9th Wonder Speaks On Why Bruno Mars’ Critics Are Fakin’ The Funk

Last month, while accepting his Grammy for “Album Of The Year” for 24K Magic, Bruno Mars made it a point to address the other nominees by name. He shouted out “Kung-Fu Kenny, JAY-Z and Gambino,” saying to them “You guys are the reason I’m in the studio pulling my hair out…thank you for blessing the world with your music.” He followed that with a brief story about a gig he had when he was 15 years old, in his native Hawaii. For the performance, he says, he put together a medley of songs and it wasn’t until adulthood he realized those songs were written by the likes of Babyface, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, as well as Teddy Riley. “I’d like to dedicate this album to them,” he said. “They are my heroes. They are my teachers. They laid the foundation [without which] this album wouldn’t exist.”

Whether intentionally or not, Bruno Mars simultaneously addressed and dismissed his critics with his acceptance speech. He’s frequently come under fire as appropriating Black culture in his music, accused of mimicking the sound and style of Black R&B musicians and profiting off the work of others. In 2017, his “Record Of The Year” Grammy-winning single “Uptown Funk” came under fire by Angie Stone & The Sequence, who told Rolling Stone “Bruno Mars took the lyrics, the cadence and the melodies and then they went and reached over to ‘Apache’ and got ‘Jump on it/Jump on it.’ I’m like, Okay, now y’all done did too much. We’re broke over here, Okay? We need some money. We need some of that, because we created that!” Now, a full 16 months since 24K Magic dropped, similar accusations are resurfacing after being rekindled on social media in the wake of the LP taking home the Grammys’ biggest prize.

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The most recent Bruno Mars backlash is being attributed to singer and bassist Meshell Ndegeocello, who called Bruno Mars nothing more than a “karaoke” performer in a recent interview with Billboard. “I think he’s simply copying Bell Biv DeVoe,” she says of his most recent single, “Finesse.” “I think he was copying Babyface. And definitely there were some elements of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis back when they worked with Human League. I feel like there’s just all these threads running through there but not in a genuine way.” It seems she had seen Bruno’s acceptance speech, as she mentions the same artists he acknowledged as having directly influenced him – and there’s the rub. Some are now asking whether accusations of cultural appropriation are accurate, given Bruno’s evident desire to acknowledge and thank the Black musicians who have inspired him along the way. Some are asking what else he, an artist of color, has to do to be considered a “genuine” artist rather than a thief.

In the last 24 hours, 9th Wonder has entered the discussion (perhaps “Twitter dumpster fire” is a better name for it) about Bruno Mars and cultural appropriation. “So many loopholes in this Bruno Mars situation,” he began. He then proceeded to bring up examples in music which he believes point to the hypocrisy in criticism of non-Black artists versus Black artists and the selective up-in-arms attitude commonly seen on social media. He mentions Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and Black Panther as examples saying of the latter, “Black Panther was a comic book, a series on BET, etc.,…before half of y’all. Now [you] wanna pack all of your sh*t, cross your arms, and head to Wakanda all of Of a sudden.” He sharpens the criticism, saying that folks who are upset with Bruno Mars aren’t actually upset but rather band-wagoning the latest popular backlash. “For some of y’all…It’s NOT the sound…it’s NOT the feeling…it’s the popularity of the situation you are concerned with,” he tweeted.

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He makes note of Lisa Stanfield, Jane Child and 3rd Bass as White artists in the 1980s and 1990s who arguably lifted influence from popular Black culture to underscore the notion that, if Black culture is going to be accepted and mainstream, there will inevitably always be non-Black artists influenced by said culture:

“So what do we want…in a culture that is Universal as math…how do we expect to for our culture now to be accept[ed] by mainstream (in which half of y’all don’t even recognize brilliance in artists UNTIL it’s slammed in your face by mass media..)..and NOT INFLUENCE the masses..,” he asks as a set-up to his entrance into the Bruno Mars-specific aspect of his argument. “Enter Bruno Mars…(half of y’all don’t even know his story, wasn’t in his house, know his childhood friends…)…nothing…,” he begins.

After comparing himself to Mars and raising some important questions, 9th then brings up Jon B. and Teena Marie and asks if there’s some kind of “Black” barometer by which Black people can measure a non-Black person’s acceptability within Black spaces. “Who gets the pass? Who’s invited to the cookout? How many times we’ve been at a cookout and seen someone from another race and someone explained…’Nah…he/she cool as sh*t tho…'”

9th used the conversation to bring up an important subtext of the argument, too. What happens when an artist of color is accused of appropriating artists of another color? In this instance, he brings up Bruno Mars’ being bi-racial and reminds folks that Hip-Hop would not be what it is without the contributions of Latino and Asian Americans.

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To point out the exhausting nature of assigning arbitrary condemnations on certain artists, he continues by asking “So one of the greatest DJs in hip-hop history…. ….a Filipino American…..is a cultural appropriator….what about the ….or…how about the executive producer of ILLMATIC, Faith Newman? Pino Palladino? Bob Power? Bob James? David Axelrod?”

The series of tweets embody an argument that goes well beyond Bruno Mars. Where do we draw the line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation? Can a person who openly names and credits his influences be accused of stealing from them? And, in a world where every artist is influenced by those who came before him or her, should that artist be limited to drawing inspiration to solely those artists of his or her own race? That seems like an absurd result that would benefit no one, and certainly not the culture.