Cultural Appropriation? Don’t Blame Bruno Mars, Blame The Industry (oh, and ourselves, too)

Once again, superstar singer/entertainer Bruno Mars is on the butt end of new criticisms accusing him of “appropriating” (i.e., copying without having true appreciation or understanding of) black culture for his own gain.

Bruno Mars

This latest barrage was likely spurred on by the success of his current single, the “In Living Color” tribute-paying remix of “Finesse” featuring rapper Cardi B, which this week returns to its No. 3 high mark on the Billboard Hot 100, plus his recent Grammy sweep in not only the Big Three categories (Record, Song and Album of the Year), but also in three of the big R&B categories for which his song (“That’s What I Like”) and album 24K Magic were nominated.

The harshest new criticism came via this YouTube clip from a very vocal 30-year-old activist named Seren Sensei, who accuses Mars of playing up his racial ambiguity and basically taking advantage of the fact that we (Americans) still want our black music, just not from black artists.

Not only did she fault Mars (and, by extension, white America for endorsing this double standard), but Sensei went as far as to say that even Michael Jackson would not be able to achieve the kind of success he did in the 1980s in today’s environment, implying, in short, that things have gotten just that bad for black artists today.

She adds that Mars received a Best Album Grammy for making the same kind of music that Prince used to make.

Except, Prince never won a Best Album Grammy for his.

Sensei’s argument echoed sentiment from veteran musical artist Meshell Ndegeocello (remember her?), who in a recent Billboard interview said the following about Mars:

“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.”

I don’t see the Jam & Lewis/Human League connection to Mars’ “Finesse” at all, but I guess Ndegeocello had to get a dig in somehow, even if it did come across as her simply rattling off names that Mars himself publicly thanked on the Grammy stage just six weeks ago…but I digress.

Meshell Ndegeocello had some pointed things to say about Bruno Mars’ music

At the center of all of this is Mars’ choice of musical style of late.

Ever since he scored with “Uptown Funk,” the mega-successful throwback-funk collaboration with Mark Bronson that wound up being 2015’s biggest chart hit (and itself a Record of the Year Grammy winner), Mars has leaned even more R&B/funk, particularly with the 24K Magic album and its three biggest singles: “Finesse,” the title track and the aforementioned “That’s What I Like,” which not only secured the key R&B Grammy wins but ranked as the No. 1 R&B Single on Billboard’s year-end tally last December.

Those accomplishments are understandably big deals in the R&B community and while they’re cause for celebration by many of Mars’ supporters, they haven’t necessarily sat well with several blacks who’ve likened Mars to a “culture vulture” that capitalizes off black music styles without fully understanding or appreciating their origins or adding anything original to the mix.

It’s that last part – not adding anything new to the mix – that reduces Mars to being labeled as “karaoke” in Sensei’s and Ndegeocello’s critiques, making his crime far worse than merely being “influenced” by funk’s black ancestors.

Oh, and did I mention that Mars is not African-American (he’s half Puerto Rican and half Filipino)?  It’s that racial background – in the minds of his accusers – that gives him very little right to make such historically black music, much less that he be mega-successful with it.

Well guess what, folks?  It’s not the player you should be hating, it’s the game.  Your hatred of Mars is misplaced at best, even unfounded when you get down to it.

Ndegeocello, on the one hand, was just parroting other recent criticisms of Mars, in essence doing what she accuses Mars of doing with his music.  So we’ll ignore her commentary for the moment.

As for Sensei, well at least she makes some good points – very good ones, in fact – in her video. For instance, she’s correct that there is a double standard when it comes to black music and non-black artists in the white-run American music industry.

And, quite frankly, she got most of her historical facts right when recalling how people in high places had to push (actually issue threats) for Michael Jackson to get MTV exposure before it actually happened in 1983, a push she says – and I’m paraphrasing – wouldn’t happen today because the burning platform isn’t there.  The most recent evidence of this is that R&B/hip-hop music overtook rock as the most consumed music form for the first time in 2017 – something Sensei also accurately points out – and this gives blacks a false sense of having arrived, eliminating the need for a Thriller-like threat from record executives in today’s world.

In other words, the fight just isn’t there anymore as black musicians are getting their paper in other ways now that the pioneers of funk were not back in their day.

Yet even if she or Mars’ other haters (yes, Sensei begins the video by saying she “hates Bruno Mars”) have a legitimate argument about his brand of funk music, is he really where the blame should be placed?

If anything, shouldn’t true funk music lovers be glad that anybody is making this type of music today, whether they be black or white…or in Mars’ case, neither?

Or should it just be left to die?

Why do we have to assume the worst about a person because he chooses to make music that clearly influenced him?

Think about it? Who else is keeping retro-’70s and ’80s funk alive in this day and age? What black musicians, besides maybe Anderson Paak or Childish Gambino, are doing it?

In fact, what other black artists are even being given the chance?

Today, trap-music or hip-hop artists make up more than 90% of the blacks that populate the Billboard Hot 100, and to an equally monotonous extent the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs charts. That’s been the case for what seems like years now.

And while the level of commercial success of these artists is unprecedented – primarily due to the advent of online streaming and its recent factoring into Billboard’s chart positions and the artists’ revenue statements – its success has sadly not been extended to other styles of R&B or black music in general.

For the most part, more traditional sounding R&B artists have been left out of the mix, many of them relegated to the Adult R&B format – or a spattering of radio stations across the country with much smaller listening audiences whose formats include a mix of current R&B/neo-Soul and old-school hits.

The aforementioned Anderson Paak and Childish Gambino have had some successes, but Americans have  voted with their wallets and decided that Future, Drake, Migos and others like them are this generation’s black music ambassadors.

The truth is this music industry has never fully appreciated the “funk” part of R&B when it was recorded by African-American artists…definitely not to the level that Mars has taken it in recent years. When the funk pioneers that Mars has been accused of “copying” were doing their thing, mainstream pop radio certainly didn’t embrace it…at least not initially and certainly never fully.

Mars gave a dead-on tribute performance of Prince at the 2017 Grammys.

Artists like Sly & The Family Stone, Prince and James Brown crossed over with some of their funk-leaning hits, but it wasn’t easy and it certainly wasn’t career spanning.

In Sly’s case, his short-lived success was the result of a tumultuous ’60s decade that left Americans primed for his messages of interracial love, acceptance and family as the 1960s turned to the ‘70s.  James Brown never really had that huge “pop” hit that screamed crossover, despite reaching the Hot 100 chart more times than any other solo singer besides Elvis Presley at the time.

And in Prince’s case, his biggest successes came post-Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and even then he had to make his songs more pop-friendly (a-la “When Doves Cry,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Raspberry Beret,” “Kiss,” etc.) to get pop chart-toppers.  Once he abandoned radio-accepted pop in the mid-1990s to make funk music truer to his roots, he never saw top-40 success again.

Those artists were also the exception and not the rule. Pure (non-pop) funk artists like George Clinton (and his P-Funk hybrid Parliament/Funkadelic), the Gap Band, Cameo, Rick James, Bar-kays, Fatback and many others had to scrape to get pop airplay, despite  the fact that their records were selling decently in black communities.

The Gap Band is one of the ‘80s acts Bruno Mars has been accused of copying.

Even if you don’t limit this discussion to “funk,” Mars isn’t the first non-black artist to have success with African-American musical styles. White artists have done it since the beginning of the modern era of music. From Elvis and Buddy Holly to the Four Seasons, and from the Beatles and Stones to Herb Alpert, Tom Jones and Dusty Springfield and beyond, white musicians have copied black music for their commercial gains.

Fast forward to now, and you have artists like Justin Timberlake, Adele, Sam Smith and Mars (not to mention countless white rappers) who are now under the same scrutiny.

But the thing is, Mars now has the most glaring spotlight, turned up by his recent Grammy wins (and even Monday’s breaking news that he just surpassed R&B singer Usher as the male singer with the most No. 1 songs on the Billboard Radio Songs chart with “Finesse” giving him eight total).

But Mars, unlike the others, is not white. And even if he were, his funk brand is clearly filling a void left by the industry and by association, today’s black musicians, despite the still-existing demand for it.

Oh, and to suggest that Mars should abandon what he’s been doing for years and make something other than R&B/funk is also ludicrous.  Even before “Uptown Funk,” Mars leaned more R&B than pop, with songs like “Grenade,” “Locked Out of Heaven” and “Treasure” all having an R&B flavor to them.

Should he now “whiten” his music or change to a more rock-oriented sound?  Yeah, I’m sure that would really go over well in the rock community.  How often in the past have rock formats embraced artists of color, which Mars still is, by the way, into their radio formats?

The bottom line is we should just leave Mars alone.  He has already given his influences credit where it’s due. He gave songwriting credits to the writers of Gap Band’s “I Don’t Believe You Wanna Get Up And Dance (Oops Upside Your Head)” for its alleged similarity to “Uptown Funk” (a sonic connection I still haven’t made three years later).  He also paid homage to early black producers like Teddy Riley, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis and Babyface during his recent Grammy acceptance speech.

Whether you consider his sentiment genuine or not, those were his words (and his actions in the Gap Band’s case), and that’s all a man has to go on these days.  And if former Gap Band front man, Charlie Wilson, who recently came to Mars’ defense – can appreciate Mars’ sentiment, certainly we should be able to do so.

Soul music legend Charlie Wilson has given Mars his blessing – an endorsement that’s about as legit as it gets.

It’s one thing to dislike Mars’ music on its own merits.  I, for one, never got into the whole “Uptown Funk” thing, and I think “Finesse” represents little to no growth for the artist who may have dipped in the retro-funk well once too often with that latest hit.

But to say Mars is “appropriating” black culture is a convenient accusation at best, given his current white-hot spotlight.   It also ignores some basic environmental facts…like it’s the industry’s powers-that-be, and not Mars, who’ve apparently decided that he is the only one capable of peddling funk music in the 2010s.

Otherwise, there’d be at least a few more out there doing it…and having as much or at least even a fraction of the success Mars is having with it.

The way I see it, his situation is no different from the way it’s always been in the American music industry…and it’s not Mars’ fault.

No, the blame lies squarely with the music industry, and with its consumers who continually feed that beast.

So until someone else comes along, if we really do want the funk, Bruno Mars will have to keep giving it up to us for now.

Either that or you can always pull out some of those old records and play some funk of your own.

Right now, that’s the only viable alternative the industry gave you.