Music can transcend boundaries in powerful ways

Matthew Metz

In recent years, globalization has made multicultural interaction, especially in music, a reality. As such, musicians have taken inspiration from cultural traditions they otherwise would have had little interaction with. This has led to accusations of cultural appropriation in certain cases. However, I argue that music is meant to transcend cultural boundaries, and is therefore immune to most forms of cultural appropriation. 

It is often said that music is a universal language. This is true, but not in the way most people understand it. Each culture has its own musical traditions, radically diverse from other cultures, such as western classical and Indian classical music, or blues and raga. Eric Sarwar, a Pakistani pastor and director of a music school in Karachi, says that music is universal, not so much in terms of communication, but in terms of spiritual and emotional solidarity. I would add that while music is still a ‘universal language,’ it has many dialects.

It is this emotional and spiritual solidarity that transcends cultural boundaries. Composers have understood this throughout time, whether around campfires or in a concert hall. Sharing your music beyond the context from which it came is like building a bridge over a chasm. It allows people to commune and relate through their shared humanity, while being exposed to each other’s unique ethnocultural heritage and experience in ways other mediums are incapable of. As a multi-ethnic composer myself, there are few things more sacred and profound. 

Culturally appropriating music becomes, in a sense, almost impossible. For example, being inspired by another culture’s music, and using their innovations in your own music, is not stealing. Rather, it is a compliment to the original culture that you would engage and access their ideas. Jazz, rock, blues, fusion, pop, and more genres exist solely because of such cross-cultural engagement. 

The only form of cultural appropriation in music I can think of is denying that a certain musical genre came from its original culture. Though uncommon, certain uninformed people do periodically make false claims about the origins of certain musical genres. In doing so, these people attempt to strip that genre from the culture that bore it, whether they’re aware of it or not. Counteracting this comes down to understanding the origins of each genre, and respecting them. The easiest way to do this is for people to be open about what musical genres they find inspiring and influential, and giving credit to those musical traditions. 

Sharing music cross-culturally has the ability to create emotional and spiritual solidarity between people while inviting them into each other’s forms of expression. Using ideas from other cultures, as long as you are clear about your inspiration, is not stealing. Rather, it is a form of appropriate cross-cultural engagement, to which composers worldwide aspire. Even when listening to music from other cultures, we engage with those cultures in ways that could lead to better relationships. We should understand the profundity of this engagement, and lean into it.