Blogbox | Culture

Cultural appropriation, but make it fashion

How ethnic Albanians are appropriating cultures in the music industry.

By - 18.05.2020

“You’re just jealous” and “your profile says you’re a feminist, so much for supporting other women!” — these comments have been thrown my way quite often whenever I speak out against problematic behaviour of women in general. It is true: I do identify with the “intersectional feminist” label, and yes, I am definitely all for rooting for other women, but simply being a woman does not mean you are exempt from accountability.

Being a feminist does not equal cheering on all women regardless of their ideas and actions, in particular when those ideas and actions further marginalize other women of already marginalized groups. Appropriating someone else’s culture is one of those things that can further marginalize people — and I believe it is time we start an open and honest conversation around how we ethnic Albanians have appropriated cultures that are not ours. 

Although this problem is most definitely not exclusive to (ethnic Albanian) women alone,and this article will discuss both male and female singers’ contribution to this, I did notice a more severe reaction when I made an attempt to discuss the problematic behaviour of Albanian female singers. 

Before we dive into the history of ethnic Albanians culturally appropriating, it is good to explain what is defined as cultural appropriation, as there are also ways for people to culturally appreciate something. Appreciation is shown by, for example, enjoying foods of a certain culture or by taking part in culturally significant events when invited by the oppressed group. Take for example Cliqme, a Swiss singer who learned the Albanian language and combines Afro beats with his songs sung in Albanian.

Diversely, we speak of cultural appropriation when someone from a dominant, oppressive group takes elements from a culture of people they have systematically and/or institutionally oppressed. In an ideal world, everyone would be able to enjoy cultures foreign to them without having to worry about the consequences thereof. 

But we do not live in an ideal world: we live in a world where white people have continuously, through colonialism and oppressive structures have attempted to mock — and at times, erase — cultures foreign to them.

It is not as black and white and there are many grey areas in between these lines, which makes listening to the oppressed group ever so important: the dominant group does not decide whether it showed appreciation for a culture of people they have oppressed, the oppressed group does. 

The oppressed as oppressors

The first time I was aware of ethnic Albanians that were culturally appropriating — without even knowing it was “a thing” — was when I heard an “Albanian” song with a beat to it that was definitely not Albanian. For some reason, I assumed it was Turkish, so I asked my dad why they chose Turkish music over traditional Albanian music. My dad said it was not Turkish, but Romani music.  

I was proper confused: ethnic Albanians in general did not like Romani people, that was made clear to me before I had ever even visited Kosovo (I was 10 when I first set foot in it), so I wondered why they had chosen Romani music to play in the background if we, as a people, did not like them. I asked this question to my dad, and again, he simply said: “They want to seem interesting, they think it sounds hip and cool and that this is the way to break through.” 

Using the music of a culture we continue to oppress to this day in an effort to look “cool”, “edgy”, and whatnot, is really not okay.

Thinking back on this conversation, having all the knowledge I have today as a 25-year-old, I find it interesting how my dad unknowingly partially explained cultural appropriation to me. I do not remember growing up and seeing Romani people being represented in the music industry as much as I saw their music being appropriated.  

Those artists who I did see are so “accepted” by the ethnic Albanian community that we conveniently forget they are from a minority group and simply label them as Albanian. It reminds me of how the country I grew up in, the Netherlands, only ever acknowledges us immigrants as “Dutch” when we do something “good”, but we get the “immigrant” label as soon as we draw outside the lines.  Using the music of a culture we have oppressed and continue to oppress to this day in an effort to look “cool”, “edgy”, and whatnot, is really not okay. 

In more recent years, the way we have culturally appropriated has taken many different forms. The first time I heard an ethnic Albanian person rap something in English — Lyrical Son in “Thong a thong” — I assumed that was simply the way an Albanian sounds when speaking English. Soon enough, I made the connection between that English and Jamaican-English when I listened to Jamaican artists Shaggy and Sean Paul — almost leading me to doubt the origin of these Albanian singers. 

Adapting the language of a country not only geographically, but also culturally so far away from us is not only cringe-worthy and awkward, it is also just weird and completely unnecessary. Why appropriate something you regard as a dialect all while using it grammatically incorrectly? Is it really like my dad said — to sound interesting, different, and to break through and to make big mo ney, all while profiting off other people’s cultures?

The Albanian music industry is quite competitive, and with new artists being born every single day, I understand the desperate need to stay original and authentic. Still, appropriating cultures on your road to success should not be the way to go — if only for the reason that it is far from being authentic and original. 

Another way we have culturally appropriated cultures is through hairstyles and overall aesthetic. I remember talking about international black artists with fellow Albanians and oftentimes, their hairstyles came up in the discussion. Their labelling of hairstyles that are historically significant for black people worldwide as “dirty”, “unprofessional”, and even “ghetto” was not unheard of. Again, growing up in the Netherlands, I had witnessed all these anti-black sentiments before. 

It was not until Era Istrefi — who, to my knowledge, was the first ethnic Albanian woman singer who wore locks —  made it in the music industry that black hairstyles started to appear more often in the Albanian music scene. It was also the very first time I started hearing positive things being said about locks. Suddenly, they were not “dirty” or “unprofessional” anymore — on the contrary, they were perceived as “interesting” and “cool”. 

Privilege checking is in order

This is precisely where the problem lies: when a person from an oppressed group practices something that is inherent to their culture, it is often ridiculed, mocked, or even simply hated — which can lead to the erasure of an entire culture. When people from the dominant, oppressive group copies the culture they have ridiculed and mocked, they are praised for it and suddenly it becomes a trend, it becomes mainstream — and everyone wants it. More often than not, they are even given credit for it, as if they came up with it. 

Sure, Albanians on their own do not have a history of oppressing black people, but white people in general — which we ethnic Albanians are — have a history of such and we have to acknowledge the ways in which our behaviour, intentional or not, brings harm to communities we are capable of oppressing. 

Like I argued in my last blog, you do not have to actively oppress people to be an oppressor. On top of that, our music is reaching more and more countries worldwide, so it’s not a bad idea to become aware of our privileges and the ways in which our actions — intentionally or not —  offend marginalized groups. 

Take Era Istrefi for example: her singing in Jamaican-English — or at least attempting to — while wearing black hairstyles, all while casually dropping the n-word in her songs, is definitely not a good look. When she broke through internationally with her song “BonBon”, the international label that signed her ended up re-uploading the song and censoring the n-word. She apologized for singing the n-word on Instagram, but never for the appropriation of black hairstyles – something one could argue helped her gain a lot of popularity, as she started wearing locks from her first few months in the business.  

More interestingly, she has not worn any black hairstyles ever since she was signed with her international label. I wonder if she was made aware of her harmful behaviour and decided it was best to stop it, however, it is really unfortunate she never seized the opportunity to use her big platform to educate her fans, and people in general, on the topic of cultural appropriation.

Today, we see more and more ethnic Albanian artists and "regular" people appropriating black hairstyles with zero knowledge on the history of the many different hairstyles they appropriate.

Era Istrefi was definitely not the first one, though: We saw both Ledri Vula and Skivi in braids for the shooting of their clip “Ah femnat”; Gjiko shamelessly saying the n-word repeatedly in his song “My bro” featuring Buta; Tayna appropriating black hairstyles in her song “Aje” featuring Ledri (where she also looks considerably darker than usual), and dropping the n-word in her song “Pasite” featuring MC Kresha and Lyrical Son. And just last year, Kida made headlines after she posted a picture of herself in braids, a very dark, unnatural tan, with the (now deleted) caption “Africana”. 

Not too long ago, I watched Zach Fox — an American stand-up comedian, rapper and writer — react to Loredana’s latest song “Kein Wort” with German singer Juju. The videoclip shows Loredana wearing a durag, a cap used by black men traditionally to protect their processed hair while they sleep, which became a symbol of inner-city black culture in the nineties. After listening to some of it, he says: I like imagining that these are just two missing Jenners, and they’re like: “What are we going to do? I know what we’ll do, we’ll be black, that’s how we get back at them.” 

Today, we see more and more ethnic Albanian artists and “regular” people appropriating black hairstyles with zero knowledge on the history of the many different hairstyles they appropriate — like locks, braids, plaits and twists, but also the entire aesthetic of black people, all while still being blatantly racist and dropping the n-word in every other song. 

With some of them having a fake tan to the point they look ethnically ambiguous and undergoing procedures to make their lips, hips and breasts bigger, the picture is complete: whether we intend to or not, we are appropriating the entire aesthetic of black women in an effort to look “cooler”, “prettier”, “different”. In the meantime, we make fun of black people and the size of their lips and hips and we try to make them hate their own skin by referring to it as “dirty” and “ugly”. 

Clearing the air 

I can almost see some of you shaking your head and thinking I am exaggerating or taking it too far. “If black people use the n-word, why can’t I?” Because the n-word has not been used against us — ethnic Albanians specifically and non-black folks in general — to dehumanize us, ever, not one single moment in history. 

I hope we can agree that words are powerful and reclaiming words our oppressor has used against us is even more powerful. Reclaiming words takes away the power of the oppressor. The n-word, however, does not belong to us and can therefore not be reclaimed by us. The only slur I know of that us ethnic Albanians can reclaim is “Šiptar” as it has been the only word I’m aware of that was used to dehumanize us (if there are more words I am not aware of, feel free to message me). 

There is something wrong with using products to darken your skin to the point that you look biracial.

Some argue that if the n-word is really that offensive, it should not be used by anyone, including black people. This, however, is a discussion for the black community and black community only —  our opinion on this as relevant as the opinion of a non-Albanian on the weight of the word “Šiptar”: it is not. 

“There is nothing wrong with a tan, I tend to get really dark in the summer too, should I stay away from the sun now?!” — there is nothing wrong with a natural tan, so there is absolutely no need for you to stay away from the Albanian Riviera during summer. There is something wrong with using products to darken your skin to the point that you look biracial. 

Journalist Wanna Thomper coined the term “blackfish”, a practice used to define the process of “cosmetically enhancing your appearance through makeup and hairstyles to appear as if you have black heritage.” She questions the motivation behind people excessively using tanner: “Do I believe that every person who tans wants to be black? Not particularly, but I do wonder about the need to make yourself appear several shades darker. Who are you trying to emulate?” I believe these are important questions ethnic Albanian singers should ask themselves.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to undergo plastic surgery either – I could never be against plastic in general if only because trans people deserve to undergo whatever procedure they need in order to feel the most comfortable in their own skin. But this is not about that: what makes these actions problematic is the combination of all the aforementioned things — from the hairstyles, to the fake tan, to the fuller lips — for which we have continuously mocked black people and even today continue to do so.  

“What about black women who straighten their hair and get blonde wigs or even bleach their skin?” — I hear you. There are, however, black people who have naturally straight and/or blonde hair – blonde and straight hair are not tied to any one culture.

This is not something that anyone should take pride in. It is time we stop silencing people who call out cultural appropriation under the guise of “feminism” and “women should not bring other women down” as this is far from an attack: it is an attempt to start a conversation around an important topic we could all benefit from as a society. 

Feature image: Arrita Katona / K2.0. 

Editor’s note: Links and explanations have been added to clarify some points surrounding black culture in the original text.