It is an argument that has persisted for years. Recently, it was reignited when British singer-songwriter Adele took to Instagram to mark 2020’s canceled Notting Hill Carnival. She was not the only celebrity to remember Carnival by posting on social media, but she was the only one that elicited serious controversy. Adele’s Instagram post garnered a considerable amount of attention, both from those lavishing praise and those leveling criticism.
In the photo, Adele is sporting some acid wash leggings, a Jamaican flag bikini top, and has her hair tied in bantu knots. Aspects of an outfit you would certainly come across at one of London’s most celebrated and enduring cultural events, an event that has always had Jamaican culture at its heart.
To critics, Adele represented another wealthy caucasian woman stereotyping and taking advantage of Jamaican culture. Many members of the Twittersphere criticized Adele for cultural appropriation, with at least one calling for Adele to be jailed without parole. Journalist Ernest Owens went far enough to say: “Adele is giving us Bantu knots and cultural appropriation that nobody asked for”. He went on to write that he hated to see it. On the other side of the argument, many came to the defense of Adele, saying that the intense criticism is hugely uncalled for. Members of parliament- such as David Lammy MP- plus other notable figures- such as model Naomi Campbell- argued that Adele was raised in multicultural areas of London, such as Tottenham and Brixton, and is therefore aware of the cultural significance that her choice of outfit holds.
Lammy tweeted the following: “Poppycock! This humbug totally misses the spirit of Notting Hill Carnival and the tradition of “dress up” or “masquerade” Adele was born and raised in Tottenham she gets it more than most. Thank you, Adele. Forget the Haters.”
He suggested that because she has been surrounded by African and Caribbean cultures from a young age, she should be able to show her appreciation by dressing as she did. A number of commentators have labeled those assassinating Adele’s character as cynical and misguided. Many with Black and Caribbean backgrounds, such as Alexandra Burke, showed their support by praising her appearance.
What is the difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation?
According to Preemptive Love, cultural appreciation is shown when someone earnestly seeks to learn about or explore other cultures. Listening, learning, striving to understand, and seeking to honor its beliefs and traditions. Essentially, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” but with authenticity and a genuine view towards bridging cultural divides. This can be seen in numerous cases, for example, interracial relationships, expatriates’ lifestyles, etc.
However, cultural appropriation is the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, without showing understanding or respect for that culture. In some cases, people have included the notion of taking elements of another culture to profit or benefit from them in some way. A person picking and choosing parts of a culture for their own personal interest or gain. Author Suarav Dutt sees cultural appropriation as the act of taking a culture with the intent of mocking or demeaning it. YouTube personality Francesca Ramsay describes it as: “taking a test and getting an A. And then someone else copies off your test and gets an A-plus extra credit.” Appropriation is also often linked to the idea that a minority culture could be taken advantage of by a majority culture.
The Bantu knots themselves stem from many different African cultures. You can find them across all parts of Africa. For example among the Ekoi/Ejagham people of Nigeria, in Ghana, in Southern Africa, and even in the East. They are not explicitly a Jamaican hairstyle, though many cultures including African American and the Caribbean can have roots based in Africa. The Bantu knots are often used as a protective style for afro-textured hair. Some may use this to suggest Adele was appropriating culture by wearing her hair in bantu knots without understanding this aspect of their history. At the same time, the hairstyle is always being reinvented.
Adele does not represent the first time that a reputable person’s actions put social media into a frenzy in relation to the cultural appropriation versus cultural appreciation debate. Khloe Kardashian has been accused of cultural appropriation numerous times. Just last year, Kim Kardashian dropped Kimono as an underwear brand name when she faced a backlash from the Japanese public, including the kimono-loving mayor of Kyoto, Daisaku Kadokawa. In 2018, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Bollywood-style costume was seen at Diwali celebrations.
Across the UK, there are numerous migrant communities with varying backgrounds and immigration statuses. Some members of these communities are long-standing, while others are without citizenship. In varying instances, for example in the workplace, they face various levels of bias and racial inequalities. For years, women of black backgrounds would be deemed unprofessional for keeping their hair natural, mostly due to standards of professionalism being based on European features and mannerisms. This has meant that people who fall outside those norms can easily be slighted and prevented from progress.
The problem is that it is difficult to draw a clear line as to where cultural appreciation ends and cultural appropriation begins. It may be clearer in an instant like Kim Kardashian’s Kimono underwear line where a country rises in anger, but in Adele’s case, it will never be clear-cut. Lammy’s argument to some degree has merit. People are married to members of other backgrounds, they attend festivals, and partake in cultural activities all the time. At the same time, people use culture for their own personal gains. The most important thing is that we have multicultural societies. It would lead to a greater melting-pot if people would continue to understand and learn about each other’s backgrounds and cultures with sincerity.
Athiei Ajuong is a writer for the Immigration Advice Service, a legal organization that helps undocumented migrants to regulate their legal status.