AGREE TO DISAGREE
No, Bruno Mars Is Not Guilty of ‘Cultural Appropriation’
The debate about whether Mars, a non-black artist, actively appropriates black culture is beyond tired—and misses the larger point about institutional racism in music.
The conversation about whether Bruno Mars is guilty of “cultural appropriation” becomes the bane of my existence every week, it seems.
The debate popped up after his wins at the Grammys and did so again last week, thanks to a viral video from activist Seren Sensei where she accused the non-black Mars (his mother is Filipina and his father Puerto Rican and Jewish) of using black culture for fame. Is Mars a non-black artist making R&B, soul, and funk music? Yes, but this conversation is beyond tired.
Cultural appropriation is defined many ways, but one such definition is an adoption of minority culture by members of the dominant culture. It’s also adopting a culture without fully respecting it. To ignore the difference between Mars’ music and say, Katy Perry wearing cornrows, Madonna dressing like a geisha, Gwen Stefani trucking around her Harajuku girls, or Iggy Azeala attempting to rap is laughable. For one, Mars is non-black, but he isn’t white and particularly part of “dominant culture.” Second, he’s hardly playing dress up. He commits to his music and his performing and he does it really well.
I remember not caring for Mars’ brand of music very much. It felt like karaoke. That is, until I saw his first Super Bowl performance. What I saw was a musician who had stage presence, talent, and was really fucking fun to watch. During his second performance, he survived a dance-off with Beyoncé. This isn’t the work of a pop star dabbling in a genre that they don’t understand and performing just barely enough to get accolades. Mars puts in work.
According to Sensei, “Bruno Mars 100 percent is a cultural appropriator. He is not black, at all, and he plays up his racial ambiguity to cross genres. What Bruno Mars does is he takes pre-existing work and he just completely, word-for-word recreates it, extrapolates it. He does not create it, he does not improve upon it, he does not make it better. He’s a karaoke singer, he’s a wedding singer, he’s the person you hire to do Michael Jackson and Prince covers. Yet Bruno Mars has an Album of the Year Grammy and Prince never won an Album of the Year Grammy.”
The idea that Mars doesn’t create and improve upon the genre that he works in is frankly a matter of taste and not a serious argument when it comes to cultural appropriation. Mars is also fairly open about his cultural background, so it’s not fair to say that he plays up his racial ambiguity just because some people can’t Google. Contending he is guilty of “word for word” recreation doesn’t work either; none of his songs are covers.
There’s plenty to argue about the racism that exists in Grammy voting. As I wrote before, legendary albums by black artists have rarely been part of the Album of the Year nomination process. Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall wasn’t nominated. Prince’s 1999 wasn’t nominated. Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation wasn’t nominated. When they are nominated, they lose to albums from Mumford & Sons (Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange) and Paul Simon (Janet’s Control). It’s not merely that the Grammys diminish black artists at the top of their game, they often diminish albums that create huge cultural moments in favor those that are not only barely relevant today, but were hardly relevant when they were released.
But this seems like undercutting Mars’ talent because of grievances over other artists we like. It seems like undercutting Mars because we as a culture let Justin Timberlake do the same thing and didn’t truly start questioning his sincerity in using black culture for personal gain until recently. Mars isn’t to blame for the fact that Timberlake got a free pass for years even after throwing Janet Jackson under the bus at the Super Bowl.
This conversation about Mars never seems to move anywhere. Someone brings up the same points every few months, because it's a popular topic and it can trend and create headlines but it’s ultimately not pushing forward anything in culture except a never-ending debate. Mars is not even a Kardashian, with whom we can examine how appropriation of blackness creates beauty standards that elevate white women, but degrades black women. And why focus on Mars so much when someone like G-Eazy is wandering around stages aimlessly telling Cardi B, “fuck with me and get some money?” Is it because no one cares about G-Eazy and it’s easier to get attention when you bring up the Mars debate again? Probably.
Some people don’t like Mars, some people do. At this point, until Mars actually shows disrespect of black culture and stops working with actual black artists and honoring the people whose music has shaped his, we’ll have to agree to disagree.