Circumstances obliged me to be present for a musical performance by a duo recently, a pair of optimistic, young, well-bred, white people who had done some traveling, in other words, hippies. They were competent musicians. The fellow impressed me with his chops on the jaw harp, an instrument I’ve struggled to get any results from. Unfortunately, they were using their talents in a truly horrible way.
After the second song, I said to a friend “Sounds like somebody spent a summer in India.” The next song was introduced thus: “This next song is one we learned when we spent a summer in India.” I’m not kidding. It was that obvious. They had a chord organ and hand drums and were singing praises to Krishna.
Another friend, a young man whose parents emigrated from Iraq, joined our conversation. His own experience made him somewhat more outraged about the cultural appropriation taking place on stage than me and the other white guy. “Where do these fucking rich-kid hippie assholes get the idea that it’s okay for them to steal from other cultures?” We ragged on them ‘til they packed up their tambura and stumbled off to smoke ganja and congratulate each other on their ability to spend their parents’ money on vacations in under-developed nations and then ragged on them some more until we got bored with it.
Where do fucking rich-kid hippie assholes get the idea that it’s okay for them to steal from other cultures? I can only assume that they’re so insulated by privilege that they truly cannot understand how offensive they really are. They honestly believe that the fact that they spent a couple months between semesters in India gives them the right to co-opt the parts of Indian culture that are easily marketed to other fucking rich-kid hippie assholes. They were warmly applauded by the audience members who fit that description, some of whom actually acknowledge the existence of this low-born, middle-aged, unattractive and untraveled Espresso Shaman occasionally – usually when they want something.
I’m going someplace with this – someplace other than displaying my contempt for rich-kid hippies. The BDSR catalog includes a cd titled Vodou Chile, which contains sounds sampled from recordings of Haitian Vodou ceremonies. And Rangda Electric, which has samples from recordings of rituals involving Rangda, the Balinese death-witch-goddess. The song “Smells Like American Spirit” was built on field recordings of Lakota war chants. I could on quite a while listing the BDSR material that I stole from cultures not my own. Actually, that’s not true. I have sampled and stolen so much material from so many sources over the years that I’ve forgotten where most of it came from. In some rare cases, I might be able to identify a sample, but only if it’s something really obvious like the drum/bass intro to Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life” which I used on something that hasn’t been released yet.
So, what’s the difference? How is my rampant sampling of field recordings of the rituals and ceremonies of other cultures unlike the music of the pair of hippies I was so freely criticizing above? I don’t know. I could offer a bunch of excuses and justifications, but I suspect it really comes down to my own natural tendency to believe that it’s okay when I do it. I’m me; therefore my actions are somehow okay. Ya know, the exact same arrogance that I find so deplorable when I see it in people who are younger, prettier and wealthier than me.
I’ll see your cultural appropriation and raise you hypocrisy.
Or maybe not. I dunno. I am too close to me to be able to be able to tell whether there is, in fact, a difference. I know my friends well enough to know that they wouldn’t be able to give me any kind of clear answer either. They’re biased by their friendship with me and their own cultural thefts. We’re Americans. Our country is built on cultural theft.
So. I accept any and all criticism. I am guilty. I do this at work, too. When someone mentions the fact that I am loud, coarse, intimidating, self-righteous &c., I acknowledge the truth of what they’re saying. It really throws people off. They expect defensiveness and/or contrition. When they’re confronted with a bald-faced admission of guilt, they don’t know what to do. Tack on some bullshit about personal growth being a journey, not a destination, and they’re ready to apologize. It’s amazing how well it works. I did it the last time I was in front of a judge and not only did I walk out of the courtroom, the felony charge was dropped from my record.
I realize I might be seeming a bit more like a slimy weasel than usual right now. I’m taking that voice for humor. It’s an indisputable fact that I am a grossly flawed human being, but I really am honestly committed to becoming less so. I am much less of a scumbag than I was ten years ago and I’m miles away from the drunken, strung-out thief I was a few years before that, but I’m not perfect nor do I intend to be in the foreseeable future. Most people are slimy weasels when you get down to it, though politicians are more so. Admitting one’s flaws is a very small step in the right direction.
I will continue to sample other peoples’ works. I think everything I’ve done falls under the “Fair Use” clause. A nice, juicy lawsuit from some major label would only be a good thing for BDSR. And I’m still able to convince myself that I’m doing something different or that motives are purer or that BDSR is a project with such an overarching scope that pilfering from oppressed aborigines is okay.
Also, unlike one of the above-mentioned fucking rich-kid hippie assholes, I would never be seen in public wearing a white fedora.
Also again, for white hippies stealing from India and making it awesome, check out Saddhu Brand’s 1970 platter Whole Earth Rhythm.
Brown Hat the Espresso Shaman
The pun is always intended.