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 first panel, “Forming Cultural Lineages: Appropriation vs Inclusion,” was held on June 17, 2021 via Zoom and streamed on FB Live. It encouraged viewers to consider that learning a tradition from respected mentors places them in a “cultural lineage,” where things are actively passed down from teacher to student for generations. It also discussed the inherent challenges found in sharing culture as a mentor or experiencing new cultures as a student. The four panelists included: Madhusmita Bora, a dancer and choreographer practicing classical Indian dances and music traditions; Kenneth Burney, a ritual drummer, musician, and priest of Aganju in the Afro-Cuban spiritual tradition; Rebecca Ka`awela Manandic, Hawaiian born dancer, choreographer, and teacher of traditional Polynesian dance, music, and culture; and Susan Hoffman-Watts, a fourth-generation musician of Jewish Ukrainian Klezmer music. These panelists were selected for their wealth of experience in the fields of dance and music and for the diverse sets of cultures they represent.
Defined as the adoption of one or more elements of a culture by a member of a different culture, cultural appropriation is usually viewed as disrespectful. Yet, the general consensus of the panel was that there is nothing wrong with wanting to learn or experience other cultural elements. The problem is when someone lacks a broader sense of and respect for the culture. As Kenneth Burney said, “It’s not that people don’t want others engaging with practices outside of their culture—it’s the worry that they’re misrepresenting it and not putting in the work needed to learn it.” This sums up the purpose of the panel: to discuss what is and is not cultural appropriation and examine when and how a student can develop proper cultural context.
For some, cultural context comes as a result of early exposure. When discussing her experience with dance and choreography, Madhusmita Bora tells us how it was “always there growing up” in India. Yet, while it was the background of her life, she also took the time to engage in a more sustained study with master practitioners, so she could have a deeper understanding of how dance represented her culture and vice versa. When she immigrated to the US and performed abroad, the artform is then what kept her grounded, connected to her roots.
For those who do not grow up with their desired artform, Susan Hoffman-Watts suggested fully immersing yourself: attend festivals, watch artistic demonstrations, read books, watch documentaries, eat the food, listen to the music, and learn the history. After all that, you will begin to understand why these individual practices are so important. This is the “context of art,” as she puts it. She also stated that the Jewish tradition welcomes the stranger and made specific references to Passover, a holiday when it is considered lucky to invite a stranger into your home. She thus takes it as a personal responsibility to welcome outsiders and to share her love of her culture, of Klezmer, with the world.
Kenneth Burney’s own history with music reflected this attitude. Born in the Bronx, New York, he fell in love with Cuban music at a young age and truly immersed himself in the culture. He moved to Cuba where he spent years performing on the streets, learned the language, ate the food, and generally lived inside the culture. His mentor, Puntilla Rios, taught him little-by-little, but he had to prove himself to earn the knowledge. As he went on to say, “Earning knowledge makes you respect it more.” That is the takeaway—there is a history behind every dance and song, and a teacher must know that their student will show that history respect so that when the time comes, the student will pass on the knowledge correctly. It can take years of study, practice, and hard work to develop a connection with a culture and to then become part of a cultural lineage.
Rebecca Ka`awela Manandic, or “Aunty Becky,” highlighted the importance of cultural lineages in the Hawaiian culture. She shared that the title of kumu hula translates as “the source of the dance,” and it means you are part of an unbroken chain of master practitioners. To become a kumu hula, you have to have studied for years with a master artist, and they have to decide when you are ready to graduate, referred to as uniki. Learning traditional elements of culture is not just training in a skill; it is not something done through YouTube. She sees teaching to be her kuleana, a valued responsibility, and by approaching an artistic tradition through that lens, it is easier to understand the role of a cultural lineage, a long chain of mentors and students.
After a fruitful two-hour discussion, the panelists were all readily in agreement with one another: anyone, regardless of culture of origin, can learn or serve as an entryway into another culture. We should share what we know, recognize what we do not know, and encourage passionate students to find the right teacher. Aunty Becky tells us that a good teacher sees it as their responsibility to help students find their way, build passion, and ensure that they learn things the right way, which is ‘empowering’ for all involved. Also, we must all humble ourselves. Madhusmita Bora still refers to herself as a “student” out of a sense of respect for the masters she learned from. Ultimately, that is what the concept of cultural lineage does best—reinforces the idea that each person in that chain has been and will always be someone’s student.