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5 reasons why White artists don’t cover songs by African artists

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1. Language: Such an obvious reason I don’t think we need go into much detail. Just as you don’t generally find English artists doing cover versions of French hits, you’re not going to find them doing cover versions of songs when some of the lyrics of the original are in a language they don’t understand. But even when the original is sung completely in English, there’s also the issue of “musical language”. This, as much as spoken language is what identifies music by African artists as “African”. It’s rhythmic and percussive elements are foreign enough to white British and American artists for it (in addition to spoken language) to be a barrier for specific songs to become candidates for a cover treatment.

2. Fear of the charge of cultural appropriation: It’s safe to do House, Lounge or Trance remixes of African music – to be musically adventurous is practically a necessity for DJs, and remixes do after all carry music by African artists to audiences that might otherwise never listen to anything from Africa, even if there’s the danger that many of those who only hear this music via remixes will never venture beyond that, preferring to wait for the originals, whatever they sound like, to be made sufficiently “non-African”. It’s safe to do Afrobeat, since the source of Afrobeat is so well known that there’s no danger of anyone seeing a white band doing Afrobeat as anything but an honour to Fela and Tony Allen. That it also identifies a band as being “down”, “with it”, “in touch” is a nice bonus.

But one misstep with a cover version and you might find yourself picking buckshot out of your backside. In the 1950s, white American music executives convinced themselves that they couldn’t market “black music” (Rock and Roll, and Rhythm and Blues) to white audiences, so they had white bands cover music by black artists – this form of “remaking” music for white audiences continued through the 60s and 70s (see Blue-eyed Soul). The white bands would have hits with some of these “remakes”, making a lot more money off them than the artists who wrote the original versions, artists who often went unacknowledged. These genres were thus established as “white” at the expense of black musicians. We’ve left those days behind, but a residue of the fear of cultural appropriation still lingers. Today the influences might flow into one another from all over the place (in fashion design, too), but the power imbalance between black and white artists in the 1950s is not dissimilar to that between Africa and the West today, and it’s an imbalance that might give artists pause for thought if they consider doing a cover version. That said, no one these days would cover a song by an African artist without acknowledging the source, well, no one but Shakira.

3. White cultural dominance: American and British pop culture saturates the world (and as far as most of the world is concerned Canadian artists like Alanis Morissette, Celine Dion and Bryan Adams are part of American pop culture). We all consume this stuff and are overwhelmed by it, wherever we are, so much so that our own pop culture has to fight for our attention (which is why some of our budding artists don’t bother fighting; they just do a “version” of what we’re already consuming.) This is why cover versions go one way, the minority culture covers the majority culture, but not the other way round.

This issue of doing “versions” of styles from the dominant culture is one of the reasons we’re thrilled when we manage to break the habit, as Nigerian artists have managed to do in the last decade or so, establishing a style that doesn’t owe its existence to something from American or British pop culture.

4. Mainstreaming of African urban music in white society: This is related to the above reason. Afrobeats is leaking into the white mainstream in the UK, but it’s still a healthy “leak” rather than a flow. There are probably Japanese pop stars having huge English-language hits in Japan, but these aren’t in the mainstream of UK/US white society either, so you’re not likely to hear cover versions of any of their music anytime soon.

White pop culture is what the majority of people in UK and America consume, even if they’re increasingly making room for pop culture from the periphery due, partly, to the presence of residents from other parts of the world. Artists probably should spend more time nosing around the periphery, but most don’t, so they end up picking songs that are nearer at hand, so to speak. And songs by urban African artists are further on the periphery than a lot of other peripheral music, so get less of a chance to “speak” to them. D’banj’s Oliver Twist has reached further into the mainstream than any other song by an African artist in recent times, and the more Afrobeats flows into the higher the chances of cover versions.

5. Arrogance: The world covers us (“us” being the dominant white culture), not the other way round, and we only make exceptions for artistic gods like Bob Marley. It’s analogous to the language issue, whereby the English-speaking world doesn’t feel the need to learn another language because everybody else can learn to speak English. Colonialism in its naked form might be history, but the former colonialists do not see people from former colonies as equals. Dancing to music by an African artist is one thing, but doing a cover version of a song means you’re acknowledging the merit of the original, and honoring the artistry of the original singer. This requires a measure of humility, otherwise you’re “stooping” to do something that is “beneath you”. Humility is something the unconscious arrogance of former colonialists probably precludes, or at least makes difficult. If former colonialists don’t see people from former collies as equals, they are likely to assume songs by African artists aren’t “good enough” for them to cover. It’s a paradox – good enough to dance to, remix, sample, etc., but not good enough to consider covering – but such judgements happen at an unconscious level, which makes those who feel such things oblivious to what they’re acting (or not acting) on, in the same way those who benefit from white privilege are mostly oblivious to that.

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