Adele 59th Annual Grammy Awards, Arrivals, Los Angeles, USA - 12 Feb 2017
Photo by Jim Smeal/Shutterstock
Adele was rolling in the deep last weekend after posting a controversial photo on her Instagram page.
Captioned "Happy what would be Notting Hill Carnival my beloved London," the photo shows Adele wearing a triangle bikini top with the Jamaican flag printed on it, long athletic stretch pants, a yellow feather Carnival shoulder piece, and gold jewelry. The outfit is a good fit for Afro-Caribbean carnival events, so it makes sense that Adele might wear it on a day that people would have been reveling and sharing culture if not for COVID-19. The problem, however, is the hairstyle. Adele's hair is in bantu knots.
Bantu knots, like locs and cornrows, are a Black hairstyle. Hair is parted into sections and coiled into buns. The style is also referred to as Zulu knots because it originated with Zulu people in South Africa. It is now popular throughout the African diaspora, and it is used both for protection (of the hair) and for style. For a non-Black person to wear this hairstyle is, in fact, cultural appropriation.
Celebrities are gassing Adele up in the comments and elsewhere. Zoe Saldana said, "You look right at home guurrrl." Zoe Saldana has only recently come to realize it was wrong for her, as a light-skinned Black woman, to play the role of Nina Simone—which required makeup to darken her skin and a prosthetic nose. She is definitely not the person to give Adele the go ahead on cultural appropriation.
Many Jamaicans and people throughout the Caribbean and African regions have also come to Adele's defense, noting that Carnival is a time for sharing cultures and arguing that her attire would have been appropriate for such an event. It is often the case, however, that those quick to defend people who have been called out for cultural appropriation have never experienced the same discrimination as those drawing attention to the issue.
Cultural appropriation can be a complicated subject, especially in quickly fired tweets, but it's worth the discussion. Technically, cultural appropriation is the use of an element or set of elements from a culture or identity that the offending person does not share. It is usually done without understanding of the history, tradition, or meaning of the element or elements in question, and does nothing to educate other people about their origin. In many cases, the element or elements are looked down upon by the dominant culture or identity, so its appropriation presents a cost to the people who own it and a benefit to the people who misuse it.
Black hair is an easy example of cultural appropriation because Black people continue to face discrimination on the basis of their hair. Black people are fired from their jobs and barred from graduation for having locs while white people use them as a fashion statement. Cultural appropriation at its worst allows people to wear and flaunt an aspect of another group's culture or identity without facing any of the discrimination that group endures.
It is easy to say "It's just hair" when you have never experienced discrimination for wearing your hair in a style or natural form that is directly connected to your culture and identity, whether place of origin, ethnic group, religion, or otherwise. Because of all this, there is no denying that Adele got it wrong. She is, however, well-liked. This, combined with what people believe to be her intent to celebrate diversity and the need for light moments led to a hilarious time on Black Twitter.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, top 40 songs were often remixed, giving us reggae or dancehall versions. Reggae artists would sing the songs in the same melody so they were completely recognizable, but with reggae musical arrangements. Yes, My Heart Will Go On had about a million reggae versions. This trend has not maintained the same frequency or popularity as back then, but people brought it back just for this Adele moment.
One of the best has got to be Adele's "Hello" vocals on the Wayne Wonder track "No Letting Go."
They slowed it down a little for "Someone Like You."
We finally have the Jamaican patois version of an Adele album tracklist.
It's been hilarious to see Adele's song titles and lyrics translated to Jamaican patois.
Someone dubbed Spice's "So Mi Like It" over a video of Adele rapping a Nicki Minaj verse.
It is always great to see Black joy, whether in physical or virtual spaces. The whole Adele-with-the-bantu-knots situation has shown that Black people remain undefeated in many areas. The creativity was on full display as video editing, audio engineering, photo memes, and clever turns of phrase flooded Twitter immediately. It took no time to turn a highly questionable moment into hours and hours of scrolling and full-belly laughter.
It has been a difficult year, and Black people have been dealing with far too much. Constantly having to affirm the value of our lives while putting them on the line takes its toll. It would have been easy to respond to Adele with rage, but Black Twitter came through with the jokes. Cultural appropriation is a serious issue, and we can tackle it even as we give ourselves the space and time to enjoy each other's virtual company.
Cultural appropriation is clearly difficult for people to understand, especially as we try to learn to appreciate other cultures. One of the main reasons for this is the fact that there is not enough attention on the discrimination and racial injustices we face every day, so big issues like hair are often viewed as small matters of style rather than evidence of a more pervasive issue.
We have a lot of work to do, from being more honest about our experiences and making private occurrences public to calling on people like Adele—who appear to appreciate our culture—-to speak out against the injustices we face. If it's okay to wear bantu knots as a white person appreciating Black culture, you're going to have to show up when Black people are made to suffer for participating in the culture that we created and fight to maintain. Appreciate the culture and ensure that people in positions of power do too. Use your own power to compel others to act. Be loud in your demand for justice and cultural appreciation at all times, not just on Notting Hill Carnival days.