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Moby, Black Appropriation, and White Electronics

Richard Hall, AKA Moby, raised in Connecticut and involved in hardcore at an early age formed his own band. Later, in NY, he recorded two or three gigantic rave anthems for Jared Hoffmann’s Instinct label. After breaking free from that contract, he signed to Elektra Records where he proceeded to release a series of albums which received little commercial success until ‘Play’, which sampled Southern blues lyrics from the 1920s and 30s. This record was regarded as magnificent by critics and listeners alike for breaking new musical boundaries, for making an ‘electronica’ record with ‘real’ blues samples. Subsequently, Moby appeared on numerous music and non-music magazines, most recently ‘Muzik’ in the UK and ‘Wired’.

He was not the first white musician to appropriate Black music such that white America could deal with it, and he is certainly not the last. White Americans are actually terrified of Black music’s aesthetic, political, and affective power. It is as if they understand that for Black people, including artists, music is not a recreational activity, it is a way of life and often a means of survival. It has to arrive via a white mediator in order to be absorbed without damaging whiteness. Robert Johnson and Charley Patton, blues vocalist from the early part of the 20th century, both died penniless in the racist south.

If we look beyond the everyday racist humiliation experienced by black people in the US, we see how white supremacy functions just as powerfully in the contemporary moment as it did in 1925. It is hardly necessary to take into consideration the aesthetic merit of the music of many artists to see how clearly Moby can be located on the same historical continuum.

The key to understanding how white supremacy functions is to identify how it makes itself invisible to the majority of US citizens (consumers might be a better term). But whiteness is a powerful privilege which allows certain white people access to positions of relative power that are rarely, if ever, afforded black people.

The typical response to these charges is: Is not Moby is a vegetarian? Does he not live an ascetic, non-materialist life style and give money to environmental causes? Yes. But one can easily dismiss these banal liberal nostrums with the fact that Moby is understood by many in the US as the future of music, as the person who has made ‘electronica’ (a term used by the mainstream media to refer to contemporary, instrumental electronic music intended for the dance floor). In other words, he stopped making ‘dance music’, still denigrated because of the depth at which the homophobic ‘disco sucks’ ideology runs in the psyche of the US white body politic.

At this point, many of you may feel that I am singling out Moby as a racist. My case is precisely the inverse. Undoubtedly, Moby is not a racist in the commonsensical way that word is understood by white liberals. I am sure he is aware of the truncated life chances of millions of poor African-Americans. I am sure he thinks all the cops in the Abner Louima trial should have been thrown in jail. But these facts are, frankly, irrelevant to my argument. Racism and white supremacy are not synonymous. By virtue of his middle-class whiteness, Moby is not only able to gain access to a record deal with a major label; he is praised for using the blues in his records, as if this made him a genius.

(Attached you find an article about the musician who wrote the song “Natural Blues”. The article deals with cultural appropriation in artistic creation. In an essay of 400 words (minimum), you will write a reaction to the article. You can take several routes: Do you understand what cultural appropriation is? Have you heard of it before? What is your reaction to the article about Moby’s music? Your essay will be 400 words typed, double-spaced.)