Katy Perry Should Talk To Questlove About Cultural Appropriation


Katy Perry, renowned wig-wearer and metaphor-mixer, is on the cover of the new Rolling Stone. A teaser for the Brian Hiatt-penned feature went up on the RS site today, and in it is an excerpt of, as Hiatt describes, Perry’s “passionate defense of her intentions” regarding her oft-criticized “cultural insensitivity,” like the time she dressed up like a geisha and her use of “big-bootied mummies” in her tour:

“As far as the mummy thing, I based it on plastic surgery,” she says. “Look at someone like Kim Kardashian or Ice-T’s wife, Coco. Those girls aren’t African-American. But it’s actually a representation of our culture wanting to be plastic, and that’s why there’s bandages and it’s mummies. I thought that would really correlate well together… It came from an honest place. If there was any inkling of anything bad, then it wouldn’t be there, because I’m very sensitive to people.”

She knows the rules are changing, that “cultural appropriation” is increasingly uncool, but she’s not thrilled about it. “I guess I’ll just stick to baseball and hot dogs, and that’s it,” she says. “I know that’s a quote that’s gonna come to fuck me in the ass, but can’t you appreciate a culture? I guess, like, everybody has to stay in their lane? I don’t know.”

For context, here’s one of Perry’s most high-profile appropriation fumbles, from the 2013 American Music Awards:

Her performance, in the words of Brian Ashcraft, “mixed and matched Japanese and Chinese culture as if it were a Pan-Asian buffet.” Before the offensive performance aired, Perry told Amy Wallace of GQ that she considered geishas to be “like, the masters of loving unconditionally” even though, as Wallace notes in her piece, “in the gamut of human interactions, the courtesan-patron relationship is, um, maybe the most conditional relationship there is?”

Perry told RS she wanted to be able to “appreciate” a culture. But sloppily slapping together a bunch of stuff that gives off that vaguely Asian vibe, as Perry did, only demonstrates a total lack of appreciation for another culture. This is the same mistake that non-Natives make when they try to don headdresses, either at music festivals or on magazine covers; if they actually took thirty seconds to educate themselves about what war bonnets really signify — if they, in fact, appreciated Native American culture — they would know why not to wear one.

There is something so childish and petulant about Perry’s response to these culture critiques. She’s twisting the legitimate, informed censure of her aesthetic choices into an extremist, unreasonable demand that, to my knowledge, no one made of her. There is a huge spectrum of attire and behavior between “things that are racist” and “things that are just baseball and hot dogs.” Perry’s is the common, shallow refrain of someone who is accused of offending any marginalized person or people: instead of apologizing for the actually offensive thing and internalizing something meaningful and nuanced from the interaction, the offender gets all, “well FINE I guess I just won’t say anything ever again. I’ll just sit here in my little PC corner, locked away from all the fun, because you all are sooooo over-sensitive.” Perry is the equivalent of the soccer player who responds to a deserved yellow card by storming off the field and shouting, “I should just quit all the sports, FOREVER.”

As I like to do whenever I am faced with complex issues such as this, I turn to Questlove, who has offered plenty of brilliant and insightful commentary on race, hip hop, and music culture at large before.

In an interview posted last week, Time magazine asked Questlove if he was pro- or anti- Iggy Azalea, the white Australian star who affects the voice of a black American southerner when she raps, and whose song “Fancy” is (so far) the hit of the summer. Questlove’s response, as usual, is thoughtful and illuminating and surprising (emphasis added):

Here’s the thing: the song is effective and catchy as hell, and it works. Just the over-enunciation of “hold you down”? [Laughs] It makes me chuckle because all I can see is my assistant holding a brush in the mirror and singing it.

I’m caught in between. And I defend it. I see false Instagram posts like, “She said the N-word! She said the N-word!” I’ll call people out — “Yo, don’t troll.” I know you’re ready to give your 42-page dissertation on theGrio about why this is culture vulture-ism. You know, we as black people have to come to grips that hip-hop is a contagious culture. If you love something, you gotta set it free. I will say that “Fancy,” above any song that I’ve ever heard or dealt with, is a game-changer in that fact that we’re truly going to have to come to grips with the fact that hip-hop has spread its wings.

…I’m not going to lie to you, I’m torn between the opinions on the Internet, but I’mma let Iggy be Iggy. It’s not even politically correct dribble. The song is effective. I’m in the middle of the approximation of the enunciation, I’ll say. Part of me hopes she grows out of that and says it with her regular dialect — I think that would be cooler. But, yeah, “Fancy” is the song of the summer.

No reasonable person believes the only kosher cultural references for a white American to make are to other white American things, whatever that even means. Without cultural cross-pollination, without everybody getting inspired by everybody else — and, sure, stealing from everybody else — we wouldn’t have half the art or music or fashion or entertainment that we want and need and love. I don’t want a music scene where everyone “stays in their lane,” as Perry put it. But I don’t want to see people swerving in and out of whatever lanes they please with zero regard for everyone else on the road. (In the spirit of Perry, I’m just going to take this metaphor as far as humanly possible.) I want to see artists using their signals and not causing accidents with their carelessness.

I mean, just think: if the Australian Iggy Azalea didn’t swipe her ideas from American culture, would we have this shot-for-shot tribute to Clueless? Absolutely not. And I don’t want to live in the way harsh world where all of humanity cannot rejoice in the greatness of Amy Heckerling’s masterpiece.