Is Bruno Mars a culture vulture?

Veronica Wernicke, Assistant Opinion Editor

Editor’s Note: Veronica Wernicke is a freshman at UNCW majoring in Communication Studies and is the Assistant Opinion Editor for The Seahawk. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Veronica Wernicke may be found on Twitter @itsveronica98. All suggestions and inquiries may be sent via email to [email protected]

American singer and songwriter Bruno Mars broke the music scene back in 2010 with his hit songs “The Lazy Song,” “Just the Way You Are” and “Marry You” off his debut album Doo-Wops and Hooligans.

His third and most recent album, 24K Magic — which came out back in November 2016 — found Mars’s music hitting on traditionally African American elements of music. A lot of his music is rooted in elements of funk, R&B and hip-hop which has helped him skyrocket his career.

Recently, Mars and specifically the music on 24K Magic were attacked for cultural appropriation or being a “culture vulture” according to a CNN article. A “culture vulture” in the aspect that he is only producing African American music to make a profit off of it since his music is typically at the top of the charts.

According to the Oxford Dictionary definition, cultural appropriation is “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.”

Beforehand I was not quite sure which racial categories Mars fell into and I am sure I am not alone in this. I thought he maybe looked Polynesian or Hawaiian, but I did not think it was fair to just make that assumption. Mars’s — actually known as Peter Gene Hernandez — was born in Honolulu, Hawaii while his mom is Filipino, and his father is Puerto Rican and Jewish according to a CNN article. So, based on his ethnicity Mars’s does not have any African American heritage that we know of. However, does that make Mars guilty of cultural appropriation and being a “culture vulture?”

According to black writer and activist Seren Sensei, he most definitely is. In a YouTube clip posted by The Grapevine — a channel that discusses issues surrounding African American culture — sparked the entire conversation outside of the video. I highly recommend watching the entire conversation which is consists of two 24-minute videos to get a better understanding.

“I don’t even think that Michael Jackson now in this day and age will be able to get to the point that he got to previously and a huge part of that is because people have realized that they prefer their black music and their black culture from a non-black face,” Sensei said. “He’s (Mars) 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.”

The main argument was that Mars’s makes a profit from African American culture without giving back or completely understanding the culture since he is not African American. He benefits from a high amount of success which other artists who are African American would not be able to do the same with.

Since there is a confusion behind what race Mars is it seems to make him even more popular than say another black artist making the same type of music. Those in favor of the argument that Mars is a “culture vulture” do not find this appropriate.

I find myself almost torn with this argument because someone in the video brought up the point of how all music builds off past music so who is to say a non-black artist cannot take and create music based off that original black artist’s music?

There is a difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. Appropriation being unacknowledgement or inappropriate nature of taking something from a culture which is not your own. Whereas appreciation is acknowledging that you are taking something from another culture and you respect that culture.

Following Sensei’s backlash towards Mars’ music, many people came to his aid including several black artists or figures. Commentator Shaun King, R&B artist Charlie Wilson, rapper Rapsody and producer 9th Wonder are just a few of figures in the African American community who spoke out in support of Mars.

These artists mentioned how it should not be wrong that Mars and his music were influenced by black artists. I agree with this fact especially since you cannot really help who influences you and if you feel a passion to make or recreate music that sounds like music you like, you should not be attacked at for it. However, I also agree with the fact that it is not fair that the black artists that created this music do not receive the same success as an artist like Bruno Mars who is “taking” their music.

In the CNN article, they bring up how Mars has credited these influential artists a couple times in speeches and conversations. Although, that looks like the extent of his appreciation. It does not look like he supports the African American community which he is profiting from. It is one thing to shout out those influential figures, but it is another to take action. Mars does not take action, but he should. Giving African American artists the credit they deserve and asking questions such as why they are not receiving the same amount of success that he is.

If he took action I think these people accusing him of appropriation would feel a little better about his success and less frustrated with it. However, their irritation with Mars does make sense and they have good reasoning to back up their views.

On the other hand, Mars is not going around and trying to act as if he is part of this culture. It is just his music that takes from the African American culture so to me that makes him sound like less of a “culture vulture” if I am basing it on the definitions of these terms.

While I agree with Sensei and the others’ argument, I do not think it was fair just to attack Mars’s when there are plenty of other non-black artist that could be accused of cultural appropriation or benefiting from African American culture. Artists like Macklemore, Iggy Azalea, Eminem, Post Malone, The Beastie Boys, Riff Raff, Justin Timberlake, Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber, just to name a few.

These artists have either tried to take from black culture either in their music or lifestyle and in some cases both. Those cases I can see a stronger argument for cultural appropriation, but I do not think Mars is standalone in this issue.

If you are going to call out one artist, you need to go ahead and call out all other artists who have taken aspects of African American music and called it their own or have risen to higher success than African American artists.

While I am still not 100 percent sure whether Mars is guilty of culture appropriation I can see the argument from both sides and both make valid points which have left me at odds with my decision. It all just depends on your definition of cultural appropriation.

It is great that we are having conversations like these, as the best way to educate ourselves on anything is talking about them. It is important to have healthy discussions and disagreements because otherwise we are deceiving ourselves, especially when it comes to culture and race related issues.

Is Bruno Mars a "culture vulture?"

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