Cultural Appreciation or Appropriation?

About Eritrea - Art & Sport

Culture is the way of life that governs an entire society. UNESCO describes culture as “the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual, and emotional features of society or a social group,” and suggests that, “it encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs” (UNESCO 2002).

The Eritrean society has several unique and beautiful cultures. A nation’s culture is an important part of its socio-economic and political conditions. No society has been able to advance and modernize without developing its culture. National culture comprises music, film, symbols, folklore, myths, drama, rituals, oral and written works, and more. Culture is also important because it is part of a nation’s identity and dignity.

In Eritrea, successive colonizers have made attempts to erase local culture and impose their own on Eritreans. Thanks to our brave forefathers and foremothers, Eritrean culture was maintained and eventually transmitted to the present generation. During the Ethiopian colonial period, Eritreans’ resistance against Ethiopian cultural domination was also important. During the armed struggle, our resistance to cultural domination made a large contribution to our independence. According to scholar Ravinder Rena, Eritrean revolutionary songs were “more than bullets” in killing the hopes of the colonizers. Eritrean music is regarded as an “identity marker” and has remained a key part of nation-building. Our traditional, revolutionary, and modern songs convey important ideas and messages to our people.

During the dark period of Ethiopian colonization, Eritreans were forbidden to use their own languages. However, Eritrea’s languages were not lost or erased; they were preserved through the efforts of the early resistance leaders, countless Eritreans, and initiatives supported by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). In fact, many groups that once were intoxicated by notions of superiority and worked to undermine or erase Eritrean culture have now turned to mimicking and plagiarizing Eritrean art, music, film, and other intellectual products.

Some suggest that such misappropriation of Eritrean artistic products is actually an illustration of appreciation of Eritrean art and culture. Others contend that such activities have been undertaken in the name of peace and solidarity. However, in many ways, cultural theft and appropriation is a continuation of efforts to empty Eritrea’s cultural treasury.

Setting aside the proverb that “imitation is the highest form of flattery,” we should keep in mind that thieves only come to steal. A thief cannot come to appreciate. Many well-intentioned personalities and groups engage in the nasty act of cultural appropriation in the name of “solidarity.” A prominent example of this is the “adoption” of many Eritrean traditional and modern songs, including those by Abraham Afewerki, Helen Meles, Abrar Osman, Wedi Tkul, Yemane Gebremichael, Tesfay Mehari, Osman Abderhim, Atobrhan Segid, Yohhanes Tkabo, and others. Many of the songs by these legendary artists, which form a key part of our nation’s culture and identity, have been plagiarized or repetitively remixed by “artists” across the region. For many, the theft of Eritrea’s traditional and modern songs and other forms of cultural piracy or appropriation are not acceptable. They do not honor, respect, or appreciate the artists or the local culture. Anyone who wishes to honor, respect, or appreciate local artists or Eritrean culture should first obtain copyright and permission from the original artists.

Music and other forms of art require creativity. The material and mental resources needed to produce a single song or artistic product are often beyond the imagination of consumers. That is why artists should have copyright over their work. Copyright, which has many benefits, is “a private right which, as with the other forms of Intellectual Property, gives the owner total control over their work. They can use, sell or lease it to a third party.” Copyright protects artists and, therefore, consumers and artists have legal and moral obligation to respect copyright. Of course, more needs to be done on our part to ensure the development of an effective copyright framework to protect artists and our cultural products. Around the world, the unauthorized use, reproduction, and further re-creation of artistic products are plagiarism or piracy and an infringement of copyright.

Interestingly, cultural appropriation is sometimes viewed as a by-product of imperialism. Imperialism is the creation and maintenance of an unequal cultural, economic, and territorial relationship based on domination and subordination. Imperialism functions by subordinating groups of people and territories and extracting everything of value from the colonized people and territories. Across our history, colonizers have repeatedly attempted to extract our cultural resources (in addition to our other resources). The cultural appropriation was not a form of appreciation but extraction and theft. Unfortunately, today’s acts of theft and appropriation of Eritrean art and music is similar to the past.

We have a rich culture. We do not oppose internationalizing and sharing our culture (or learning about the cultures of others). But we strongly oppose the appropriation of our culture. Art and music are important aspects of our culture and identity. Therefore, any act of theft or appropriation of art and music is an attack on our culture and identity. I have had several discussions about cultural theft and appropriation with many artists and citizens. In various ways, they have all expressed their concerns about the issue while some also suggested that it demonstrated a type of renaissance or ascendancy of Eritrean culture and arts.

The National Charter of Eritrea states: “We must tirelessly strive to make Eritrea a country where culture can flourish. Art, including music, literature and visual art should freely develop, assuming a national character.” Furthermore, Eritrea’s National Macro-Policy outlines that education in the country aims “to produce a population equipped with the necessary skills, knowledge and culture for self-reliance and a modern economy.” Eritreans appreciate, respect, and value culture and art. They also strongly object to acts of plagiarism and cultural appropriation. In the same way that we have fought to ensure our independence and sovereignty, we must also make efforts to preserve our art and cultural sovereignty.