The cultural appropriation and whitewashing were first witnessed in the Rock ‘n’ Roll, where a music genre that originated from Black artists such as Little Richards was abruptly marketed as white music. The problem of cultural appropriation and whitewashing of black music is ingrained in American history due to the segregation and racism that persist in the country. According to Peacock, “Though the history of rock is undeniably the history of black musicianship, the genre has somehow forsaken the same people that created it.” The statement means that people like Little Richard and Chuck Berry were cast aside by most producing companies because they were deemed unmarketable due to their skin color. The lack of popular names in the early list of successful Rock “n” Roll was influenced by racism and not because African Americans were not familiar with the genre. Although black artists were the pioneers of most pop music, they were segregated because of their race. Peacock says that Rock ‘n’ Roll has been so whitewashed that the only black artist that remains relevant is Jimi Hendrix because “when Elvis Presley and then the Rolling Stones became the face of rock ‘n’ roll, the face of rock ‘n’ roll became white.” The true origin of Rock ‘n’ Roll can be traced back to African Americans. Still, the whitewashing and cultural appropriation culture that exists in American has entirely made the genre viewed as white. Racism was integral in the appropriation and whitewashing of black music, especially Rock ‘n’ Roll, because the music labels blatantly refused to support black musicians such as Chuck Berries because they were black. According to Posey and Reda, “Rock ’n’ roll is a genre spawned almost entirely from Black genres of music likes bluegrass, R&B, gospel and jazz “however” it has been whitewashed by the pages of history books, the radio and movies.” Whitewashing is present in pop culture, but it is deeply ingrained in American society. Appropriation of pop culture is so deep-rooted in American that it is hard to realize that most of the popular and favorite music originates from blacks. According to Mark Montgomery, a Film Composer, Podcaster, and Music Historian, he was still a young artist when “…he realized that black artists’ outsized contributions to rock and other genres were often relegated to footnotes in the history of music” (Voynovskaya). Therefore, black musicians found themselves segregated so much since the genre inception. At the same time, their white counterparts were signed by international record labels, which led to beliefs that White musicians pioneered rock ‘n’ Roll. The genre appropriation and whitewashing started due to racial discrimination because “Since the rise of the recording industry, which began during segregation, labels sidelined black artists while promoting white ones who borrowed their sounds and aesthetics” (Voynovskaya). Roc ‘n’ Roll is a clear representation of how popular culture continues to use segregation as a technique of denying the “true” pioneers an opportunity to benefit from their creativity due to the prevalence of whitewashing in the American music industry. Rock ‘n’ Roll shows how music appropriation and whitewashing are dangerous techniques that have existed in American, and the blacks have historically remained the major victims of white supremacist ideologies.
The jazz music genre has remained one of the favorites and popular twentieth-century innovations in America and worldwide since it originated from New Orleans. Jazz, just as Rock ‘n’ Roll originates from African Americans but was hurriedly whitewashed and appropriated by whites, making many people think they were pioneers. According to Nelson, Jazz can be traced back to its roots which “lie indisputably in black, diasporic and mainly African-American musical and expressive cultures which can be traced to earlier forms of creolized slave cultures.” Therefore, the notion that Jazz originated from whites is absurd and depicts ignorance because it can be traced back to African Americans and Creoles. Whites appropriating black music is not uncommon even by the current pop stars such as Taylor Swift, which was also the case for the “the all-white Original Dixieland Jass Band borrowed to the point of plagiarism from the African-American musicians they’d heard in their native New Orleans.” The statement proves that unethical appropriation of black music has existed for decades, which was made possible due to racism that sought to discredit and discriminate against blacks. The fame realized by the Band painted the Jazz music genre as white while it reduced the African American artists to an inferiority position. The suppression of black artists is common because most are denied sponsorship and record deals, which is why whitewashing has been prevalent in popular music. Jazz was highly used by slaves to ease the pain and burden. It quickly became a way of expression for the African Americans in a society that segregated and discriminated against them because of their skin color. According to Philipp, “Despite the fact that jazz music has created some positive social effects, it has created more negative ones for black jazz musicians, such as exploitation and jazz appropriation, some of which are still occurring today.” Appropriation and whitewashing have continued to be techniques that white use to benefit from the creativity and inventions of African Americans. Early African Americans such as jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton did not financially benefit from the music genre like white appropriators such as Original Dixieland Jass Band, which illustrates the negative impact whitewashing had on black artists’ growth. The black artists were the artists, but the power and money went to whites who owned the biggest record labels and signed good deals that made them record and release their songs to a large audience. For instance, the release of Livery Stable Blues song made many people to assume that they were the pioneer of Jazz music after it hit across the country. However, according to Blauvelt, “The musical DNA in Livery Stable Blues comes from black artists and shows that jazz is fundamentally African-American music, even if an all-white band was first to record it.” Therefore, pop music, including Jazz, has its roots in blacks, and massive whitewashing and appropriation continue to further the assumption that whites are the pioneers. Jazz was a unification factor in a highly divided and diversified society in American. However, the appropriation was not done to appreciate the innovativeness and creativity of African Americans but to discredit and exploit. According to Philipp, “Jazz music created a sense of identity, originality, and social cohesion among black musicians, but they were seldom credited with inventing it.” The statement paints how appropriation and whitewashing negatively impacted the people who invented it due to racism. African Americans were segregated, and their creativity and innovation benefited the whites. For centuries, whites have viewed African Americans as a tool of exploitation or slaves, and although slavery was abolished, these beliefs did not end. They are still active in the music industry. Philip further points out that “While whites in the jazz music industry got rich, black musicians did not reap equal benefits.” Therefore, it was clear that the appropriation and whitewashing techniques were incorporated in the music industry to continue the exploitation of blacks by whites. Jazz is one of the ways that shows cultural appropriation and whitewashing have completely disadvantaged African Americans whose works are constantly appropriated or even plagiarized in popular culture.
Country music is a popular music genre with a significant audience worldwide. However, many fans do not know its history and how it has evolved to become a genre correlated with whites. Originally, Country music emerged from the South, which was marred with racial discrimination and slavery of blacks. In the contemporary world, country music is associated with wearing a “hat,” which historically symbolizes white men on horses, thus excluding African Americans from the genre. According to Akik, a recent song by Lil Nas X, “Old Town Road,” rejection as country music is one of the ways that African Americans are being excluded from a music genre they were originally part of from the start. Therefore, the act of disqualifying the song by Lil Nas X because it does not conform to the modern whitewashing stereotypes depicts the exclusion of African Americans from the genres they pioneered. The correlation of country music with stereotypical beliefs such as wearing a hat and riding a horse excludes African American artists from benefiting from this genre. According to Hall, “Stereotypes that country music is just for white audiences, written by white songwriters, and sung by mostly white males are reinforced daily on country radio, playlists, label rosters and tour lineups.” Therefore, whitewashing is common in the country music industry, and the media enforces the idea that it belongs to the whites. The correlation between whiteness and country music is widespread. When African Americans try to challenge these racial stereotypes, they are faced with numerous accusations of demeaning the genre. Lil Nas X incident is one of the many that have proven appropriation and whitewashing is a continuation of the racial stereotypes that existed in the South. Akik claims that “By excluding Black artists who are not only deserving of credit but are essential to Country music and Western/Southern culture, society is trying to remove Black claims over American culture.” The appropriation in the American music industry has not been a way of safeguarding or appreciating other cultures but a tool that has been used to continue racial discrimination, segregation, and exploitation of African Americans. The action of the Billboard branding Lil Nas X song illustrates how whitewashing is deep-rooted in American society and why racism is still being used as a way of locking out African American artists from benefitting from music genres they played significant part in their creation.
The correlation of country music with whiteness has made it difficult for African American musicians to be accepted in the industry. The ban of “Old Town Road” by Billboard until he did a remix with Billy Ray Cyrus, a white popular country musician, depicts how whitewashing continues to be a significant factor in the American music industry. According to Gadson, although Cyrus can be appreciated for doing a collabo with Lil Nas X, the incident “…is reminiscent of the black voices that were drowned out in the rise of country music in favor of their white counterparts, who admitted much later in life that their inspiration came from black people.” The incidence proves that appropriation and whitewashing of most popular music genres are attributed to the whites’ nature of always demeaning African Americans while still using their innovation and creativity to benefit financially. Referencing the article by Kofsky, Philipp claims that “…refusal of whites to credit blacks is because they refused to equate anything valuable with African Americans.” The history of Country music has been distorted by refusing to acknowledge African Americans’ role in its invention. The sad truth is that even decades later, the contemporary county music artists who have registered a huge following and success are mostly white. When Lil Nas X tries to do the same thing, Billboard criminalizes and punishes him. Although Country music borrows from both whites and blacks, whitewashing has made it difficult for African Americans to get the same growth as whites which illustrates that appropriation in America is a way of making money and not acknowledging and appreciating minorities’ cultures. According to Hall, although appropriation of country music should not be viewed as theft, “Black artists say the industry still needs to address the systematic racial barriers that have been entrenched in country music for decades.” There is a need to ensure that the country music’s recording, marketing, promotion, and distribution are unbiased. All artists, despite their race, are given an equal opportunity to grow and benefit from their creativity. Appropriation and “Whitewashing” of Rock and Roll, Jazz, and Country Music Genres have continued to be a symbol of how racism has been used as a tool of exploiting African American artists from benefitting from their creativity. The introduction of Rock ‘n’ Roll by pioneers such as Little Richards is rarely taught in the contemporary history and musical classes. Still, all the credit is often given to Presley, who became so popular not because he was much better than African American artists but because he benefitted from white superiority. The international record label resented African Americans took white artists, and taught them how to act like African Americans. Although Rock ‘n’ Roll and Jazz were associated with violence, sex, and profanity, this did not apply to white artists who lived the same lifestyle. The whites continue to benefit from music genres that have roots in African American community. However, instead of acknowledging and appreciating their culture, they have condemned them and denied them the same platforms and opportunities. It is quite clear that pop culture will continue to segregate and racially discriminate against African Americans. However, the facts remain that all the popular and favorite music genres, such as country music, will always be African American music. The best solution would be fighting racism because it seems to be the main tool that whites have been using and continue to use to appropriate and whitewash black music.
Akik, Chorouk. “Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’ Exposes the Whitewashing of Country Music.” Kulture Hub, 15 Nov. 2021, kulturehub.com/old-town-road-whitewashing-country-music/.
Blauvelt, Christian. “The Mysterious Origins of Jazz.” BBCpage, 2017, www.bbc.com/culture/article/20170224-the-mysetrious-origins-of-jazz.
Gadson, Jalyn. “The Erasure of Black Voices in Country Music.” Medium, 7 May 2019, medium.com/@jgadson/the-erasure-of-black-voices-in-country-music-e5c90df97a04.
Nelson, Charmaine. “The Montreal Museum Of Fine Arts Has Whitewashed Jazz Music.” HuffPost, 28 Jan. 2017, www.huffpost.com/archive/ca/entry/montreal-museum-jazz-exhibit_b_9095032.
Peacock, Caroline. “The True Story of Rock and Roll: How Whitewashing Let Down the Black Voice.” The Kollection – Music For The Rest Of Us, 2020, thekollection.com/the-true-story-of-rock-and-roll-how-whitewashing-let-down-the-black-voice/.
Philipp, Zola. “The Social Effects of Jazz.” Welcome — York College / CUNY, 19 Nov. 2008, www.york.cuny.edu/english/writing-program/the-york-scholar-1/volume-6.1-fall-2009/the-social-effects-of-jazz.
Posey, Sym, and Maddy Reda. “The True Origins of Rock ’n’ Roll.” The Crimson White, 21 Oct. 2021, cw.ua.edu/83340/culture/the-true-origins-of-rock-n-roll/.
Voynovskaya, Nastia. “Setting the Record Straight on American Music’s Black Roots.” KQED, 2020, www.kqed.org/arts/13873204/setting-the-record-straight-on-american-musics-black-roots.
Hall, K. M. (2020, June 26). Country music reckons with racial stereotypes and its future. ABC News. https://abcnews.go.com/Lifestyle/wireStory/country-music-reckons-racial-stereotypes-future-71468648