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Idea of cultural appropriation absurd

Monday July 15 2019

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There is an unquestioned cliché that the African continent may be deprived of material wellbeing but is culturally rich. While observing or reading a lot of discussions that have been enabled by a variety of media, I hear variants of this statements made.

Similar to many assumptions about the people who reside in the sub-Saharan part of this continent, many people engage in these conversations as if there is a singe African culture and that every caring African should be concerned for its preservation.

I found myself right in the thick of such discourse when I met a friendly west African who started a conversation by asking why a Kenyan would have the name from Ghana. My answer was obvious and he immediately after stated that he expected me to be a Pan-African too. The conversation thereafter became very intense because I question the idea of identity as immutable and also stated to him the fact that the forefathers of Pan-Africanism were very cruel and vicious dictators. Unlike many others, I am not in awe of them.

In essence, I was saying that I assume the name but will actively dissociate myself from the ideology of Pan-Africanism and its originators. A third person of south African descent who had joined us then stated in jest, “…but if you reject Pan-Africanism, aren’t you worried that some may think that your use of the name makes you an imposter?”

The argument that I was confronted with is that by rejecting Pan-Africanist philosophy, I may lack license to use a name from another country unless I also subscribed to an ideology of its originators. This struck me as absurd but a common argument thrown at foreigners who try to use and benefit from ideas and expressions that are not generated from their places of ancestry. The “posh and serious” people call it cultural appropriation and it is a charge that a person is attempting to utilise ideas that he or she is not entitled to because they do not have the right identity for that. It is a claim made most often against foreigners but has been made in business entities whenever motifs and names from one culture are used to sell products commercially.

The claim of cultural appropriation, like all political, claims sometimes creates very bad lenses for viewing economic phenomena. To start with, the use of a cultural idea does not lead to its depletion and so to frustrate the creation of a service or product in the name of appropriation makes no commercial sense.

To my mind, those who assert identity as a reason to declare certain ideas as unusable by outsiders are struck by the growing phenomenon of the false grievance and an undue reliance on coercion of other people.


Some months ago, there was a hullabaloo among Kenyans due to a misinterpretation of an orchestral rendition of Kenya’s national anthem. For the right reasons, no laws prevent anyone from playing Kenya’s national anthem and placing that version in the public domain. In addition, the relevant laws in Kenya and internationally wouldn’t allow for a foreign or local person to own exclusive rights to Kenya’s anthem. In spite of that, the grievance choir couched itself in the warm wool of nationalism asking government to repossess this attempt to steal “our culture”. They achieved nothing but to look ridiculous like those who sought to impose ideological views based on a name.

Claims of cultural appropriation have gained currency because it is a bully tactic that has worked against firms unprepared to call the bluff of their accusers. This capitulation which started with the successful withdrawal from use of words as Yoga, the Kimono for clothing, ethnic food and preventing people from wearing cornrows is nothing but the domain of bullies and self-imposed gatekeepers.

The imposition is a form of snobbishness by those who claim to understand what cultural boundaries are and wish to mediate the “safe” ways in which outsiders may consume, interpret or use cultural symbols. They may have hidden economic interests in insisting on being the custodians and interpreters of culture and their attempts are laughable.

After my experience with being called out for taking an “African” name but eschewing the complementary goods of Pan-Africanism, I have had to confront the idea of cultural appropriation. While I agree that a lot of ink and intellectual thought went into the creation of this phenomenon, it remains a nebulous concept with zero utility except for its users to signal their endeavour to be gate keepers. The boundaries that are to be preserved to prevent cultural appropriation hardly exist and these custodians and gatekeepers need to find something else to do. If cultural appropriation exists, society needs more of it.

Kwame Owino is the chief executive officer of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA-Kenya), a public policy think tank based in Nairobi.

Twitter: @IEAKwame