White Tears, Hari Kunzru's dark, phantasmagoric fifth novel, is about the cultural appropriation of black music. "It's a live issue," the British Indian novelist tells me over the phone, and at once a host of examples come to mind: Azealia Banks's spat with Iggy Azalea, Miley Cyrus at the MTV VMA awards, Taylor Swift for her "Shake It Off" and "Thug Story" videos, Katy Perry for almost everything, and most recently La La Land wherein the white character (Ryan Gosling) functions as the preserver of jazz and the black character (John Legend) is its corrupter.
I bring up the writer Lionel Shriver, who in her now-infamous Brisbane Writers' Festival lecture last year, expressed the hope that cultural appropriation would prove a "passing fad," defining its message as, "You're not supposed to try on other people's hats." If this was the case, she said, "We wouldn't have 1961's Black Like Me, for which John Howard Griffin committed the now unpardonable sin of 'blackface'" in which he "found out what it was like to live as a black man in the segregated American South. He'd be excoriated today; yet that book made a powerful social impact at the time."
"The insanity of that," says Kunzru, "when if you wanted to know what life was like for an American Negro in 1973, you could phone James Baldwin. Why does it take a white person to get other white people to listen?"
Like Shriver, Kunzru admits that appropriation is a part of what novelists do, "in the sense of trying to think yourself into the position of people who have different identities to yourself." But unlike her, he believes that "the important thing is to be humble, not to assume that you understand before you actually do." Kunzru is aware of the political dynamics surrounding group identity and of the newly resurgent right's tendency to dismiss such dynamics, a mentality that, he says, "ignores the kind of history I'm trying to address in the novel." He cites Charlie Parker's "Now Is the Time," which was "stolen note for note with him not getting a penny" when it was recorded by Paul Williams and His Hucklebuckers (with the composition credited to Andy Gibson) as well as "the entire career of Elvis Presley."
However, Kunzru points out, "The white blues collectors are not just evil appropriators. They are also people who rescue this culture from oblivion. So there's work that they are doing and should be acknowledged for, but what rights does that give them to this work? These are complicated questions. There's an obsession with controlling things and owning things, and the boundaries—what's appropriation and what's love and what's fandom?—are gray areas, really. There's a difference between loving something and feeling you can own it and control it and define how it's seen."
These gray areas are the subject of White Tears, which presents us with four blues collectors, two young music producers from the present day, and two old-timers from the late 50s and 60s. The younger duo consists of the 25-year-old Seth and his college buddy Carter, a trust-funder with blond dreadlocks and an enviable record collection.
"[Carter] listened exclusively to black music," Seth tells us, "because, he said, it was more intense and authentic than anything made by white people. He spoke as if white people were the name of an army or a gang, some organization to which he didn't belong… We really did feel that our love of the music bought us something, some right to blackness."
This logic resembles that of Rachel Dolezal, the ex-NAACP leader who has become a de facto standard bearer for cultural appropriation. "To say that I'm black," she recently told the Guardian, "is to say, this is how I see the world, this is the philosophy, the history, this is what I love and what I honor. Calling myself black feels more accurate than saying I'm white… Whiteness has always felt foreign to me, for as long as I can remember." In terms of the novel, Kunzru explains that this is the now-familiar quest for authenticity, in that "Carter feels that blackness is realness. But the further you go, the more complex it becomes."
"The white blues collectors are also people who rescue this culture from oblivion. So there's work that they are doing and should be acknowledged for, but what rights does that give them to this work? There's a difference between loving something and feeling you can own it and control it and define how it's seen."
Carter and Seth gain some early success when they are asked to work with a famous white rapper who wants to "pay his dues to the tradition [of African American music] by releasing an album of classic covers… like those Chinese oil painters who turn out perfect reproductions of Monets and Cézannes." However, they become sidetracked when they find some hidden vocals on a recording Seth took in Washington Square Park. After Carter supplies a guitar track, they create a counterfeit blues record to which they add enough hiss that it sounds "like a record that's been sitting under someone's porch for 50 years."
"These fuckers think this music was made in 1928," scoffs Carter, "but actually we made it. We made it, fools! We made that shit last week! So who's the expert now? Who knows the tradition? We do! We own that shit!" They name the record "Graveyard Blues," attributing it to a made-up artist named Charlie Shaw, and upload it online, where it attracts the attention of aging collector, "JumpJim," who claims to have heard it in 1959. Taking over the narrative, JumpJim tells us that in the 50s he fell under the tutelage of collector Chester Bly with whom he traveled to the South, knocking on the doors of rural black folk and offering ten cents apiece for old records in the hope of scoring valuable rarities. During one such excursion, Charlie Shaw's sister's played them "Graveyard Blues" on her gramophone but refused to sell them the record, after which Chester Bly exploded with rage, behaving as if the record ought to have been his by rights.
"These fuckers think this music was made in 1928," scoffs Carter, "but actually we made it. We made it, fools! We made that shit last week! So who's the expert now? Who knows the tradition? We do! We own that shit!"
It's a scene that illustrates Kunzru's contention that "black music without black people" is at the core of appropriation, something the 48-year-old London native encountered in England, too, before he moved to the United States. "In Essex," where he grew up, "the same people who were often being very racist had this deep and abiding love for black soul music, and it was the same at Oxford, dope-smoking white boys who loved dub reggae." In the second half of the novel, JumpJim describes his own parallel situation when he tells the reader, "Don't get me wrong, I believed in civil rights… but one of the reasons I liked those old [blues] songs, those disembodied voices rising up out of the past, was because they were a refuge from the world. I didn't want them contaminated by current affairs."
This "contamination" by current affairs is something the novel deftly achieves as it alternates between past and present, echoing a premise on the first page that "the present is dry, but add reverb and you can hear time reverse its flow, slipping on into the past, into echo and disaster." Eventually, the long-dead bluesman, Charlie Shaw, takes over the narration, literally appropriating his voice back. He reveals that his career was cut short after he was drafted into a chain gang by racist police in the South, and that Carter Wallace's family owes its millions to its global empire of private prisons.
"I wanted to think about a continuity between slavery and convict-leasing to the present day," explains Kunzru, "one entirely continuous with Ferguson where the police are trying to run the municipality on the back of fines they're extracting from citizens for broken taillights, and when people can't pay those fines, they're put into the prison system. It's about social control, and it's about labor, and fortunes have been built on that labor, and it is one of the very difficult things for Americans to acknowledge. Carter's family has converted the capital they accumulated on the back of exploitation, and the next generation has gone on to convert it into cultural capital, dirty money sanitizing itself with 'cool.'"
Herein lies the brilliance of this slim book, its contribution to the debate, showing how "a bunch of New York hipsters, people who feel that the race question is nothing to do with them" are in fact bound to what Kunzru describes as "the fetid racial history of the United States." Culture, it is revealed, does not exist in isolation from economics, racism, or violence. By demonstrating these equivalences, White Tears proves cultural appropriation is no more a passing fad than racism or exploitation, and that all three are inescapable facts of contemporary and historical America.
Rajeev Balasubramanyam is an award-winning novelist. Follow him on Twitter.
White Tears by Hari Kunzru is available in bookstores and online from Knopf.