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Cultural Appropriation: Quentin Tarantino and Other White Rappers

August 13, 2006

This is a long one. Maybe watch this video, get a sandwich and come back.

Ah, good old Quentin Tarantino, director of a modern classic, Pulp Fiction. You cannot hate on this dude for this movie, oh quibble with his use of the n-word and the ridiculousness of him playing the husband of a black woman who can use the word with impunity (would he not be DEAD, D-E-A-D in real life? Not only that, he uses the –er version). Yes, he’s borrowed liberally from the Hong Kong and Blaxploitation flicks he’s seen growing up. This probably makes him one of the most vilified culture vultures in America, perhaps moreso than even Vanilla Ice. go to the beginning.

You remember Mr. Robert Van Winkle, of course. He wasn’t the first white rap artist. He’s just the most hated. White rappers have had a difficult road to hoe. The Beastie Boys were forward thinking punks who caught the fever early. They weren’t really clowned on because in ’85 rap was still thought of as a novelty and so they were treated as a novelty as well. Rap music had not become “hip hop” to most people and had not taken on the cultural significance it would gain a just a couple years after Licensed to Ill was released. No one thought of them as performing in blackface because they used Zeppelin samples and talked about a lot of “white boy” stuff.

Vanilla Ice showed up at a time when rap music was a political statement. Post Public Enemy rap was political, and post NWA rap was the music of “the streets.” 3rd Bass, with their white and Jewish MCs, boasted a seal of approval from the 5% Nation organization and heavy NYC street cred. Ice was just some kid from the suburbs who thought he could dance. He made up a history of a hard scrabble life, and when the lie found out, his haters (like me) had great reason to dismiss him.

Ice set the standard, in a way, for white MCs, or anyone who is not black to rap. All sorts of barriers were placed on non-black MCs from that point. Kids had to prove an allegiance to black street culture. They had to prove they knew the origins of the music, name check the right people. It really helped if you, as 3rd Bass and Enimem were, surrounded by black folk on stage.

Of course this was all because of what happened to black artists in the 50’s, what I believe to be the root of the cultural appropriation arguments. If theft was the order of the day back then, authenticity is the order of today, and often it is white people who are the strongest adherents, especially regarding music. Some white music critics are the worst on this score, with people like Tom Breihan criticizing audiences at rap shows that are too white, and Baz Dreisigner accusing Japanese dancehall artists of cultural theft.

Anyone can see how what happened in the past to black musicians was exploitation. Elvis did not create rock and roll (nor was he the first rapper, as someone claimed). That theft is the root of cultural appropriation. How is the white or Japanese kid who performs, or even becomes enamored with rap or R&B cultural theft? How does this fit within the definition of cultural appropriation? It doesn’t.

We have nearly come to accept this. White MCs get respect and rarely have to present a “black face” to be accepted, though this is largely within the community of younger white fans (unless you write for Pitchfork). Many of us realize that this is merely acculturation, not theft. Influence, if you will.

Tarantino is an artist working in a universal medium, like Vanilla Ice. Unlike Ice, he doesn’t work in a genre with culturally defined boundaries. There’s a tradition of transculturation in film, as influence travels back and forth across oceans regularly. We generally accept this, and it is usually only noticed as problematic by film snobs (like myself). Tarantino is also a fan, and to be a fan is to be absorbed in genres and to be influenced. Tarantino is the white rapper who feels comfortable using the N-word. He’s the fan of samurai films who wants to put a katana on his wall. Were he a 14 year old, he’d probably be cleaning up at cosplay competitions. He freely admits to stealing from other films to put in his own work, and even argues that makes him a better film maker. Say it loud, I’m a cultural appropriationist and I’m proud!

Does the fact he admits to being a thief excuse him from our scorn (if we have any)? No. However perhaps it excuses him from accusations of cultural appropriation.* He’s a tough case. He gives credit to his sources (usually, especially now that the spotlight is on and the Internet has made it possible for anyone to see the absorbed works). He lavishes the appropriate, if obsequious, reverence on the cultures by which he is influenced. Hmm, but does he exorcize the cultural context of that which he borrows? Ahh, that might be his biggest problem and it is detrimental to his film making.

It ain’t such a big thing that he borrowed a plot from a Hong Kong action film. Lucas made a mint from borrowing from Kurosawa – his originality doesn’t derive from story anyway, and neither does Tarantino’s (it is also difficult to argue QT’s originality derives from mise en scene either, though for the moment he gets a pass). Notice we aren’t as upset when he steals from Italian westerns. There’s a reason aside from racial essentialism, though. When he says that the N-word is just a word, that’s the worst kind of rationalization for cultural appropriation, the a priori stripping the cultural context of the thing you use for your own purposes. His purposes in most cases? Too look cool.

This is where QT’s influence peddling becomes problematic. It is where his art goes beyond being influenced and drifts into appropriation. He uses all these cultural signposts of cultures he’s viewed through the prism of Saturday afternoon matinees (though he claims some portrayals of POC in his films are based on real people in part) as signifiers of something. And they’re basically context free. Oh, the characters in Kill Bill get to spout fortune cookie notions of honor and such, Jules is a symbol of redemption (or so the argument goes). Is it that they’re rendered meaningless and we’re supposed to accept them as such?

Probably a lot of criticism QT receives on this issue is over the top. He is, after all, presenting representations of characters built from specific works that are themselves detached from reality. I’m more concerned about him lapsing into using this as a crutch for his film making than I am concerned about him being the king of cultural appropriation. Still, it’s hard to think of any film maker more guilty of cultural appropriation, and as film does have influence on culture (and vice versa of course) and on people and their perceptions, he might want to be more careful about how he approaches his “theft.” Though of course he wont.

I can’t believe I did all this shit for free . . . Peace.

*The resultant notions that have emanated from the defenses of Tarantino have led to some goofy crap. Now, as you know, we’ve got a shitload of remakes of Japanese horror movies and other films. In the past, critics have generally sneered at remakes. Now you have people like Mike D’Angelo claiming that something like Ring would “benefit” from a Western remake. Can you imagine a critic saying the same thing about Commando, that it would benefit from a Hong Kong remake? I know now that I’ve voiced that argument, some might say Commando would “benefit,” however I’m pointing towards a sour stench of superiority inherent in the statement, not the dodgy question of whether it would actually benefit, since that would be dependent on all sorts of things outside of place of origin.

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