Cultural Appropriation in Music


Music is one of the ways through which cultural values and perspectives are taught and assimilated. One of the essential features of a music genre is its relevance to specific socio-cultural elements. As many genres emerge, the role of music in the community has become increasingly important. Cultural appropriation is one of the recent concepts that has attracted criticism from multiple parties. One of the contention points has been the distinction between appropriation and appreciation. When musicians apply elements of a given culture in their genres, they may do so out of understanding and appreciation or be motivated by gaining followership. Miley Cyrus and Elvis Presley have applied cultural appropriation in their music albums creating controversial views of their music among members of society.

Over time, artists have sought ways to make their music increasingly relevant to particular audiences at any time. Regarding the rise of appropriation, many artists applied several elements of minority communities’ culture, a move that elicited violent criticism from the public (Siems 2019). The criticism has been based on their attire, tone, word choice, and the involvement of African American models in their performances.

Miley Cyrus

Copying black cultural artifacts to create relevance has been a significant criticism directed towards Miley Cyrus. She received much criticism for copying Black culture, with her album Bangerz falling into a hip-hop era in terms of both image and music, before reverting to her musical origins in recent years (Stone 2017). Miley wore her hair in dreadlocks, braids, and grills a lot throughout her Bangerz phase. She was also chastised for notoriously twerking during the 2013 VMAs and condemning Kendrick Lamar’s performance, stating that it was the sexual lyrics that drove her to leave the hip-hop industry (Speers 2017). Miley’s most significant problem with hip-hop is that she is fortunate enough to profit from the Black and white cultures, plunging in whenever needed and profitable, whereas Black musicians lacked that luxury.

Cyrus’ latest album Younger Now, released four years after she broke through from the Disney Channel to wider pop fame, ditches the hip-hop beats in favor of a twangier, Nashville-influenced style. Pigtails, pink gowns, and puppet performances have replaced the hairstyles and gold grill. According to Stone (2017), Cyrus has long fought charges that she used black culture to establish her career and has now used her white privilege openly to reverse the shift. Teen idols have attempted to shed their reputation by evolving into more adult forms throughout music history.

The dancing techniques that resembled African Americans’ style have been widely criticized as being mere imitations. Planet Pop was blasted like a meteorite by Cyrus’s bombastic methods. There were the outrageous clothing, surrealist stage displays, drug connotations, and a tongue that was always pointing at her brow (Stone, 2017). However, for some, this was an outlandish pop performance that satirized such changes by daringly extending the friskiness to its extreme maximum. The music was mostly enjoyable, and she seemed to know what she was performing. Hip-hop still has misogynistic issues, but the genre of the rapping canon is crucial, especially when Cyrus has been criticized for commodifying black women’s bodies in her clip for ‘We Can’t Stop’ (Stone 2017). Cyrus may bemoan appropriation claims now, but she delighted in hip-hop luxury to shape her image.

Cyrus eventually backtracked on the Billboard statement, but the implication is clear: she has had low regard for the society she mocked. Stone (2017) argues that Cyrus may be willing to leverage black music to move on to the next level of her career. The fundamental issue is that Cyrus connects blackness to immorality and whites to virtue in both her new image and phrases distilling hip-hop culture down to its most contentious aspects (Stone 2017). Nevertheless, she doesn’t want to pretend her past incarnation never happened; instead, she wants to use it to tell a story of spiritual rebirth. It’s all possible because of her white privilege.

Elvis Presley

In the pursuit of fame and identity, famous pop stars have associated themselves with black artists and benefited from the relationship while not adding any value to black culture. The most notable example is Elvis Presley, who rose to fame as the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” by covering songs by Black artists like “That’s Alright, Mama,” “Hound Dog,” and “Don’t Be Cruel,” (Speers 2017). Although there has not been a direct or simple link between white adoration of black music and ethnically progressive politics, some black commentators, performers, and fans saw the rise of a mixed-race industry for rock-and-roll songs done by black and white artists as a sign of, if not a vehicle for, improved race relations in the late 50s and early 60s (Ward 2017). This illustrates that pop culture and its connection to the Black culture has been an essential factor determining the extent to which power and influence are exercised in society.

Since the early twentieth century, musical artists have been accused of appropriation, a charge that has been leveled—sometimes correctly—against them. The loudness of these disagreements is largely determined by the amount of amplification available, and when Elvis Presley introduced rhythm and blues and gospel to the Hit Parade in the 1950s, the rumble was confined to sounds easily muted out by the white mainstream. Presley’s early successes included remixes of black songs. “Elvis and Elvis” music appealed to black culture music and claimed that it represented something alive (Ward 2017). Presley’s career took off because white audiences had not heard anything similar to it. Because black artists were so marginalized on white radio at the time, many listeners assumed Presley had conjured up this amazing music out of pure nothingness.

Elvis Presley’s connection with and track record among African Americans was complicated. Ward (2017) notes that in the mid-1950s, he exploded onto the public stage as part of a mixed-race rock-and-roll concept that erupted as the fight against racial discrimination in the American south was gaining traction. This way, Elvis portrayed himself as an artist fighting for the rights of African Americans in a society that seemed to promote white supremacy. However, his attempts have been shown to be guided by his need for fame rather than a desire for justice.

Criticisms of Cultural Appropriation

Cultural appropriation, according to some, is more than simply borrowing an existing concept; rather, it entails benefiting from the hard labor, creativity, and thoughts of Black innovators by western artists. The latter are more positively recognized by the media and hence classed as mainstream. From the labor songs performed by enslaved Black people in the old south to the hundreds of subcultures of hip-hop that throb in oppressed communities globally, black music has a long history of internal codes (Mendez 2019). There is a concrete link between endorsed appropriation and Black people’s liberation conditions. According to Mendez (2019), the level of intellectual integrity in celebrity-driven interpretations with race has a flip side: portrayal. Any culture that honors a Black artist’s accomplishments comes with its own set of risks. Notably, identity, fame, and an unstable media environment conspired to give meaning to relevance and shield the Black influencers’ class from significant criticism. However, significant steps have been made to undo the mistakes made by earlier musicians.


In conclusion, the music industry has gone through several phases of a cultural shift. For decades, artists have sought to increase popularity by incorporating various cultural aspects in the tone, rhythm, and style. The difference between appropriation and appreciation has elicited different views and criticisms from scholars and socio-cultural activists. In essence, although applying cultural values may be beneficial, it goes against ethical and moral principles in the music industry. The hip-hop music culture has been on the frontlines for adopting African American culture. Elvis Presley and Miley Cyrus are among the most notable pop stars who leveraged black culture to rise in their music career. Although they may have supported black movements, many people feel that these artists were motivated only by their desire for fame and career growth. Black culture’s music, attire, and dancing styles have been appreciated as a crucial part of the entertainment. However, as artists apply individual cultures for competitiveness, they should carefully consider the social effects of their style.


Mendez, Michele. 2019. “How to separate cultural appreciation, appropriation in music.” The Temple News. Web.

Siems, Mathias. 2019. “The law and ethics of ‘cultural appropriation.” International journal of law in context 15 (4): 408-423.

Speers, Laura. 2017. Hip-hop authenticity and the London scene: Living out authenticity in popular music. Routledge.

Stone, Chelsea. 2017. “Miley Cyrus Accused of Cultural Appropriation for Hip-Hop Comments.” Teen Vogue. Web.

Ward, Brian. 2017. “Champion or copycat? Elvis Presley’s ambiguous relationship with black America.” The Conversation. Web.

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