mask off, to the mask, jersey club, cultural appropriation

The New “Mask Off” Remix Shows Cultural Appropriation Still Matters

On Friday we finally got an official remix of Future’s omnipresent “Mask Off.” It’s not a remix in the sense of Kendrick dropping a hot sixteen on the original beat, but a sonic reconstruction by a producer pulling from a distinct musical tradition. Practically everyone knows Metro Boomin and Southside’s chart-topping original. Maybe less ubiquitous are the hundreds of unofficial Future remixes floating around the internet and in clubs, many of them created by people who specialize in Jersey club, a genre that thrives on repurposing popular rap and R&B records.

Now a producer has finally been given official permission to put a new musical mask on “Mask Off” to contribute to this larger conversation. But what we get is a color-by-the-numbers club remix, bed squeaks and all, courtesy of an overnight EDM celebrity who wears a giant marshmallow mask. He has nothing to do with the black, urban community the genre was birthed in, and this is exactly why cultural appropriation matters.

Sure, the business move for Future and his label is to get numbers, and this marshmallow guy is having his 15 minutes right now. But it’s unfortunate that the artist they chose simply cherry picks from a genre so deeply invested in this type of cultural exchange, specifically remixes of current rap hits. There are probably only two Jersey club artists even close to the level of the masked white man in question, but they’re certainly not headlining EDM festivals. Instead of choosing a well-known Jersey club artist from that realm like DJ Sliink or UNIIQU3, someone just takes the style and runs with it because it works.

The remix dropped a few days after The New York Times ran an op-ed piece called “In Defense Of Cultural Appropriation,” which used a photo of Elvis as its featured image. It was a pretty lazy piece of clickbait, arguing that that criticism of Elvis is meaningless, even if those terms were defined by racism. A white artist found timeless success with music from black communities when they couldn’t even drink from the same fountain and sold it to a white audience. But inequality between races still leads to similar incidents, which this remix is an example of. The article was an unfortunate post that only served to stoke further hatred: if you search #culturalAppropriation on Twitter right now, it’s full of wild racist, xenophobic, and bigoted posts. It also led to a parroting op-ed in USA Today, defining America as the land of appropriation and to get used to it.

It’s not as if The Times on a whole has an agenda. In the past week, there have been two other stories that actually explore the idea of appropriation more thoughtfully. One article compares historic images of Native Americans taken in the early 1900s, one by a native himself, another by a white man with significant financial backing. Then there was a piece featuring two separate writers trying to define the difference between appropriation and exchange. One writer even explores whether RZA was appropriating Asian culture in 36 Chambers, ultimately deciding it was too good to care, especially since it was coming from an artist who was underprivileged himself.

Jersey club is the perfect contemporary case study for appropriation. These are artists that don’t necessarily have the same education, technology, or industry knowledge of their European counterparts, for example, who could take that “new” sound as far as it could go without them. If there was no discussion about cultural appropriation, they could have run off with it all together without even thinking about it.

DJ Khaled and Drake’s “To The Max” is a recent track that exemplifies how complicated the issue really is. One Jersey club artist, DJ Jayhood, says that an uncredited sample of his was used on the track; but he considers it a good look because now people are talking about him. He also notes that he can’t be too mad considering the sound is primarily based around another regional urban dance genre called Miami jook. The sounds were so similar to other genres that even Chicago juke artists were claiming the style, and they weren’t happy. But Ice Billion Berg, one of Miami jook’s most visible artists, is cool with the song because Khaled has shown him support in the past, way before the track ever dropped.

But “To The Max” goes. The “Mask Off” remix does not. In the end, that might be the worst part of it all.

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