Funmi Arewa Discusses the Ethics of Cultural Borrowing in a Diverse World

Law Professor Olufunmilayo (Funmi) Arewa from the University of California, Irvine visited Colgate to give a talk titled “Borrowing, Appropriation, and Uses of Culture” on Thursday, September 29. Arewa drew from several disciplines to synthesize her lecture. She covered topics such as borrowing as a cultural norm, the global impact of African American music and the importance of the historical context of hierarchies and inequality. 

Arewa used contemporary and historical examples in her lecture, including popular YouTube videos, Italian opera from the 14th century, African American musical history and the Nigerian film industry, Nollywood, to discuss the act of “cultural borrowing” and its appropriate uses.

As a proponent of cultural borrowing, Arewa explained that a countless number of individuals throughout history drew upon ideas from other cultures to use during the creative process, and how this act of cultural borrowing led to artistic innovation and the creation of distinct cultures and processes.

Arewa then discussed the role cultural borrowing has played in musical development. Arewa provided the example of Italian opera, which originated as a culmination of improvising and drawing from other composers. She also explained that early African American music was a product of the  blending of varied and diverse musical traditions. Arewa argued that the exposure and diffusion of musical variety have ultimately helped different genres to incorporate multiple styles and develop into new styles that are  now both culturally complex and musically unique.

Drawing upon her experience as a lawyer, Arewa also discussed the legality of cultural borrowing, specifically focusing on copyright in the entertainment industry. She then shifted the focus to Nollywood, the rapidly growing film industry in Nigeria, which has dealt with piracy issues. This problem resulted in the discussion of copyrighted material and ownership. Although copyrighting material usually ensures that proper credit and compensation are given to those who deserve it, legality can often restrict the spread of culture and may ultimately inhibit creativity through lack of exposure to new ideas and material. 

Arewa’s lecture also addressed the issue of cultural appropriation, a contentious contemporary issue. In a modern society in which cultural boundaries are constantly shifting, it can be difficult to discern which particular group of people has ownership of a certain musical genre, hairstyle or language. Arewa believes in the natural act of cultural borrowing, but with proper acknowledgment and possible compensation given to the group from whom something was borrowed. 

Additionally, the language used to describe this borrowing can heavily influence people’s perspectives on it; “borrow” is a softer term, while words such as “appropriation” and “theft” can strike a nerve among groups whose culture is being taken and used elsewhere. However, Arewa ultimately encourages borrowing, as it can enhance creative innovation around the world. Arewa expressed that she firmly believes that this kind of creativity will only result from collaboration. 

Toward the end of the lecture, student responses suggested that the audience was very engaged with the material and with Arewa herself. Senior Matt LaPaglia appreciated the variety of expertise Arewa brought to the lecture.  

“Her knowledge of many different subjects made her lecture interesting and it really felt like a ‘liberal arts’ perspective,” LaPaglia said.

First-year Tara Hulen was impressed by Arewa’s interdisciplinary approach.

“The synthesis of subjects gives [Arewa] a better grasp of the subject and she’s able to clearly communicate,” Hulen said. “She answered questions very well.”