Bruno Mars, George Michael and the 'Cultural Appropriation' Tipping Point: Critic's Take

Bruno Mars was a fixture atop Twitter’s trending topics this past week, and it wasn’t because of a new single or video. Mars, for what felt like the umpteenth time, was at the center of a raging debate about cultural appropriation, Black music and authenticity.

Mars has become one of the more polarizing artists in contemporary pop, ever since the singer-songwriter refashioned his shiny brand of pop into a retro-funk and new jack swing amalgamation, and especially since his 24K Magic LP took home album of the year at the 2018 Grammys in February. He’s become an artist that many flat-out love -- and that so many others just flat-out hate, for reasons that have little to do with his ability, or lack thereof.

The latest round of Bruno Hate was kicked off by a pointed but fairly innocuous Meshell Ndegeocello comment about the star. While promoting her upcoming covers album Ventriloquism, the acclaimed singer/bassist spoke to Billboard and offered this take on Mars’ sound:

“What he’s doing is karaoke, basically. With ‘Finesse,’ in particular, I think he was simply copying Bell Biv DeVoe. I think he was copying Babyface. And definitely there were some elements of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis back when they worked with Human League. I feel like there’s just all these threads running through there but not in a genuine way.”

When asked about the difference between “karaoke” and artistic interpretation, Ndegeocello clarified:

“It’s really a matter of musicality and being able to manipulate the tropes in a way that makes it feel personal... It can’t just be a pastiche, where you’re copying or mimicking an old sound or just doing karaoke. There has to be a form of sincerity.”

That’s been a common critique of Bruno Mars for the past few years -- that he’s a mimic. But that aspersion in and of itself isn’t all that damning; famed retro rocker Lenny Kravitz was dismissed similarly 25 years ago by rock critics that thought he was aping Hendrix, the Beatles, Prince and Sly Stone without bringing anything original to the proceedings. And while evaluating someone for their “sincerity” and how “genuine” they are, from the outside looking in, is highly questionable -- there’s no reason to assume that Mars or anyone else is making music for cynical purposes -- what Ndegeocello said wasn’t exactly an indictment of Mars’ character.

But that was just the spark. Once the Internet’s cadre of Mars disparagers were made aware of the interview, it reignited the adjacent criticism that has long dogged Bruno Mars: that he’s a “culture vulture," an appropriator looking to gain fame and accolades by stealing from Black artists who have done such music far better than he ever could. Later in the week, a clip from an episode of the YouTube panel series The Grapevine, in which 30-year-old activist Seren Sensei slammed Mars for appropriation, went viral--leading to some cheers but mostly a whole lot of criticism of Sensei's argument.

"Bruno Mars 100 percent is a cultural appropriator,” Sensei says in the video. “He is not Black, at all, and he plays up his racial ambiguity to cross genres.” She elaborates; saying that Michael Jackson would suffer today because of artists like Mars.

"I don't even think that Michael Jackson in this day and age would be able to get to the point that he got to previously,” she offers. “Because people have realized that they prefer their black music and their black culture from a non-black face… We have artists now that are much more willing to step into ‘Black genres’ who were not willing to--they didn’t want to do it, Black music was seen a certain type of way.”

Sensei’s take is ahistorical, in that she presupposes that appropriation is now more prevalent and prominent than ever. White folks making Black music is not a new phenomenon. At the height of Michael Jackson’s popularity, there were several white artists whose music was blatantly influenced by Black music and artists. Daryl Hall and John Oates shot to the top of the charts with a mix of soul and pop that was more or less an MTV-era version of the sound coming out of Philadelphia in the ‘70s (a sound that most obviously influenced their own charting hits from that decade); much like Michael Jackson, Prince and Lionel Richie merged soul and pop in the 1980s. Madonna’s early hits were so R&B-flavored that singles like “Borderline” were played on Black radio, and some early fans initially didn’t know she was white. White rappers the Beastie Boys had the best-selling hip-hop album of the 1980s. In 1990, Vanilla Ice sold 10 million copies of To The Extreme.

George Michael’s late ’80s solo breakthrough was particularly telling. Michael’s blockbuster Faith album was also promoted heavily on Black radio because most of his singles -- particularly “Father Figure” and “One More Try” -- were more or less R&B. Prior to his solo career, several of his hits with Wham! (“Careless Whisper,” “Everything She Wants”) had gotten similar treatment. Then in 1989, Faith won the Grammy for album of the year. He would also take best R&B artist (beating Michael Jackson and Bobby Brown) and favorite R&B album (beating Keith Sweat and Gladys Knight) at the 1989 American Music Awards. The latter victory prompted Knight to criticize Michael.

"The black male artist works very hard to get his due," Gladys Knight said in a 1990 interview, featured in Michael’s appearance on The South Bank Show that same year. " If [Bobby Brown] could compete in the same category George Michael competes in, that would be a whole 'nother thing."

The criticism of Michael at the time led to the singer taking a different musical approach with his second solo album, Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, in 1990. In Freedom, the posthumous Showtime documentary released in 2017, there is audio of Michael addressing the backlash. "I won these two awards that were traditionally received by Black artists, and I think there was a perception that it had gone too far," Michael said. "I see their point; I saw their point at the time. I just felt it was sad that white and black people recording together was dancing with the enemy.” Even Spike Lee and Public Enemy slammed the singer on the B-side of the group's landmark “Fight the Power” single. "I don't think there's any attempt to steal black heritage in what I'm doing," he stated in the 1990 South Bank Show feature. "All I think is happening is I'm trying to make good music."

Michael’s words echoed those of similar white artists who’d preceded him. Elvis Presley talked about his love of black music in a 1957 interview with Jet magazine: “Rock ‘n’ roll was here a long time before I came along,” he said from the set of Jailhouse Rock. “Nobody can sing that kind of music like colored people. Let’s face it; I can’t sing it like Fats Domino can. I know that. But I always liked that kind of music.”

For generations, Elvis Presley has been vilified as an underhanded thief as opposed to an artist making the music that moved him. That vilification has led to people assuming the worst about him -- that he’s a racist who said he only wanted Black people to “shine my shoes,” that he literally stole “Hound Dog” from Big Mama Thornton in 1956 and supposedly only paid her $500 -- and it led to perception becoming reality. But the shoe-shining story is apocryphal, and Mama didn’t write “Hound Dog,” and thus wouldn’t have gotten money from Elvis covering it four years later. And right now Bruno Mars is being refashioned as a villain, because people don’t know how to address the inequality and racism in the music industry that supports him without assuming that an artist they consider vacuous is making music with bad intent.

But making music without feeling has never been the same as making music without integrity.

We’ve reached a tipping point in the “cultural appropriation” conversation. It’s become knee-jerk and lacks nuance. When a prominent writer implies that Charlie Wilson is out of bounds for stepping in to defend Mars, it begs the question: what are you fighting for? Because if this is about celebrating the originators of an artform, how do you justify being disrespectful to one of funk’s living legends?

It’s not about celebrating those legends. It’s not about preserving anything. It’s about burning an artist you don’t like at the stake under the guise of faux intellectualism. White privilege is real, and so is cultural appropriation; Bruno Mars’ mixed ethnic heritage (his mother is Filipino, his father Puerto Rican) certainly doesn’t mean he’s incapable of participating in the latter. But when you ignore how much an artist has said about his influences; how much said artist clearly loves and reveres both what he does and who inspired him to do it; when that artist has composed/produced for black artists and made sure to introduce non-black audiences to his faves by shouting out Teddy Riley, Babyface (who spoke enthusiastically with Billboard about Mars, post-Grammys), and Jam & Lewis during his Grammys acceptance speech; you’re manufacturing a villain for your own agenda.

His critics will point to the lawsuits against “Uptown Funk,” Mars’ inescapable 2014 hit with Mark Ronson, as evidence that he is a thief. But there has been no such backlash against producer/songwriter Pharrell Williams, who famously lost a suit filed by the estate of Marvin Gaye against him and Robin Thicke for their hit “Blurred Lines” in 2015. In the 1990s, pop icon Janet Jackson was forced to pay an undisclosed sum to singer-songwriter Des’ree for Jackson’s 1997 hit “Got Til It’s Gone,” which borrowed from Des’ree’s 1992 song “Feel So High.” Jay-Z, Drake, Kanye West, Destiny’s Child and countless other beloved artists have been on the receiving end of such suits and had to pay money or share credit.

Meanwhile, some non-Black artists who “sound Black” have proven easier to love because their success never eclipsed their Black contemporaries or their Black influences. Bobby Caldwell, Teena Marie, Jon B, Nikka Costa -- there’s never been a time when they were disproportionately elevated by the mainstream. But an Elvis Presley or a George Michael -- and now, a Bruno Mars -- becomes a flashpoint largely because they are given a platform that too often is denied Black artists. That’s true regardless of how you feel about their music. And that’s true regardless of how much they love the music they make. That’s why despising and defaming Mars personally is unnecessary, and misplaced. There’s no evidence that his intentions aren’t pure; only that the industry is biased towards him.

So you don’t happen to like the music he makes. Which is fine. If you don’t like the sound, it stands to reason that wouldn’t change if he sold ten albums. But it doesn’t mean he’s the bad guy. If anything, it just means he makes bad music -- to you.