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Cultural Appropriation in American Pop Music? No Problem.

Haitian-American singer Jason Derulo’s tweet on Jan 15 displayed youthful exuberance. The 24-year-old included six exclamation marks when declaring his single ‘Talk Dirty’ had reached #9 on the iTunes singles chart. The collaboration with rapper 2 Chainz—using the term ‘rapper’ lightly—displays everything a grimy, sexy R&B track needs: throbbing bass, a flurry of handclaps and a video featuring plenty of mostly naked women. 

Yet it’s not simply Derulo’s voice and abs that has caused over 155 million Youtube views. Credit producer Ricky Reed for sampling the 2007 single, ‘Hermetico,’ by Tel Aviv/New York City’s Balkan Beat Box. Ori Kaplan’s brass playing has kept Eastern European dance floors bumping for years atop Tamir Muskat’s steady beatmaking—the band is perhaps America’s most well-known Balkan innovators. While they’re not a household name on these shores, BBB has rocked large festivals and concert venues overseas for over a decade, a fact more indicative of our cultural lack of appreciation for international music than anything else. 

Yet if something from somewhere else works, we’ll steal and rearrange it. Culturally America is a giant remix of sorts anyways. Reed’s keen ears picked out a sample that would result in one of the most Shazamed songs in recent memory, a move that Derulo called ‘shocking’ and ‘very out there.’ He’s apparently referring to a geographic region of over 250,000 square miles serving as home to nearly 60 million people in Southeastern Europe, whether or not he’s aware of it at all.

Culturally appropriating an entire music genre is nothing new in American R&B and hip-hop. Producers have been sampling international fare for years. Jay-Z enjoyed immense success when guesting on ‘Beware of the Boys,’ a remake of Panjabi MC’s ‘Mundian To Bach Ke,’ which itself was a remix of bhangra singer Labh Janjua that utilized the bass line from the ‘Knight Rider’ TV show. Missy Elliot lifted a tumbi line from bhangra as well for her 2001 hit, ‘Get Ur Freak On,’ throwing in tablas to boot (although the main drum to accompany a tumbi is usually the dhol).

Just as persecuted Indian nomads traveled northward over a millennia ago—the cultural group we today call ‘Gypsies,’ or the Romani—and helped fashion what would eventually become Balkan folk music, Derulo traveled northward from his own genre’s Punjab territory into Slavic regions. Historically it was army marching bands creating brass traditions. Today it’s fat booties and fake falsettos carrying on our own.

Make no mistake, Derulo’s track is hot. Throw it on and the party lights up. Yet besides criticism about his blatant sexualization of women in both lyrics and images, another problem exists: the girls in the video are playing trumpets. The sample is of an alto saxophone.

This seemingly minor detail is emblematic of a deeper disregard. While Balkan Beat Box members are rightfully credited for the song (and hopefully receiving proper royalties), Derulo’s ignorance of where the melody actually comes from (‘shocking’) and the fact that no one on the set cared to discover what instrument made the sound that made the hit is disturbing, especially given BBB singer Tomer Yosef’s passionate plight in finding peace between Palestinians and Israelis in his homeland.

Not that every Balkan song is socially conscious. Balkan Beat Box uses irreverent lyrics too. The genre’s top producer, Stefan Hantel (Shantel), titled his second record Citizens of Planet Paprika, poetically fiddling with the piquant Hungarian spice throughout the album. These examples, of course, do not demean an entire gender as Derulo does. Party songs exist the world over. 

It’s simply sad seeing an artist like Derulo—himself the product of cultural appropriation with the retooling of his Haitian last name, Desrouleaux—take advantage of a musical genre without regard of its origins. It’s one thing to sample a song. It’s another to unashamedly misrepresent it.

Video director Colin Tilley is equally helpless when explaining that he was going for an ‘international vibe’ by getting ‘girls from different cultures.’ Strangely, none seemed Bosniak or Bulgarian, especially the ones trumpeting that brass. As usual in this uniquely American genre, the focus remained on the ass.


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