A report by Travis M. Andrews for the Washington Post.
When Bruno Mars burst onto the music scene in 2010, he was praised by many for blending various styles and for his “eclectic array of sounds.” His first album featured “near-perfect songs that move from power ballads to bedroom anthems to pop-reggae,” according to Rolling Stone’s review.
Since then, Mars has incorporated R&B, funk, new jack swing and more into his music, racking up two Super Bowl appearances and 10 Grammy awards along the way.
But now, eight years after his debut album “Doo-Wops & Hooligans” and a couple of months after his first Grammy win for album of the year, Mars’s genre-blending has become the subject of debate about cultural appropriation.
The argument, which raged throughout the weekend, began with an episode of the Web series “The Grapevine,” which bills itself as a “fresh and innovative take on the panel style discussion.” The episode featured a panel of more than a dozen young writers and artists answering the question “Is Bruno Mars a cultural appropriator?”
A two-minute clip from the episode featuring writer Seren Sensei quickly went viral, racking up nearly 3 million views and being curated into a Twitter moment by Sunday night.
“Bruno Mars 100 percent is a cultural appropriator,” Sensei said in the video. “He is not black, at all, and he plays up his racial ambiguity to cross genres.”
Cultural appropriation refers to someone taking aspects of a minority culture, such as its music, and using it for personal gain. Elvis Presley, who became famous by performing songs written by black artists, is considered by many to be a cultural appropriator.
While Mars collaborates with many African American artists, such as CeeLo Green and B.o.B., he isn’t African American. The 32-year-old artist was born in Honolulu to a half-Puerto Rican and half-Ashkenazi Jewish father and a Filipino mother.
Sensei continued, saying “because people have realized that they prefer their black music and their black culture from a non-black face. … We have artists now that are much more willing to step into black genres.”
Many agreed. One Twitter user wrote, “This is the perfect assessment of the current state of the music industry.”
Quickly, though, many prominent black commentators began defending Mars.
R&B singer Charlie Wilson praised the musician, calling him “a genuine talent” and “one of the best we have” who is “destined to be one of the greats.”
Mars “helped bring back that classic New Jack/R&B sound to the masses when it was left for dead years ago and hard for artists to get that sound back on mainstream radar,” Wilson wrote, adding, “Bruno’s songs on this album are original and no different from any other artist pulling inspiration from genres before him.”
Activist and writer Shaun King, who is biracial, tweeted: “I just want to be practical here. Are people saying that Bruno Mars shouldn’t sing? Or that when he sings he needs to somehow whiten … up and sound more like Rod Stewart. I’m dead serious. What type of music is this man ‘allowed’ to do?”
The debate soon left Twitter, as critics began to defend Mars.
For example, Marjua Estevez of Vibe wrote, “in no room is Bruno Mars a white person. Given his Puerto Rican and Filipino ancestry — both of which have African roots … one could argue Bruno’s artistry pulls from intrinsic knowledge and influence.”
Critic Stereo Williams wrote for Billboard: “Sensei’s take is ahistorical, in that she presupposes that appropriation is now more prevalent and prominent than ever. White folks making Black music is not a new phenomenon.”
Williams added: “We’ve reached a tipping point in the ‘cultural appropriation’ conversation. It’s become knee-jerk and lacks nuance.”
Then came the counter-argument to the counter-argument: a third voice saying each side’s argument had merit.
“Bruno Mars makes phenomenal music. He also benefits as a non-Black musician in a system that maligns Black artists. Can’t both of those things be true and valid and worth grappling with?” culture writer Evette Dionne tweeted.
Mars himself remained silent throughout the debate, though since attaining fame, he has consistently spoken about the role black music played in his formation as an artist — and that he doesn’t think it gets enough recognition.
“When you say ‘black music,’ understand that you are talking about rock, jazz, R&B, reggae, funk, doo-wop, hip-hop, and Motown. Black people created it all. Being Puerto Rican, even salsa music stems back to the Motherland,” meaning Africa, Mars told Latina magazine last February. “So, in my world, black music means everything. It’s what gives America its swag.”
He added that his influences were black artists such as “Whitney, Diddy, Dr. Dre, Boyz II Men, Aaliyah, TLC, Babyface, New Edition” and Michael Jackson.
“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for these artists who inspired me,” Mars said. “Watching them made me feel like I had to be as great as they were in order to even stand a chance in this music business.”