He speaks Zulu, dresses like a Skhothane and calls himself Pule. Except, he is a white boy that was born into a Scotttish family and his name is Nicolas Richard Holmes Welch.
She wears a bubu, claims to only eat fufu and egusi while speaking in her distinctly Nigerian accent but her name is Kelebogile and she was born and raised in Mafikeng where she grew up eating pap, morogo and mgodu.
He sounds like a frat boy from the posh suburbs of Cape Town and he never leaves the house without spiking up his hair. Dubstep, acid jazz and death metal are his favourite genre of music except his name is not Luke, it’s Lukhanyo. Born and raised in Mdantsane in the Eastern Cape according to Xhosa customs, he lives a completely different life every semester on campus.
Zulu wedding attire in their engagement announcement photo, Xhosa attire at the bridal shower and traditional Zambian pre-wedding customs for a Zambian woman and her Chinese fiancé.
Such scenarios form snapshots of a world in which globalization has disseminated and diluted the cultures and sub-cultures that define who we are, allowing others to borrow parts of our identity in order to form their own all in the name of “individuality.”
Celebrities, fashion houses and bloggers stand alongside globalization as some of the biggest drivers of appropriation. These drivers blab on about the idea of being “different” through pushing the movement of self-expression according to the parameters that they set. People who really are different however, can only be accepted into the mainstream fold once the fashion ’gods’ decide that who they are is grand enough to be sold as the newest trend. Wearing a Native American headdress has become “just so fetch darling” and that traditional Sotho blanket makes for such avant garde Louis Vuitton coutoure.
Looking into the past or beyond the borders of where they live for something new is all part of the process. Through globalization, the internet remains the number one source for all their “influences and references.” What these people basically do is use or reuse the designs, colours and moods of a pre-existing way of life. Sometimes, they even go so far as to market and sell their food, music and customs. Whatever has existed as an unknown culture for centuries now becomes the latest ‘must-have’.
What counts as a culture can also include the hip-hop movement, punk rockers, emo kids, ama pantsula and the American club kids. They each have their own way of dressing and speaking, people that they idolize or consider as heroes and even their own dance styles or types of music linked to the way they identify themselves. Appropriation can also take the form of someone adopting a religion that they did not initially belong to JUST because someone they look up to has done it.
Previously “weird,” “unnatural,” “obscure” or even “unwanted” the nuances of our cultural and religious identities become coveted. It takes so many forms, happens at such a varied pace and can be severe or so subtle that we barely notice it at all.
Why did you sign up for that yoga class? What is yoga? Where did it originate and who was the first celebrity or glossy magazine that brought it to your attention? How much do you understand about it beyond the fact that it ‘relaxes’ you and gives you that hot body that you so desperately want to post on Instagram?
The hip-hop movement made its way to South African shores and transformed us into watered down Americans. Using words such as “finna,” which is actually a derivative of “fixing to” from slave English. Did you know that or do you just speak like that because of 50 Cent? The gang sub-culture is surprisingly not as prevalent in Gauteng but it is still a major part of life in the Western Cape. The biggest sign of our adoption of the hip-hop culture is our mass consumption of hip-hop’s favourite name brands (even when they aren’t the real thing). Trukfit, YMCMB, Timbaland boots, Nike AirMAX sneakers and Chuck Taylors are just some of the many brands that one would find in any hip-hop heads closet anywhere in South Africa. A few irate local rappers later and we have now started to push the ‘local’ hip-hop movement with it’s multitude of vernacular verses and virtuosos. But how can we localise something that originated and flourished an entire ocean away from here? The same goes for whatever lifestyle accompanies the various sub-genres of rock music.
We are encouraged to share in the experiences of the world but how do we do that in the face of appropriation? How do I share in the meaning of Zulu bead-work without offending the tribe? Highly affected by globalization, do any of us ever really own our identities?
Even with the resurgence of pride in our Africanness, how African can we be in the 21st Century? What does it mean to be African? Are you willing to move out of that cosy little home in your estate and leave your DSTV, internet and video games behind to go wear animal hyde and live in a hut all in the name of claiming your true identity?
At the end of it all, the only thing to say is that misunderstanding breeds contempt and referencing without crediting your source is stealing. The world will not end even if your identity is borrowed, the only problem is when that identity is rooted in ignorance.