A month ago, I read a great essay over at Just Seeds on the appropriation of art. The text tells a story of a group of activists who took photos out of a magazine, changed the context of the images (and the people in the photos), and then watched as their art was appropriated for book covers, art exhibits, etc. Essayist Dara Greenwald finally states that “appropriation is both an important and inevitable part of a vibrant and living culture.” Since I read this article, I have come across some other amazing examples of appropriation in surprising places. And my experiences with a few live concerts yesterday compelled me to write about my discoveries.
Humans live in a world that can be described as appropriated. Building upon 17th century ideas, 19th century mathematicians began to develop what 20th century mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot coined the fractal. The fractal is based upon a property called self-similarity. A “self-similar object is exactly or approximately similar to a part of itself” and can easily be seen occurring in the natural world. In a similar way of thinking, French botanist Francis Halle observed that smaller parts of a tree look like the tree itself. He called this reiteration, and showed that nature uses the most efficient means to reproduce itself in a way that gains maximum growth and potential.
Nature takes something similar and builds upon it the foundations a healthy ecosystem.
This week, I just finished reading Richard Preston’s “The Wild Trees.” In this book, a group of big tree geeks and scientists go into the last remaining stands of old growth big trees and find the tallest and oldest living things on the planet. These researchers also climb the trees and begin to study the tallest canopies known to man. It’s an undiscovered territory up there. Among other things, they discover reiteration. AKA self-similarity. AKA appropriation.
Up in the tall trees canopy, huge limbs grow straight up towards the sun. They make another layer of the forest , 200 to 400 feet up. But there’s a few more layers of forest up there! The scientists discovered “canopy bonsai: small trees growing as epiphytes [non-parasitic plants growing on other plants] high up in the crowns of redwoods and other forest trees.” Still smaller, lichen, shrubs, and other plant matter live up there too, making the old growth redwood forests a three dimensional ecosystem.
Putting it simply: a forest grows in a forest, which grows in a larger forest.
Now, where does music and art appropriation fit in with botany and math?
In 1983, jazz critic Joachim-Ernst Berendt wrote the highly influential book “The World Is Sound: Nada Brahma Music and the Landscape of Consciousness.” Using science and math, Berendt explained how the universe is all vibration. Atoms and the smaller, self-similar, particles within it vibrate. Therefore, the larger clusters of atoms (you, me, an oud string, Earth, the sun, etc.) all vibrate. So, humanity’s urge to make music is a universal expression of sharing our atoms’s vibrations.
I have always had a musician’s heart. As a young adult, I quickly learned that I had a deep appreciation for the vibration of life, though I didn’t nurture it into a special talent on a particular instrument. Instead, I realized that I could easily channel the music and just go with the emotions and thoughts that came up. I discovered this before reading “Nada Brahma” and before knowing what a Sufi was. I had opened myself to the vibration of existence, and welcomed it with open arms!
Just before I read the Just Seeds essay, my friend Jef Stott was questioned about appropriation and entitlement with the press and scholars. He has just released his new album Saracen, rich with Middle Eastern beats, instruments, and lyrics. Jef isn’t from the Middle East, but he has opened his life to nada brahma, so when he incorporates another culture’s rich music traditions, he puts thought and feeling into his artistic work.
We discussed the rebukes, trying to be culturally sensitive but not totalitarian in the political correctness of the topic. And we realized that music and the arts go beyond the boxes that some people try to contain them in. Like the Just Seeds essay shows, where do you draw lines and where is there a set of written rules that define inspiration, utilization, and appropriation?
I began to think about my own appropriation of art. I take images off of the Web and create vector art with them. I combine things, mix them around, give them new meanings. I understand what I do may be wrong in a copyright context, but feel that my effort to use the art as reference is valid from a creative standpoint. Jef has a deep respect and understanding of Middle Eastern culture, so his appropriation of the music forms is a valid form of expression too.
Yesterday, I experienced the ultimate analogy of the scientific concept of reiteration. There was a rally in front of Civic Center for the Palestinian right of independence. Nabka 60 drew a small crowd of mostly people of color who waved Palestinian flags, wore kafeas, and shared in their culture as a diaspora who fled a troubled land. What was the music on stage between the speakers? Hip Hop.
Where did hip hop come from? The USA. Well, if you dig deeper, hip hop came out of the 1970s projects, from kids who listened to funk, which came out of soul, which came out of country-western and jazz, which came out of Negro spiritual and slave music, which came from Africa, which came from tribal singing and drumming, which could go all the way back to a few creative souls in caves who banged two bones together and realized that the universe vibrated.
Dam, a popular Palestinian hip hop group, headlined Nabka 60. They had it down: three MCs rapping in Arabic and a little English, one guy on the turntables. Baggy paints and cool hats. They got us hopping, did traditional call and response, and rocked the joint. Their politics were good, and they claimed that they rapped “the truth” about Palestine. A man with a camera stood on stage and filmed the set. He wore a shirt that said “Hip Hop is Not Dead. It Lives in Palestine.”
No one’s concerned about four kids from Palestine and their appropriation of a mainstream American music genre.
Last night, I caught Jef’s CD release party at Bollyhood. Hmm. Indian immigrants, first-gen Americans, and expats appropriating India kitsch for a hip bar in a Latino neighborhood. A line up of DJs spinning all kinds of music genres, all with a deep appreciation of the culture, the people, and the art forms they build upon. What? A Southeast Asian spinning wicked dub (a black Jamaican musical genre)? Hnn? All three headlining DJs remixing Balkan Beat Box, an amazing Israeli/American band that crams hip hop with Roma and throws in Middle Eastern beats for a tasty stew of appropriation? And Jeff, Dub Gabriel, and Kush Arora all three take the BBB songs to other levels? And the crowd: how multi culti can an audience be?! All colors, all faiths, all continents represented. Rainbow tribe in the house!
Music and the arts work the same way that a healthy old growth redwood ecosystem does. There can’t be one level of the forest to be what Greenwald described as a “vibrant and living” culture. There needs to be many reiterations of that forest of creativity. Music and the arts don’t form in a vacuum of someone’s ego. They form from taking from the past and building upon it. They grow into healthy systems of expression when a creative idea is layered upon another creative idea.
Humans live in the world like the tall trees of Preston’s book do. Artists must take from their ecosystem and make it into a newer level of expression. They must do it without being parasitic. They must acknowledge that everything vibrates, and similar vibrations form newer, fractal-like layers of the same vibration.
Where would the world be without the old forms of music? Where would the world be without the newest generation of artists building upon this vibrant ecosystem of sound? Where would the red woods be without the smaller forests living inside them?
Share and share alike. It’s the natural tendency of nature to do so. So why not with art and music?