It’s that time of year again. If the “Acid Rap” blaring from dorm rooms is any indication, it seems like everyone’s been getting excited for the impending Spring Weekend of late. And rightly so; for the second year in a row, the BCA has demonstrated an uncanny ability to book artists who straddle the line between mainstream and genre music in not one, but three genres: electronic, hip-hop, and acoustic. This year’s electronic offering — Thomas Wesley Pentz, aka Diplo — brings both turntable skills to rival those of last year’s A-Trak and an accessible series of popular dance tunes, not to mention a string of remixes and production credits on projects ranging from southern hip-hop to Swedish synth-pop. His performance, much like that of fellow Friday performer Chance the Rapper, promises to be a genre-spanning experience for everyone visiting the Main Green on April 11. People will, and should, enjoy themselves at this concert.
But they should also bear in mind that Diplo’s music, in some ways, is not his.
To clarify: this piece is not intended to criticize Diplo, nor to defend him. It is not intended to make you feel guilty about attending the concert you’ve spent the past couple weeks anticipating, nor to convince those who have chosen not to attend that their objections are invalid. It’s not even intended as any set of guidelines on how you should approach Spring Weekend. It is intended as a reminder that, however skilled a musician and producer Diplo may be, his music is ultimately derived from cultures to which he does not belong.
To someone unversed in the racial politics of electronic music, the controversy surrounding Diplo and his label can often seem surprising, particularly when the DJ is often mentioned alongside former girlfriend and collaborator MIA (a rapper widely recognized for her genre-bending, stereotype-defying lyrics and production). But others have criticized what they see as Diplo’s general modus operandi: the use and widespread publicizing of niche sounds originating in poor communities across the developing world. Scholar Janell Hobson summarizes the issue in her book Body as Evidence: Mediating Race, Globalizing Gender: “While MIA is seen as someone who bridges the global North and South through her transnational fusions and ‘flexible citizenship,’ Diplo is instead labeled ‘a musical Columbus,’ traipsing around the globe and podcasting his various local musical ‘discoveries’ online.” Before you choose to agree or disagree with the criticism, it’s important to understand the ways in which his music is heavily dependent on the sound and influence of certain cultures, many of which originate in traditionally marginalized, impoverished communities.
In many ways, it makes sense. A native of the Southern US, Diplo has been heavily influenced by southern hip-hop (the confluence of which with electronic music would later create trap) from the beginning of his career. The practice of incorporating a wide variety of other genres originating in low-income urban areas — Brazilian Favela funk, New Orleans Bounce, and Jamaican dancehall — has since defined his music. Diplo’s interest in lesser-known genres eventually led to the creation of his Mad Decent label, which highlights a diverse array of artists from around the world. Most famously, his Major Lazer project, a collaboration with British DJ Switch, helped to bring dancehall (or an interpretation of it) to relatively mainstream listeners. The project (now minus Switch) has featured a large variety of prominent figures in Caribbean musical genres, including Vybz Kartel and Machel Montano. With those accomplishments to his name, some might even argue that his work is particularly commendable; through his projects, listeners across the world would otherwise never be exposed to the innovative and unique sub-genres on which his brand focuses. But others have argued the opposite.
Cultural appropriation is a complicated topic on which few people are qualified to speak authoritatively, least of all a white male like myself who wrote this post. The discussion gets even more complicated when debated in the context of a genre that is as inherently derivative as music, a medium in which borrowing and yes, appropriation from disadvantaged cultures, has historically birthed entire genres like rock and roll. As the Racialicious article acknowledges, “when identity politics are at play, the process gets muddier, particularly within a musical subculture that relies quite heavily on sampling, borrowing, lifting, and editing beats until they are damn near unrecognizable.
The fact that this phenomenon has occurred and continues to occur does not justify it, and historical examples do not necessarily apply in a world where widespread Internet connection and viral cultural trends are a part of daily life. Diplo is in many ways emblematic of a reality in which songs recorded in a cramped bedroom in a developing country can — and often do — reach the ears of millions of listeners across the globe within hours of their being uploaded. The practice of incorporating genres spawned in lower-income urban areas is dependent on precisely this sort of cultural globalization, where a touring artist like Diplo may be in Jamaica in the morning and DJ a London club that night. But in the transfer, and in some cases the appropriation, of culture and music, something may be lost.
But in the end, the issue really isn’t about Diplo, just as the controversy over Grammy-winning rapper Macklemore isn’t really about the artist so much as the widespread genre dilution he represents. Diplo is a skilled DJ, musician, and marketer. That’s precisely the reason why the audiences who enjoy listening to his music — including us Brown students this upcoming Friday — have an obligation to remember that what we are witnessing is a transplantation, an adaptation, and perhaps even a dilution of other, unique art forms originating in lower-income populations, many of them of color, that exist a world away from the comfortable bubble of College Hill.