Cultural appropriation in pop music goes way beyond Gwen Stefani

  • Gwen Stefani recently came under fire for saying “I’m Japanese” in a new interview.
  • Stefani is just one of many pop stars who have been accused of cultural appropriation over the years.
  • Insider spoke to experts on race and advocacy about this aggressive trend in pop music.

Pop music has a cultural appropriation problem, and Gwen Stefani mentioned it again this week.

Stephanie brought the topic back to the fore when he told an Asian American journalist in a recent interview, “I’m Japanese.”

During an interview with Allure magazine, Stefani was asked to reflect on the early Harajuku era, which received criticism for co-opting Japanese aesthetics and personifying backup dancers—four Japanese and Japanese women known as the Harajuku Girls. Stefani has also been criticized for having African, Indigenous, and South Asian cultures in the past.

“if [people are] I’ll be criticized for liking something beautiful and sharing that, and then I think it’s not okay,” said Jessa Marie Callure, Allure’s senior editor.

pop music “repeated offender”

Robert Bucher, a lecturer in the University of Pennsylvania’s Asian American Studies program and president of the Philadelphia chapter of the Association of Japanese American Citizens in Philadelphia, told Insider he was “appalled” by Stephanie’s recent comments. He is also quick to note that she is far from the only culprit.

“Pop music in general seems to be as much a repeat offender as it is an art form that tends to commercialize and appropriate Asian cultural aesthetics for the purpose of profiteering,” said Bucher. “We see this over and over again.”

In fact, Nicki Minaj’s 2018 music video for “Chun Li” was accused of chanting an “insulting Asian idol.” Coldplay and Beyoncé introduced India as a “white person’s fever dream” in 2016’s “Weekend Hymn”. Major Lazer’s “Lean On” (2015) and Iggy Azalea’s “Bounce” (2013) faced similar scrutiny. And the list goes on.

Bucher specifically recalled Katy Perry’s performance of “Unconditionally” at the 2013 American Music Awards, which saw her donning a kimono, holding an umbrella, and doing groovy choreography.

Bucher explained that “the lyrics are about loving someone unconditionally and then dressing up somewhat similar to what a Japanese geisha looks like.” “[She’s] Reinforcing these ideas about Asian women being submissive and demure. Things.”

Kate Berry

Katy Perry performs at the 2013 American Music Awards.

Christopher Polk/AMA2013/Getty Images for DCP

Reinforce negative and dangerous stereotypes

Like Perry’s 2013 performance, Stefani’s employment of four Harajuku girls, Bowsher said, plays up “the idea of ​​a sexually available, commodified Asian female body.”

While the harajuku girls often accompanied Stefani to red carpet events and photo shoots, the women did not speak in public; Korean-American comedian Margaret Cho described her role in Stephanie’s life as ‘a great show. ”

In one performance in 2004, dancers can be seen forming a circle around Stefani, getting down on their hands and knees.

“Just from the body language and the physical gestures, it visually describes what the hierarchy is in this situation,” Bucher said. “That’s kind of white supremacy—Gwen is the blonde-haired, blue-eyed mid-point pop star and he uses this Japanese aesthetic, I think, to celebrate that in some ways.”

“Alarming level” of racial abuse

The industrialization of women of color could have devastating consequences.

As Insider’s Kristi Valerie Hwang previously reported, Asian American and Pacific Islander communities have faced an “alarming level” of racist abuse and violence since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, a series of shootings at Atlanta-area spas leaves eight people dead, including six Asian women. The shooter reportedly shouted, “I want to kill all Asians.”

Bowsher explained that while the pop star’s representation of Asian women does not carry the weight of these horrific crimes, it may be contributing to a pattern of anti-Asian racism and misogyny that has existed in the United States since the 19th century. “It’s just another way to push that forward into the next generation,” he said.

Other pop stars have also been accused of treating marginalized women like props, including Miley Cyrus, whose 2013 album “Bangerz” was deeply rooted in the sounds and aesthetics of hip-hop, a genre pioneered and carried on by black artists.

In music videos and performances around this time, Cyrus would often drown out and surround herself with black women, sometimes grabbing their butts or other parts of their bodies. Bucher described this as a “terrible objection”. (She later apologized for her “insensitive” behaviour.)

Miley Cyrus 2013 Vmas Performance

Miley Cyrus performing at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards.

Michael Loccisano/FilmMagic

The risks of cultural appropriation are great, said Rich Richardson, a professor of Africana studies at Cornell University, especially given the history of colonialism, imperialism and slavery that black women have faced in this country.

“What is at stake when one is not truly a part of that culture’s history—not sharing its traumas or the burdens associated with that identity—is the potential for commodification and profit” at the expense of the people who are the culture’s original creators, Richardson said.

The difference between inspiring and nurturing

Some pop stars have responded to accusations of appropriation by insisting that they simply “fan” the culture, or claiming that their actions are born out of “love and appreciation”. “[It] You have to be okay with being inspired by other cultures because if we’re not allowed, that divides people, right? “

Many artists have been able to successfully and respectfully express this “love and appreciation”. Beyoncé’s 2022 album Renaissance was celebrated for incorporating queer themes and genres in a respectful way, despite her being a straight woman. The singer also paid tribute to the many cultures of the African diaspora in her visual album “Black Is King”.

Roka Hatua Sar White, assistant professor at the Boston Conservatory in Berkeley, explained.

Of Beyoncé’s recent work, White said it’s clear she’s done her “due diligence.”


Beyoncé in “Hymn for the Weekend” (2016) and a press photo for “Renaissance” (2022).

Coldplay/Youtube Mason Paul

“Objectively speaking, I think there is nothing wrong with this kind of cultural exchange as long as the person doing it has been given permission to do so, and it is an exchange of desire on both sides,” he added. “It becomes a more complex scenario when one person or group in that conversation has a lot more power and privilege than the other.”

White explained that cultural appropriation occurs when someone borrows the practices, ideas, or any element of another culture for financial or material gain. But an artist can use their fame to raise awareness of marginalized culture.

Madonna, for example, capitalized on the ballroom scene with the release of “Vogue.” However, the song also uplifted the community with its support, giving a platform to dance halls and performers and donating to Black and LGBTQ causes.

In Stefani’s case, it is clear that she has benefited from Japanese culture with her many Harajuku clothing lines, products and singles, but it is unclear if Stefani’s adoption has returned anything to Japanese culture.

“It’s about transcendence, appreciation and honor within cultural exchanges,” White said. “The question is how do you return the favor?”

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