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Miley: A Model for Cultural Appropriation

Miley is officially hip-hop. Jay not only devoted a section of one of the best songs on his allegedly game-changing album, #MCHG, to her —…

Miley: A Model for Cultural Appropriation

Miley is officially hip-hop. Jay not only devoted a section of one of the best songs on his allegedly game-changing album, #MCHG, to her — “Somewhere in America, Miley Cyrus is still twerking … twerk, Miley, twerk, twerk” — he also tweeted that she’s “old world’s worst nightmare.” And that’s not a “diss,” as mainstream media has reported; it’s a compliment, a virtual welcome mat. I haven’t read a headline that bold about a hip-hop phenom since N.W.A. bum-rushed America’s suburbs in the late ‘80s.

So why is Miley worthy of such a proclamation? First, the obvious. As far back as most of us can remember, Miley has been a nonthreatening, white girl — Disney, down-South, country-music white. Let’s stop for a moment at country music. Her father is one of the biggest stars that genre has ever produced, and country (as distinguished from the blues and rock) is still a space that remains relatively elusive to black artists. Not only is her lineage pure, up until now she’s been a pop megastar who mostly has managed to avoid controversy. If anything, her career has unfolded like an American dream, not a nightmare.

But all the hubbub can’t be about the meeting of white and hip-hop. Old world is used to that at this point. White men have been doing hip-hop and doing it well for quite some time now. We need look no further than #MCHG to find Justin Timberlake chilling, thoroughly at ease in the genre. The list of white men in hip-hop goes on: Eminem, Macklemore, Yelawolf, MGK, Asher Roth, The Beasties, and many others. The white-cum-hip-hop combo is somewhat novel, but it’s no longer a formula for shock.

Miley is a white woman in hip-hop, however, and here’s where it starts to get interesting. There are very, very few women, and even fewer white women, in hip-hop. Iggy Azalea and Kreayshawn are the only ones relevant enough to come to mind at the moment. These women have largely relied on gimmick to get by. Iggy Azalea sells sex. Kreayshawn sells young white women who participate in a lifestyle that most of America associates with black youth. Chances are, in a few years, we’ll be able to throw their music on top of the virtual trash heap occupied by albums like those of Amanda Bynes (whose record will be produced by Waka Flocka), and Paris Hilton (purportedly signed to Lil Wayne’s label).

Miley’s entered the genre by way of a dance, a dance historically executed by black women. Twerking, if you've been hiding under a rock for the past year, involves moving the hips up and down in a way that creates major yet intensely rhythmic butt jiggling. Its roots are in Africa, but the earliest mentions of twerk appear in bounce-music songs that came out of New Orleans in the early/mid-’90s. The dance picked up steam in black strip clubs in the South and eventually spread into hip-hop lyrics and clubs across America.

Here’s the thing though: First, twerking is not easy. Second, the efficacy of the dance depends on the dancer having something to jiggle. Traditionally, implants aside, black women have cornered the market on larger, shapelier posteriors. Third, no major white artist has ever entered hip-hop simply by executing and then demonstrating a traditionally black dance.

This is what makes Miley special. She had enough respect for the art form that she studied it for two years. She then created a video in which she showed us the results of her efforts. The simple black-and-white video features Miley, dressed as a unicorn, twerking for a little over two minutes. At the very end, after mesmerizing the viewer with the beauty of the dance, Miley pulls back her hood to reveal her face.

Miley takes race out of the analysis. The unicorn costume may be a little strange, funny, or furry-ish, but one thing it’s not is racially charged. There are no racial or cultural cues beyond the dance itself. We don’t see Miley’s face until the last few seconds; we don’t see her butt, we don’t see her clothing, and we don’t see the obligatory black friends. We’re forced to judge her based on the dance alone. She passes, not because she’s white doing or wearing or saying something black, but because she’s damn good at what she does.

And that’s not all. Just when we think Miley makes twerking independent of time, space, and race, she brings Khia in to rap on the remix of her current single. For those unfamiliar with Khia, she was one of the most controversial artists of her day. She rapped on a song called “My Neck, My Back (Lick It)” in 2002, among the first, and still the best, twerk-inspiring songs to make it mainstream, and certainly one of the only ones authored by a woman. Khia had faded into relative obscurity since. Miley could have picked any popular artist to appear on her record, but she didn't. In a decidedly uncynical move, she paid homage to the woman who created one of twerk’s first anthems.

Miley wants us to know that she did not, by any means, invent twerking. She may have made it accessible, but she doesn't deserve the credit.

Miley is a model for cultural appropriation for two reasons: She respects the art form itself and she’s not shy about crediting its origins. Cultural appropriation isn’t easy. As soon as an artist forgets either component of this two-part equation, she becomes either a gimmick, a thief, or both. Rappers of the ‘90s filled their lyrics with rants against Elvis for not having given credit to the black men and women whose music he popularized. The black community has never completely embraced him, for that reason. Even Timberlake made at least one major misstep when he left Janet Jackson to fend for herself following the infamous “wardrobe malfunction.” He had many of us scratching our heads, wondering whether he was with us or using us.

So what makes Miley old world’s worst nightmare? At least for now, she’s a woman in hip-hop who’s clearly with us. If she’s able to continue to chart new territory by appropriating the culture in service of art instead of gimmick, right under old world’s noses, their prize will have managed to spread the genre to even more households than Jay could ever reach. Jay knows there’s nothing more hip-hop than gaining power by subterfuge and no one more worthy of a warning fit for a modern-day Trojan horse than Miley.

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