(Mis)Appropriations?: Hennapalooza, Vampire Weekend, and White Hip Hop

This past Sunday night I had some people over to my place for some Pakistani food. Well, it was a little more elaborate than that. There were about 50-60 folks, I think, and we had lots of food and an Egyptian hookah and henna. And there was a lot of henna-ing going around, some of it very creative indeed. Which leads to the title of this post, though I should note that I write not because I am really in conflict about the goings on the other night, but merely to posit some questions.

Now, when I grew up in Pakistan, applying henna, or mehndi, was almost exclusive limited to a bride and her friends applying it on a special night before the wedding where there would be singing and dancing and all sorts of merry making in an exclusively female crowd. And, yes, as a little bit of a momma’s boy, I went to some of these as a young, young lad, where inevitably, as on just about any other occassion, the women would pinch my cheeks. I am not sure why Pakistani women like to affectionately pinch the cheeks of little boys, but it really hurts. However, I digress.

In Pakistan, henna is also used by women, and some men, to dye hair, which for dark Pakistani hair gives it an red-orange hue in the sunlight. More startlingly, some old men dye their beards with henna. This man has done both. In high school, some of the girls, and yes I joined them, dyed their hair with henna. One girl’s hair, which was sandy brown to begin with, came out orangutang orange, which is alright if you are punk rawk and all, but that was not really her thing. I actually have henna-ed my hair numerous times, but have given it up, because, well, it makes all that nearly-turning-forty white hair turn, you know, orangutang orange, and I am certainly to old to be punk rawk.

Though the Wikipedia article on henna implies that it can be used more broadly than just for weddings but also for other celebrations, in what sense is it OK, or not, for a bunch of folk in the American Midwest to apply it just for kicks? Does there need to be any connection or even nod to the culture(s) of origin or not?

Again, I am not really conflicted about the validity of our henna-ing the other night, but in our increasingly connected age are all similar appropriations OK or are some not cool? For example, Nathan and I went to see Vampire Weekend the other night, with their African-pop influenced, preppy music. Is it OK that they borrow African guitar stylings? Which begs the question, is it OK that African pop uses the electric guitar?

I am beginning to think my line of questioning is answering itself, and I have expressed earlier on this blog that I believe that present cultures are really nothing more than mash-ups and admixtures of previous cultures, as people come into contact with one another and rub off on one another, even as some of those interactions involve power of one group over the other and prejudice. Witness the history of rock and roll and jazz.

But, still, are there ever times when the appropriations can be too much, too silly, too assuming, too much like stealing? Do individuals have free reign to fashion their identities in any way they choose culturally, like the white, suburban lover of hip-hop who tries to dress the part? One of the reasons I am interested in people’s views is that I am hoping to write an article on the intersection of culture, race, and identity. Also, I think we are living in an age of great and exciting cultural exchange and formation, and wondered what thoughts people may have concering that.

P.S. I still don’t like fusion cuisine, though, I know that is entirely inconsistent and probably not exactly true as I am certain many things I love are cultural hybrids.

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6 thoughts on “(Mis)Appropriations?: Hennapalooza, Vampire Weekend, and White Hip Hop

  1. I discovered your blog a few months ago, and I’ve been following it. I just wanted to let you know that I love when you share about your Pakistani heritage. I went on a 2 month mission trip to Pakistan with YWAM back in ’99 and love to see, hear, taste, and smell anything having to do with it. (well, for the most part!)

    We also have a small connection with you. My husband is in seminary here at Covenant and we were members at Christ Church in Bloomington, IL before moving here. If I’m not mistaken, your brother, Adrien (sp?) attended there before we ever did, and he is friends with Dave Keithley, the youth pastor there, who is also our friend. Anyway, it’s a small world!

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  2. Hi, Lyra. Thanks for your encouraging note. It is always good to hear about someone who has been reading the blog who I was not aware had been doing so. Thanks for doing me the honor.

    Yeah, if you have read long, you will likely surmise that I am sometimes in two minds (an appropriate enough analogy in and of itself) about how to relate to my Pakistani heritage. I am hoping to write an article soon that will untangle some of those threads even as it talks about the intersection of race and culture and identity more broadly.

    God bless you all as you go through seminary. Covenant is a great place but I know that can be a challenging time. Yes, I know Bob Smart, he is a great man of God, and even David Keithly a bit. I went on a missions trip which his wife was on as well. My brother actually preaches just across the river in Godfrey, IL in case you ever want to go over and hear a DOB (disciple o’ Bob) first hand 🙂

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  3. this part of the wikipedia article made me laugh: “The United States Food and Drug Administration has not approved henna for direct application to the skin. It is unconditionally approved as a hair dye, and can only be imported for that purpose.[10] Henna imported into the USA which appears to be for use as body art is subject to seizure, and at present it is illegal to use henna for body art in the U.S.,[11] though prosecution is rare. The fast black stains of “black henna” are not made with henna, but are from p-phenylenediamine. This can cause severe allergic reactions and permanent scarring. No henna can make a black stain on a torso in ½ hour. P-phenylenediamine can stain skin black quickly, but the FDA specifically forbids PPD to be used for that purpose”

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  4. Hello. As a devoted Pakistani, I found your post really well-rounded and since I am away from home, its making me feel decidedly nostalgic 😦

    I miss mehndi….!

    P.S: A tip bout mehndi – when you’re mixing in the mehndi, just add lemon to the mix – the acidic base helps in oxidizing the henna to a auburn shade… (I have my hair as a testimonial 🙂 ) In a day you hair will be the deepest red……P.S: You can’t even imagine how expensive it is to get henna in Europe – especially the Pakistani kind….

    Anyway, I got carried away…

    See you around!

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  5. Pingback: 2010 in review « The Dassler Effect

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