Appropriation: My Problem with Pharrell’s Feathers

I’m not going to keep you long, saints. I just have a minute or ten to ramble on an issue that has been nagging at me for the last few days since I saw this image:

pharrell-williams-angers-fans-after-sporting-indian-headgear-on-magazine-cover

My first thought was “What the heck! Where’s his hat?” Then I wondered what kind of statement he was trying to make. Then I moved on.

Oh, no. Contrary to what my title may suggest, I actually don’t have a problem with Pharrell in Native American headdress. Pharrell is an “African American”, which means we really can’t be sure of what Pharrell really is.

Earlier this year I wrote a weekl-ong series entitled Is Bi-racial Still Black?  in which I explored the concept of color and how we view and experience blackness in our society. In that time, I discovered that one of my in-laws who goes by the nickname ‘Snipper’, was a quarter Native American. His father, born in Chillicothe, Ohio to Native American and Irish parents, was not permitted to marry a White woman because he was not fully White. By virtue of the law, he had to marry outside of the White race.

When you look at Snipper today, you can tell he has “something” in him, but he identifies as Black…end of discussion. And when you look at Pharrell, you can definitely tell he’s got a lot of mix going on in there, but we lazily define him as Black for the sake of our neat little boxes. Could it be that Pharrell, who hails from the Tidewater Area in Virginia where for eons there was a large Native American presence, could also have a significant amount of Native American DNA floating around in his cellular structure?

I think it’s very plausible.

One of the big words in our culture today is “appropriation”. People, both in academia and semi-intelligent circles, like to throw it out when they feel that art or intellectual property has been used in a way that doesn’t benefit or recognize them directly.

Webster defines appropriation as:

 To take (something) for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission. “His images have been appropriated by advertisers”

Synonyms: seize, commandeer, expropriate, annex, arrogate, sequestrate, sequester, take over, hijack, steal, take, plagiarize, copy.

Eminem, Justin Bieber, Lorde and now most recently, Pharrell, have all be accused of appropriating a culture that does not belong to them. But if we go by the truest definition of this term, I believe this is an unfair accusation. Eminem grew up poor and in the ghetto with a bunch of Black guys. That’s the only culture and existence he knew. Biebs didn’t “steal” anything – he was given full permission AND developed by Usher (another Black guy) to sing and perform in the manner in which he does. Lorde is Australian, so she doesn’t really have a culture of her own. She’s a bad example. And with Pharrell, we just don’t know what he is without a conclusive DNA test so at best we can only assume he’s “guilty of appropriation”… and assumptions do not facts make.

vic sec featherSo that’s my big question: who gets to be what in our world today? People for the large part like to color other people inside the lines and keep them in the confines of what they understand, which is in itself a very tedious exercise. All that judging and categorization has to take a toll on you. In regards to Pharrell and his feathery headdress, I’m more compelled to wonder what kind of statement was he trying to make with that adornment? Unlike the Victoria’s Secret debacle in which a model went stomping down the runway in full Native American head gear, leopard skin panties and a diamond cuff (none of which has any cultural cohesion), Pharrell may have had a more thoughtful (and less offensive) reason for wearing the headdress. After all, if the war bonnet is regalia used to honor chiefs who have done great battle and vanquished their enemies, does Pharrell’s status in pop culture not apply? Has he not vanquished many a sad day with his song Happy? Has he not overcome the inferior circumstances of his birth through his talent? Is he worthy of wearing the Native American war bonnet?

I wish he’d hurry and publish the results of his DNA so we could put this to rest! And Pharrell, if you’re reading this, I’m in your corner. I don’t feel that you have anything to apologize for. Nothing you will ever do can be as offensive as this.

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