Bruno Mars has been in the news the past couple of days. And not from a headlining performance or a controversial interview — but, of course, a viral Twitter moment.
The brouhaha began last Thursday, when an episode about Bruno Mars on The Grapevine, a panel-style web series that explores issues amongst Black millenials, went viral, mostly thanks to a clip of an opinion from writer and activist Seren Sensei.
“Bruno Mars 100% is a cultural appropriator. He is not black, at all, and he plays up his racial ambiguity to cross genres,” Sensei said. “What Bruno Mars does is he takes pre-existing work and he just completely, word-for-word recreates it, extrapolates it. He does not change it it, he does not improve upon it, he does not make it better. He’s a karaoke singer, he’s a wedding singer, he’s the person you hire to do Michael Jackson and Prince covers. Yet, Bruno Mars has an Album of the Year Grammy and Prince never won an Album of the Year Grammy. Bruno Mars got that Grammy because white people love him because he’s not Black, period. The issue is we want our Black culture from non-Black bodies, and Bruno Mars is like, I’ll give it to you.”
I agree with Sensei on two points, and, let me be clear here — these are just my opinions. One, yes, Mars has definitely benefited from his racial ambiguity. There’s no denying that the more ambiguous an artist is, the more easily they are able to cross boundaries and genres — just look at the success of everyone from Drake to Dwayne Johnson. So yes, Bruno Mars’ light skin and curly hair might make him more easily accepted by the masses than, say, someone like Usher (though he himself has won a few Grammys; none for Album of the Year, however), so I also agree when she says that the mainstream prefers Black music to come from non-Black — or ambiguous — bodies. Though I’d like to point out that Sensei’s main points of reference and comparison for her points were Prince and Michael Jackson. One could argue that Prince, too, was racially ambiguous, the light-skinned product of a Black father and white mother. And we know that unfortunately, when Jackson began to reach the height of his fame, he, too, was physically appearing more and more racially ambiguous over time.
Still, the fact remains that both Jackson and Prince are actually Black artists, and Mars is not. And while I love Mars — I should even perhaps include the disclaimer here that I am a not-so-lowkey Bruno Mars stan — I would never put him in the same category as either of the aforementioned legends. It is indeed beyond a shame that Jackson only won one Album of the Year Grammy, for Thriller, and that Prince earned none in his lifetime. (That Purple Rain didn’t win Album Of The Year in 1985 is still a travesty.)
But cultural appropriation is defined — by the Cambridge Dictionary, but also generally in society — as “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.” It’s by that definition that I don’t believe we can call Bruno Mars a cultural appropriator. No, he is not Black. But his father is Puerto Rican, and his mother is Filipina. Now, neither of those backgrounds give him a pass on cultural appropriation, but Black, Latino, and Asian cultures have long been influenced by one another. And that’s what brings us to the understanding and respect of the culture aspect.
Mars has stated that the sounds he brings to life are inspired by the music he grew up on; his father was a performer, a fan of doo-wop who played 1950’s rock n’ roll and Little Richard numbers. His mother was a singer and dancer, and he grew up listening to music from the doo-wop and Motown eras and genres. And any similarities between his work and other artists’ are not by mistake. His many James Brown tributes make it clear that his slick footwork and splits are influenced by Brown — moves he’s been hitting since the age of 4, when he was a young dancer and artist impersonator in Hawaii. (Don’t believe me? Do yourself a favor and watch a little baby Bruno Mars dancing.) And Mars’ Prince tribute at the 2017 Grammys was widely acclaimed for both his talent and his reverential attention to detail, thanks his Purple Rain-esque guitar, eyeliner, and support from Prince’s own beloved musical partner and friend, Sheila E. And that recent music video to the catchy remix of “Finesse” featuring a colorful, baggy, ’90s-style look straight out of In Living Color? Mars ends the clip with the words “Dedicated to In Living Color. “
In his recent Latina magazine cover story, he even addressed any accusations of cultural appropriation head on: “When you say ‘Black music,’ understand that you are talking about rock, jazz, R&B, reggae, funk, doo-wop, hip-hop, and Motown,” he told the magazine. “Black people created it all. Being Puerto Rican, even salsa music stems back to the Motherland [Africa]. So, in my world, Black music means everything. It’s what gives America its swag.”
A few celebrities have come to Mars’ defense so far, from Rapsody to Charlie Wilson and producer 9th Wonder:
Keep making that funky ish, @BrunoMars!!!! Do you always ❤️🌹
— Rapsody (@rapsody) March 10, 2018
So is it Bruno Mars fault that…he was influenced by BabyFace, Teddy Riley, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis…around the same time from a hip-hop side I was influenced by DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and The Beatminerz? This is a Sociology study on influence and exposure….
— 9th Wonder (@9thwonder) March 12, 2018
— Charlie Wilson (@ImCharlieWilson) March 9, 2018
All of that said, I believe Mars is the least of pop music’s problems when it comes to cultural appropriation. There are artists out there like Miley Cyrus, Iggy Azalea, Katy Perry, and even Justin Timberlake (sorry, boo) who often “borrow” (read: steal) from Black music, style, and culture without giving credit where credit is due. You know, the “without showing that you understand or respect this culture” part of the cultural appropriation definition. So why the sudden barrage of hatred toward Mars, who has always credited his influences and simply aims to create music that everyone can enjoy?
Unfortunately, many artists over time have unfairly profited from Black music, and Black culture is never given proper credit, whether it’s in the history books or on social media. So I commend the The Grapevine for raising this question. But on this one, I’m on Mars’ side. Whether it’s “Uptown Funk” or “24K Magic,” the reality is that Mars is an artist who crosses boundaries and genres seamlessly. And that’s because he has, respectfully, figured out a way to create music that’s as influenced and inspired as it is danceable. Who can be mad at someone who gives props to his predecessors while also making us dance and forget our problems — if even just for a few minutes?
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