As part of the technical assistance program for artists, the Philadelphia Folklore Project decided to hold a series of panels to address the issue of cultural appropriation in community artistic spaces. These panels feature cultural arts practitioners and teachers in music and dance (the most visible forms of appropriated culture) to share their thoughts, concerns, and ideas. Each successive panel approaches the topic from a different vantage point: Cultural Lineage, Teaching, Community Relationships, and Arts Organization Responsibility. This event is possible thanks to financial support from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, Urban Artistry, and the American Folklore Society.
The third panel, “Community Relationships,” was held on July 22nd, 2021 via Zoom and streamed over Facebook Live. This panel focused on the relationship between a practicing artist and their community. During this conversation, the panel’s five artists discussed the personal responsibilities artists held for their particular group, their connection with them, and at what point people overstepped communal boundaries. The panelists included: Lanica Angpak, a dance artist and activist with over 20 years of experience in teaching, and performing Cambodian Folk and Classical Dance; Rosa Ruiz, an activist, multimedia artist, and Aztec dancer, but who is most famous for her iconic character of Catrinamia; Tyler Hughes, banjo player and square dance caller from the mountains of Southwest Virginia; Sinta Penyami Storms, a dancer proficient in traditional Indonesian dance from Bali, Java, and Sulawesi, as well as the operations manager for the Philadelphia Folklore Project. Moderating the panel was Lamont Jack Pearley, a folklorist, ethnographer, and radio host who was recently inducted into the New York Blues Hall of Fame as an artist and Blues historian.
Keeping in touch with the theme, all of the panelists agreed that they bear a responsibility to their respective communities. Lanica Angpak brought up that many cultural bearers in her community were lost due to the events of the Cambodian genocide, when under dictator Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge regime killed between 1.5 to 2 million people (mainly intellectuals and teachers) between 1975–1979. She described a feeling of personal responsibility in keeping her culture’s dancing traditions alive. There is a constant struggle of trying to “balance your Cambodian culture with your American culture,” as she stated. She reflected on a moment when she began working with other dance artists in Philadelphia, specifically contemporary Hip-hop dance artists, and her students began mixing the two together. She called this “one of my greatest joys.” She stated that through teaching this mixed dance, as well as traditional ones, she and her students can find a deeper connection to the culture.
Community ties, however, can be severed or distorted in some ways if cultural practices are not maintained. Sinta Penyami Storms cited this as her reason for performing and teaching: “The reason why I’m doing this in Philadelphia is because there is no cultural connection from my community to my home country through dance.” Indonesian food, she said, was represented abundantly but dance much less so. To her, the important role community plays in dance is the way it contextualizes certain things or lends background through history—the need to know why you do certain things in the dance. “Why do we smile without showing teeth?” she asked. It’s these little things that help ground a performance in a tradition. The truth of the matter is that showing teeth in a smile is seen as disrespectful and aggressive, the last thing one wants to be during a traditional court dance. “It makes you feel more connected to the culture,” Penyami Storms said, “to learn all these things.” Certain artforms can have stories attached to them. Learning the background not only helps you connect to a culture, but helps the performance itself. Knowing when to look sad or happy allows you to embody the culture in a performance.
This communal connection can be crucial to truly understanding a culture. Rosa Ruiz was very careful to give her American children born that cultural access. Teaching this to her children also reignited her passion and respect for her community. To her, the commoditization, or “costuming,” of Mexican culture is when people cross the line. When she sees her culture being boiled down to simplistic elements, such as wearing traditional clothes as costumes, she feels her culture and community are not being respected. “We are more than that,” she said. “Sometimes you don’t even know where these things come from.”
Tyler Hughes and Lamont Jack Pearley describe witnessing moments when cultural practices are not passed down or become distorted and misunderstood over time in their respective communities. Tyler Hughes said, “my community often has this warped vision of what its own culture is.” He cited a student learning banjo equating the instrument to the movie, Deliverance, which painted Appalachian culture as poor, violent, and unattractive. “We have a responsibility to tell the truth, and the truth can empower these communities.” Hughes went on to detail Appalachian string-band music’s history with labor struggles between the coal companies and their working class miners. He emphasized his music’s connection to African American and Indigenous traditions. He hopes that through teaching this music, he can demonstrate how the problems and experiences of modern members of his community are not that different from those of 50 or 100 years ago.
Lamont Jack Pearley could relate to Tyler Hughes’ story. As a blues musician, he made it clear his desire to “re-introduce the music of my people to my people.” He brought up stories of people asking him, “why are you promoting slave music?” Some, both within and without his community, would only recognize his music as that from the TV miniseries, Roots. “There are people who can be of a culture who don’t understand their connection to it,” he said. This stems from an issue both he and Tyler Hughes spoke at length about, how so much of our knowledge of a culture can come from the media we consume. Without that inherent community connection through family, teachers, and experiences, media is often the defining venue through which we learn about other cultures.
Lamont Jack Pearley described the relationship an artist has with a community as “intergenerational.” Ideally, an artform is learned, mastered, and passed down from teacher to student for generations, each with their own additions, influences, and ideas all building upon one another. A strong connection to a community adds depth to art, and the weight of all those who came before you makes every upcoming generation simultaneously unique, and part of a long lineage of artists. For someone outside of a cultural community, taking the time to show respect and learn the background is crucial to learning. In many cases, failing to do so is an outright sign of disrespect. But more than that, grounding yourself in a wider history, in realizing the modern relevance of the past, can help us better understand our problems today.