From clothing, to music, to dance, and even sacred religious symbols, appropriating another group’s culture for profit has a long history in the United States — and the world. Here’s a just a few examples of cultural appropriation.
Fortnite and the Carlton dance
Fortnite, the popular “battle royale” style video game with a reported 125 million players, has been accused of exploiting black talent and the dances of rappers in the popular video game. Published by Epic Games, the game allows players to buy dances for characters in the game, which has been hugely profitable for the company. It’s estimated that Epic made more than $300 million in May alone just on these in-game purchases.
Artists and rappers have blasted the company for not compensating the people that originally created the moves. Rapper 2 Milly is even suing the company for copying his “Milly Rock” and actor Alfonso Ribeiro is also suing Epic, saying the company recreated a dance that is most associated with his character from the 1990s television show “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” which has long been known as the “Carlton Dance.”
Fortnite should put the actual rap songs behind the dances that make so much money as Emotes. Black creatives created and popularized these dances but never monetized them. Imagine the money people are spending on these Emotes being shared with the artists that made them
— Chance The Rapper (@chancetherapper) July 13, 2018
When Disney released the animated film “The Lion King” in 1994, the company also trademarked the Swahili phrase “Hakuna Matata” for use in merchandising. With Disney’s live action version of the film due out in July 2019, many Kenyans learned of the trademark for the first time and were shocked that the company profited off their language. CGTN’s Maria Galang had this report.
“This is America” and the “Women’s edit”
Donald Glover, under his hip-hop persona Childish Gambino, released a provocative and popular music video for his single, “This is America.” Both the video and the track were highly praised for its symbolism and imagery of current U.S. race relations.
Less than a week later, comedian Nicole Arbour released a women’s take on the video, which was set out to address issues that Arbour believes women in America face. But her video faced some criticism for being tone deaf and as Vice.com put it: “totally oblivious to the fact that she is appropriating a black man’s work that specifically highlights the black American experience.”
Native American iconography on sports teams
Many sports teams in the United States use Native American imagery as their mascots. Some of the most controversial are the Cleveland Indians, the Washington Redskins, the Kansas City Chiefs, and the Chicago Blackhawks.
For years Native American activists have lobbied teams to change their names or remove the more offensive images Native Americans as mascots. The Cleveland Indians have said they will remove the “Chief Wahoo” mascot, but do not plan to change the team name. However, the Washington Redskins owners have firmly said they will not change their image or mascot while the Chiefs and the Blackhawks mascots remain.
Trademarking Dia de los Muertos
Before the Hakuna Matata row, in 2013 the Disney Company also got into hot water after they filed an application to trademark the phrase, “Dia de los Muertos,” which means “Day of the Dead” in Spanish. The day is a traditional holiday celebrated throughout Mexico and much of Latin America, where people spend three days honoring their deceased loved ones, holding processions, and decorating gravesites.
Disney was hoping to trademark the name of the holiday to sell merchandise for its then-upcoming film “Coco” that takes place during the Day of the Dead. After the public outcry, Disney withdrew the application. When “Coco” was finally released in 2017, many viewed it as a respectful adaptation of the holiday.
A tale of three bikinis
When Victoria’s Secret released a unique bikini with colored crochet lacework, the much smaller swimwear brand Kiini sued, claiming that they had copied a design by Kiini’s founder Ipek Irgit. But during the lawsuit, it was revealed that the Kiini’s design was practically identical to one that a Brazilian designer, Maria Solange Ferrarini, had created before Kiini.
There was even evidence that Kiini had used Ferrarini’s design as a prototype for their line. Eventually, Victoria’s Secret settled for an undisclosed sum with Kiini in 2017. Meanwhile, Ferrarini is suing Kiini, accusing them of unfair business practices. That case is still pending.
Victoria’s Secret’s bikini
— Last Reviews (@last_reviews) February 13, 2018
The sacred sun of the Zia Pueblo
In the 1990s, the Zia Pueblo tribe in New Mexico filed a lawsuit against the state of New Mexico over its use of a Native American symbol, the Zia sun, which was used on many state merchandise and products, such as the New Mexico flag and license plate. The tribe accused the state of appropriating a sacred religious and cultural symbol that dates to the year 1200 and sought $74 million.
The tribe lost, but it led the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to create a Native American Tribal Insignia Database to help other tribes to prevent entities from using their religious symbols as trademarks. One reason the case failed was because it was already on a state flag. U.S. trademark law holds that one can trademark or register a logo that includes the flag of any state or city.
Protecting Rooibos tea
In 2013, South African tea growers and sellers were concerned about a French company’s attempt to trademark the word “Rooibos”. Rooibos tea (which is Afrikaan for “red bush”) is exclusively grown in South Africa and brings in millions for the country.
The South African Rooibos Council was eventually able to protect the name by getting “geographic indicator status” with the European Union. This means, that Rooibos has the same protections as products such as Darjeeling tea and champagne. Now only South African companies can own the name.