Opinion

Coco's braids symbolise the dilemma around cultural appropriation

Malibongwe Tyilo debates whether the social media storm sparked by a reality star's hairstyle was justified

13 August 2017 - 00:00 By Malibongwe Tyilo
Reality-TV star Coco, wife of rapper Ice-T, braided her hair and called it 'Da Coco Swoop'.
Reality-TV star Coco, wife of rapper Ice-T, braided her hair and called it 'Da Coco Swoop'.

I've long understood the conversation on appropriation to be primarily about respect for intellectual property and cultural symbols, and about power.

For example, regarding the respect aspect: a group of people develop a culture over years, decades, centuries - possibly even millennia - enriching and fortifying it with symbols and rituals.

But when such symbols, like the Native American sacred feather headdresses, become dress-up for another group, or even worse are traded commercially by a culture that contributed nothing to their development, that becomes problematic.

As for the power aspect, it is well documented that mainstream pop culture channels have historically celebrated and affirmed looks and style primarily associated with white people - the overwhelming majority of magazine covers over the past 100 years being just one example.

COCO SO CROSS

All this was on my mind when I came upon the brouhaha that surrounded the reality-TV star Coco, wife of rapper Ice-T, when she braided her hair and called it "Da Coco Swoop". At first glance I loved the style, I found nothing offensive about it. I didn't even care that she had decided to name it after herself. Maybe that's because I love Coco, #ProblematicFaves.

Predictably, an online backlash followed, accusing her of cultural appropriation. Coco hit back.

"If I wanna wear a pineapple on my head, then I should be able to wear a pineapple on my head and call it the Pineapple Cocowop," she said.

"I don't know. You see where I'm going with this? Why is everybody hating? This should be a 'human thing', right? Everybody should be able to do it. It's a 'human thing' - give that a shot - not a race war."

I truly do agree with her sentiment. If your hair allows you to rock a specific style, why not? Go on and live your best life. But still, it would be naïve of me to think that we're at a place where it can simply be a "human thing" when we are in a world where the aesthetic choices of black women are still questioned. Not to mention the cumulative trauma from decades of that.

Lest we forget, just last year, right here at the tip of Africa, black girls at Pretoria High School for Girls were still being forced to chemically straighten their hair.

STRENGTH IN DIVERSITY

Taking these realities into consideration, then of course every time white people are celebrated for the same style choices for which black people are criticised, it is likely to have a triggering effect.

When Coco takes it further and names a style that has long been popular among black women after herself, well, grab your popcorn and head over to Twitter for a good old dragging.

That said, as a culture becomes more dominant there is no way to avoid its influence on others. And, whether in music or fashion, various forms of creative expression borne out of black cultures have long influenced the dominant mainstream culture.

As a culture becomes more dominant there is no way to avoid its influence on others

With the current focus on diversity, as well as the cultural interest in things African, there is a risk that black cultures around the world will be exploited, and then discarded when the mainstream culture moves on to the next trend.

There is also the matter of acculturation, the cultural modification of an individual, group, or people who adapt to or borrow traits from another culture. This too is a necessary reality for human cultural growth and progress - a "human thing" as it were - and we would do well not to miss out on its benefits as we police cultural appropriation.

Culture is a beautiful thing, but it should neither be a prison nor wall to keep others out. I love you Coco, I love your hair, I hope you win, a thousand yassss kweens to you. But really, Da Coco Swoop?

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