10+ Tips for Avoiding Cultural Appropriation in the Music Room

So you’ve decided to include a unit, event, or piece of repertoire in your curriculum that is from a culture or genre that is new to you. First of all: GREAT! You are expanding your knowledge as a person, musician, and educator. You are setting a great example of lifelong learning. And most importantly, you are bringing information and experiences to your students that might make them see their world in a new way. Major win!

But something is grumbling in the back of your mind. 

How do I… do this? I don’t speak the language, I don’t know if this is right, what if this is offensive? Am I committing (gasp!) CULTURAL APPROPRIATION? 

Cue the dramatic music!

Now that you’ve had your panic attack about it, let’s get to work. 

Real talk: What IS cultural appropriation?

We hear this term thrown around a lot, and often it’s unclear what it really means. In a nutshell, appropriation is when a dominant culture takes advantage of a minority culture, robbing the minority culture of the credit they deserve.

“When we change appropriate to a verb, it means ‘to take (something) for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission,’ and has synonyms such as seize, commandeer, annex, or hijack… cultural appropriation is defined as taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.”*

What does appropriation look like in the music classroom— 

  • Performing an indigenous melody without permission from local tribal council
  • Teaching the history of rock music without acknowledging the contributions of Black musicians (AKA saying White people invented rock and roll)
  • Using White-composed melodies that are “in the style of” an entire culture, bonus points for an offensive title (method books are notorious for this)

And what’s the price of culturally appropriating a cultural practice? Not only is it offensive and isolating for the students whose culture you are appropriating, but you are also robbing your other students of an opportunity to authentically engage with that culture. 

Now what? How do I avoid appropriation?

First you have to do your homework. Here are a ton of ideas; you don’t have to do them all, but this list should get you going! The goal is to understand as much authentic context as possible. Just because you have knowledge of the music’s technique or style does not mean you can present this music without appropriating it. Context and credit are the keys! 

  • YouTube rabbit hole: Search for performances, rehearsals, and interviews on the topic you’re presenting or music you will be teaching. This is a great place to start, but YouTube shouldn’t be your only source. 
  • Listen consciously and casually: While you’re searching and watching on YouTube, listen consciously and make note of what you hear. Stylistic details, musical surprises, tunings and chord changes that confuse you. But, you should also listen casually. Put a recording on in the car while you drive to work or clean the house. I find that when I listen casually, new music becomes less of a museum piece and more part of my life. That’s much more authentic engagement. 
  • Watch a live rehearsal: This is not always possible, but it would be one of the best ways to understand the cultural context of the music. Seeing what the musicians prioritize, how they communicate while they perform, and what change they make will get you inside the music. 
  • Go to a live performance: Live music is always better than a recording, but you’re not just going to get a better listening experience. You’re going for the vibe! The hang! The culture! What are people wearing? How loud is it performed? What do people do to express their excitement over the music? When is the audience loud, and when are they quiet? How do they react? How do the performers interact with the crowd– if there is a crowd at all? Is there dancing? Is there food, drinking, smoking? And who is in the audience– age, gender, races, languages, etc? Bring a friend if you’re worried about being the “odd one out” and then appreciate how feeling “othered” in the audience makes you feel. 
  • Ask your students for recommendations: Your students will love to give you ideas if they have them! Maybe you want to introduce more female rappers into your general music class. Ask and you shall receive more recommendations than you know what to do with… and your students will light up when you take their ideas to heart!
  • Check out the Subreddit: It may or may not yield interesting results, but there’s a SubReddit for almost anything. If you can’t go to a live concert or rehearsal, this is probably the next best thing. 
  • Bring in a culture bearer: I feel very strongly that this is the best possible way to avoid cultural appropriation. Bring in someone for whom this culture and music is their home base to speak to your students. Pay them for their time. And while they are there learn all you can from them. There simply is no substitute for the real thing whenever possible. Virtual visits can also be fantastic, especially for dancers and interviews (less so for listening to a performance). 
  • Take lessons/go to classes: This is a big ask, but taking classes or lessons in this type of music is gold. Make sure you find a teacher who is from the culture, and pay them well. Even one lesson could be beneficial! This would be most helpful if you are in a new school with a large population of a race/culture/ethnicity that is unfamiliar to you since this could be a longer term commitment. 
  • Check for racial/cultural competency. Students should be able to demonstrate what they learned about the culture (what they thought was true before, and what they learned as a result of the musical lesson/experience)
  • Stay humble. Those of us who have been “Classically trained” often have an ingrained negative attitude toward any other genre or style. European classical music is not inherently better, more difficult, or more necessary than any other style or genre. You’ll find out quickly enough when you take those tabla lessons or try to freestyle rap! 
  • Give credit where credit is due. Whether it is in program notes, lesson plans, on sheet music, or wherever you are giving information on the origins of the music you present: Always give credit to the original artist, composer, country of origin, etc. When you go looking for this information, you might uncover a new bit of history you didn’t know, or sometimes you might discover something unsavory. Either way, it’s best to be armed with knowledge, and share with your students. 

This is definitely a case of “knowledge is power!” Luckily, this is FUN research and experiences that will enrich your own life as a person and as a musician as well. It is worth the work!

*Howard, Karen. “Equity in Music Education: Cultural Appropriation versus Cultural Appreciation—Understanding the Difference.” Music Educators Journal, vol. 106, no. 3, 2020, pp. 68–70., https://doi.org/10.1177/0027432119892926.

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