Diversity

Writing Other Cultures: A Musical Analogy

Writers are often told to stay in their lane and to avoid writing from perspectives other than their own. Often, this advice is accompanied by the statement that no one should even attempt to write from another perspective, and could not possibly write well if they tried. It’s a claim that comes from past examples, and out of understandable frustration due to inequalities in the publishing industry. However, based on an analogy in the music industry, I wonder if it is incomplete.

The inequalities in publishing today are reminiscent of the situation in the recording industry seventy years ago. Then, even more so than today, Black musicians were shut out. Worse, at the same time, White performers were stealing Black music. Many, unsurprisingly, insisted that Whites could not credibly play Blues, Jazz, or R&B, because they had not lived the life that gave rise to the music.

Yet in practice, in the coming decade, that claim was partly discredited, as some up and coming White performers looked beyond the limitations of borrowed Black music to find the originals. By the 1970s, groups like the Rolling Stones were appearing on stage with older Black musicians like Muddy Waters, and looking like fanboys, obviously delighted to be performing with their cultural heroes. More recently, a collection of Robert Johnson’s recorded work included liner notes by Keith Richards.

Trying to map what happened, my critique partner Jessica cited a recording of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” by the Neville Brothers, an all-Black band. For both Jessica and I, this recording could be called the definitive version of this classic spiritual. Like the best spirituals, it is not a hymn, rejoicing in religious belief, although it assumes a religious background. Rather, it is existential, concerned with mourning and human suffering. Like a tragedy, it is cathartic, allowing the listeners release through their identification with the emotions surrounding a family funeral. Although recorded several decades after the 1950s, it still comes out of the Black experience in the truest sense.

Jessica rightly pointed out that White performers could hardly hope to equal the Neville Brothers. By contrast, she mentioned a version of “Will the Circle Be UnBroken?” performed by Johnny Cash, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Ricky Skagg – an all white ensemble. We both agreed that this version of the spiritual was nowhere near as powerful as the one by the Neville Brothers.

So far, this example supports the prevailing claims. However, while not reflecting Black experience, we agreed that the Johnny Cash version was skillfully done, especially in its use of Baptist call and response. In the end, we decided that the performers had borrowed the Black experience and produced something different. Although less effective, it still had some power to move listeners.

However, that analogy seemed incomplete. Neither of us believed that the average White musician could be as successful as Johnny Cash and company in using Black experience in a respectful way or in creating something different. Far too many attempts to do this were more like Pat Boone’s version of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” which is built around a cheery, upbeat arrangement that showed little understanding of the song, and grated after only a few bars in its wrongness. A browse through YouTube showed that most White versions of the song were far closer to Pat Boone’s than Johnny Cash’s.

If this analogy has any validity, then it is mostly true to say that artists have to live the experience to depict it well. Without that experience, the results are apt to resemble Pat Boone’s. However, at the same time, a skilled artist, with a similar experience to draw upon in their own life, can do a credible rendition of the experience they depict, and perhaps turn it into something different, but interesting in its own right.

What this means is that while it may be an overstatement to say that writing outside your lane is impossible, it is unlikely to be done after no more than reading a few Wikipedia articles. It is a difficult undertaking, achievable even partially only by accomplished and conscientious writers. Unless you are prepared to work hard, and to listen to people who have lived what you borrowing, then it is better not to try at all. As John Le Carré said, “A good writer can watch a cat pad across the street and know what it is to be pounced upon by a Bengal tiger” – but none of us are good writers in everything we try.

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