In Defense of the Copycat

A South African friend who was a member of one of the first African hip hop groups to tour Europe, once told me that critics were really expecting them to incorporate a certain degree of traditional sounds (samples), dress (on stage and in videos) and dancing. If they failed to do so, they were often dismissed as copycats!
-- Juma4, from the article Modern African music and the wall of exotism on Africanhiphop.com (h/t Wayne)

The complaint against western music critics pushing, as it were, tradition onto African performers is a familiar and reasonable one, but there's something about the wording in the quote above that gets to me. Because I think a lot of us, even the most progressive, still have a problem with the concept of the copycat. However much we've deconstructed the contradictory concept of the authentic and nuanced the idea of cultural imperialism there's still a distinct tendency, one that I've displayed myself, to cling steadfastly to the aesthetic value of originality. We may have left axiomatic and traditional values behind, but we're still holding onto our neo-modernism.

In a world of fractured genre divisions this desired originality, often as not, is not the originality of the individual but of the scene, group or culture. So in Africa we happily accept kuduro and the aging kwaito, both of which have messed with foreign formulas, but generally turn a blind eye to equally popular and modern but much more US- or Jamaica-faithful genres like Nigerian hip-hop or Ugandan dancehall. The scene as a whole has to be interestingly different from all others for us to readily accept it. (This applies within the continent too - when did you last hear any Namibian kwaito, an extremely popular and successful offshoot?)

Is music that straightforwardly copies another style insteresting? I've been wavering on the issue as late as a couple of days ago, and I'm still not sure, but here are a couple of arguments for accepting completely faithful copies of another culture's music.

1) The idea of the culture as a homogenous entity is suspect and the resultant values are often muddled and hypocritical. It's really interesting to look at what is accepted as being "within a culture" (and therefore acceptable as continued development) and what's considered copying. Something as vast and varied as African-American culture is often looked at monolithically and as an almost essentialist entity, where blacks are considered as having a certain tradition and way of making music to live up to. A strain of music that starts off in Miami can unproblematically be transported to Seattle, 4500 km away, but should they cross the Florida straights into the Caribbean it's suddenly copycat music. There are related ideas of selling out, proper diasporadic music and so on that can be equally mixed-up.

2) Does it really matter? Maybe we should start assessing individual pieces of music outside context. Or assess them from other criteria than originality. Or assess them out of their value within a culture. Or perhaps, honestly, not assess them at all.

3) There might be a difference you are as yet not able to hear. The old axiom that rock "all sounds the same" to the jazz musician and vice versa holds true - you might just not be onto the difference yet, so give the supposed copycat another chance. The first time I heard bongo flava I thought it sounded just like American hip-hop, but over time I've managed to pick up the differences in rhythm, mixing and harmony that make the style unique.

4) Things will change. Music is not static and does not readily form into singular structures. If you keep following a scene it will inevitably develop its own quirks if that's what you're after. For one, the idea of the "copycat" resonates within communities too, and there's a strong push to express identity through music. But even if conscious modification is not present, music always splits off and evolves as musicians grow tired of old sounds and "misuse" influences. The whole Jamaican music industry with its incredible vibrancy started off as a copycat of southern US R&B, but quickly evolved and changed. Baile funk was as late as the mid-nineties basically Miami bass. Leave the copycats alone, they can often surprise you eventually.


Anonymous said...

I think your right as far as taking this by a case by case basis. There are definitely problematic copies out there, not based on aesthetic. Like copying an original idea, and presenting it as original to the copier. I think that would be my opposition to copying, but aesthetically no tanto.

I've seen this explicitly in individuals, but one subtler instance would be when I visit "conscious hip hop" circles around the world, and including locally who claim that their certain expression of that art (a copy of Tribe, Black Star, Common, Rawkus heyday) is the essence of the genre, but have lost individual fire breathing dragoness (originality).

That said I tend to really enjoy things like Angolan Coupe Decale, Mozambican Kwaito, and Colombain Champeta, or Even German Dancehall, but my tastes are not entirely suited to European Baltimore Club. I'm not sure why, and maybe I should stop hating ;).

Birdseed said...

The thing about the conscious hip-hop is very interesting. There are a number of such "international styles" like trance and indie rock that seem to elude copycat accusations.

My pet theory on this (unsurprisingly) involves class. The upwardly mobile portion of a population seems inclined to be more cosmopolitan and detached from their locality. The image of the universal and international seems very strong with the middle classes...

Gavin said...

It doesn't help that critics are more likely to focus on the "scenius" aspect of local musics instead of any individual creative producers -- adding "Ugandan dancehall" as another proud badge of their cosmopolitan tastes instead of treating the artists as individuals (and as human beings). I would much rather read about which Ugandan dancehall artists are really bringing it, what are the hot tracks, than another shallow article about "Exotic Place Familiar Genre."

Birdseed said...

Well, I've previously tried to problematise my own relationship to sceniusness and I do think there needs to be a greater depth to articles and better research standards.

But I'm not so sure I'd be willing to let go of the scene as a basis for writing about it. It seems to me (with a philosophy background) that it'd be difficult to logically sustain using the standards of our own culture to judge the musical output of another. I think I might have to do an "aesthetic relativism" post at some point and explain more properly what I mean.

Anonymous said...

i love words from school playgroundtime:

"Copy cat from Ballarat,
Went to school and got the strap,
Came home with a broken back"

i agree with your 4 points/questions, but especially #2B, which gets to the more important question of goodcat or badcat?

and if its any indication, the first known usage of the word is from 1896: "I ain’t heard of a copy-cat this great many years..," in S. O. Jewett's "Country of Pointed Firs."

Anonymous said...

I love the word "scenius" and I think the point is well made that individual genius may be ignored a foreign. And true, reward often goes with individual recognition, so just talking about scenes can systematically deprive people and regions.

But I'm not willing to give up on the concept of social creativity and the battle against the romantic concept of the author. Especially because it is the current, individualist copyright business model that sets up rewards in that way. Must we roll over on that one and cede the field to the individualists and the commodifiers? (not to sound too romantic). my own PDF salvo (which fires on both sides at once) is Chander and Sunder's _The Romance of the Public Domain_ http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=562301 )

Birdseed said...

CC- Like I said in the previous comment I'm not sure you can totally discount the opinions of the people making the music (or listening to the music in direct connection) in this case. Many of them will want to have their say on whether something is a good or bad copy. We can afford to be distanced, but they're part of the social game, and I've got a difficulty to think of any non-conservative music genre where innovation is not considered a positive by the people involved. (That's probably a truism.)

Larisa - You're definitely right that it's a tricky thing to parse. I'll be reading that PDF as soon as I have time.

Anonymous said...

Hej Johan,
(or should i write Hey Johan)

Jag hamnade på din musikblogg när jag surfade runt lite, och hittar mycket alltmöjligt trevligt här. Ditt musikintresse verkar inte ha falnat :) Hur är det förresten att studera musicology? Låter i a f spännande. Men jag skulle inte orka teoretisera så mycket kring musik, tror jag..
Många hälsningar,
Susanna Mäntysaari, Vasa

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