The Risk of Appropriation and Inappropriateness

The copy of Whistle Down the Wind that I bought from the HMV bricks and mortar store.

My sweetie, Zoe Mulford, is white. I’m at least half white (depending how you count my Iranian father). We both grew up with a fairly high socio-economic status and we retain a big ole chunk of that. We can afford for Zoe to be a full time musician with essentially zero net income (or, properly accounted, negative, as we subsidize her work from the household income). There was a point where this was challenging on our joint income (though we always had family and friends to help out…which makes a huge difference) but we’re pretty well off now. Our household income is well in excess of the median for the UK.

So we are very very privileged on a world scale and even on a US/UK scale.

Zoe is a folk musician…a singer-songwriter. I believe that she’s is very very good. (This isn’t too surprising, given my relationship with her, but there’s plenty of other evidence thereof.) However, she is, to date, obscure. She has had a slowly rising profile, but it’s small. Having “The President Sang Amazing Grace” covered by Joan Baez is a big (potential) inflection point for her career. I’ve been obsessively tracking reviews and other events that mention Zoe’s song and there’s been a lot of good stuff. A lot. Way more (by volume, not necessarily intensity) than ever before.

We figured that if any song from Small Brown Birds would blow up at all, it’d be “The President Sang Amazing Grace”. We did a little prep for this (mostly making a video).

And this is great. I’m exhilarated and proud and excited. If you look at Zoe’s songbook, you’ll see this is no fluke. She deserves notice.

However, the song is about a tragedy and Obama’s response. That tragedy happened to black people because they were black. We’re benefiting indirectly from that tragedy. We will receive some money in terms of royalties. Zoe already gets some from sales of Small Brown Birds, but I expect that will be tiny compared to the royalty check…not that the royalty check will be huge. If it were to go gold, it might…might…yield tens of thousands of dollars (total). That would be really surprising as no Baez album since the 80s has gone gold. In today’s world of streaming etc. it seems very unlikely. While there’s a big (by our standards) publicity push, it’s not like her label is paying HMV to put Whistle Down the Wind on an endcap. Obviously, it’s still a pretty significant career boost, so that’s a benefit as well and a pretty significant one.

Note: I just went to HMV and Whistle Down the Wind does have special placement. I don’t know if I just missed it yesterday or they put it up after I was there. You can see in on the “New and Trending” wall.

Thus, we have to deal with issues of appropriation and inappropriateness.

The song came to Zoe, as many do. The election of Trump had just happened and she kept thinking about how we were going to miss the Obama’s in the White House. The contrast in policy and propriety between the Obama administration and the Trump could not be more dramatic. “The President Sang Amazing Grace” came out of that feeling of loss and dread. She was concerned about whether she had the right…or whether it was right…to write and record and perform this song. She consulted with various people who were positive, but we both can imagine other people who would not be. There is a case for it being, if not quite typical appropriation, of being inappropriate. There’s inherently some degree of standing over rather than standing with when people in our position benefit from our reactions to such events. There’s also some standing with!

One mitigation is to donate some chunk of the royalties (or beyond!) to Black Lives Matter (or similar groups; BLM is our first stop). That’s our current plan.

The best thing would be for history to change so the shooting never happened and that Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson survived that day as an ordinary, quiet day.

2 thoughts on “The Risk of Appropriation and Inappropriateness

  1. A lovely piece, Bijan. Thoughtful and thought provoking.

    I hope that the Joan Baez cover leads people to take a listen to Zoe’s version. I prefer Zoe’s.

    • Thanks! I realised that we hadn’t shared any of these deliberations and that it was important to.

      People are indeed finding their way to Zoe’s version! Hurray!

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