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