Hybridity and Why It Matters

by Kevin Currie-Knight


Academics sure can take simple everyday things and make them complicated. Or complicated things and make them simple. I’m not sure which it is when we come to what some call “hybridity,” which is what happens when folks create fusions between cultural worlds, taking things from different cultures and smashing them together in interesting ways. Think country trap music (you know, Old Town Road?), General Tso’s tacos, or “Spanglish.” [1]

I confess a deep fascination with hybrid cultural forms. I think they should be noticed and celebrated a lot more. I think that means something for understanding what culture is and isn’t and gives lie to the myth of pure cultural types. But we’ll get to that in a bit. First, let me explain where this idea of (theorizing) cultural hybridity came from and what it was in response to.

Cultural hybrids as facts have surely been around since as long as human beings have emigrated and transacted between different cultures. But the idea of hybridity as theory is widely attributed to post-colonial theorist Homi Bhaba in his book The Location of Culture. Academics can write quite poorly, and if I had to give a prize to the single work that offers a simple idea in the most convoluted language possible, this one would get my vote.

Bhaba’s simple idea was that too many post-colonial scholars frame the colonizer/colonized relationship as a one-way street: the colonizer acts on, dominates, and changes the colonized, and the story ends there. Bhaba –- mostly using examples of high-brow art, as academics are wont to do –- suggests a more complicated picture: colonizers surely change the colonized, but the colonized also change the colonizers.

Think of it this way (with an illustration Bhaba could have used but didn’t): When a colonizer “takes over” a certain area with a very different cuisine, the colonized may often be forced or pressured to adapt their food to the ways of the colonizer, especially over time. But for a lot of reasons (enduring culture and tastes, what food is available in the place, etc.): (a) the colonized are very likely adapt to this new cuisine through the interpretive lens of the “old” flavors they are used to; and (b) the colonizer at some point is affected by this “new twist” on their “native cuisine.”

Bhaba called what the colonized is doing in the above scenario “mimicry.” But he correctly notes that mimicry is always done through the filter of the mimic and thus can never produce a perfect copy. If I am a French immigrant to America and I want to learn this new American form of music called “jazz,” I can do it, but I will always be doing it with the sensibilities I formed growing up in France. Even if I’m a good mimic, I will inevitably bring something different to the music than had I been a native New Orleanian.

Cultural theorists Paul Gilroy and Stuart Hall noticed a more egalitarian hybridity when looking at the African diaspora and its effect on popular music in Britain and the US. Hip hop, for instance, is an amalgamation of a lot of things: Caribbean dancehall music, American funk and soul music, and a lot of other influences within its city of origin, multi-ethnic New York City. When you import this New York invention into other places –- particularly outside of the US –- things get a lot more interesting, what Gilroy would term The Black Atlantic.

This idea of hybridity developed by Bhaba, Hall, Gilroy and others was aimed in some sense at a “common enemy,” which was every manner of cultural essentialism and structuralism, with their tendencies toward treating “cultures” as discreet and coherent sets of practices that have internal logics and identifiable borders. We know (to Bhaba’s concern) where the colonized cultures end and the colonizer’s begin. We can say what is and is not (to Hall’s and Gilroy’s concerns) authentically black music and ways of being.

I work in the field of Education, a field saturated with talk about culture. We talk about culturally relevant (or responsive) pedagogy, the importance of teachers either coming from or knowing about their students “cultures,” and stuff like that. And where I’m all for teachers having good insight into their students backgrounds, I have the same problems with this education-speak as the above cultural theorists have with structuralist accounts of culture. I can’t see how the way education folks talk about students’ cultures doesn’t just descend into lazy stereotypes: you, he, and she are Hispanic, so I can understand you all by learning about this monolith “Hispanic culture.”

But, especially in an age of globalization, cultures are fuzzy as hell, and their borders are more and more permeable by the year. And cultures are more customizable to individuals: you can be a Hispanic person who eats Chinese food, does yoga, and listens to white rappers on your way to work at a store selling country and western apparel. Knowing that you are Hispanic tells me less and less about you by the year.

The story many sociologists tell is that the early modern age found cultures much more limited to geography. Your choices are what was around you, and when travel is costly and information travels slowly, it is possible for cultures to coexist but never interact let alone permeate each other’s boundaries. Travel cheapened, migration became easier, and communication became as fast as the internet. Before, cultures had to work hard to interact, where now, they have to work hard to be distinct.

And with that, you get a whole lot of interesting fusions of a type and at a pace that previous generations never had. I recently held a class with undergraduates talking about hybridity in music. The two examples I used to illustrate the point was the growing phenomena of black country music and increasing Hispanic influence on American pop.

Here’s what makes both phenomena unique as hybrids. It’s always been true that performers of one race have performed music where they are a minority. White artists have always played jazz and have made appearances in hip hop; black artists have always showed up in country music from time to time. [2] But when this has happened, the norm has always been that these artists try to sound like the dominant artists of the time. White jazz artists had to “play black,” and black country artists had to sound “race neutral” (which meant white. Or be relegated to making “race records.”)

So, here is Willie Jones, a current black country artist, blatantly bucking that norm. An unapologetically black artist fusing country with hip hop musical and lyrical themes. A cowboy hat and a Black Lives Matter message. And here’s Camila Cabello scoring a top twenty pop hit with a song that weaves between Spanish and English and has a salsa dura (“hard salsa,” not to be confused with pop salsa) chorus. These artists aren’t just genre-jumping, they are creating a pretty egalitarian fusion of styles. It’s not pop with a bit of salsa; it is pop salsa. It’s not country that “happens to be black,” (as if to be black is an accident one must apologize for) but consciously black country.

I hope I’m not following in the trend of academics making a simple thing complicated. What I think instead is that hybrids like this make what many think or talk about as a simple thing — culture — more complicated. If thought about as I’d want, hybrids like this should help remind us how deeply intertwined we all are in the cultural soup. Don’t think you have a lot of blackness in your white life (or white things in your black one)? Look harder, and then question whether partitioning black from white things is as neat an exercise as some think? Think those Hispanic immigrants pose a threat to “western culture?” They’ve already shaped your culture more than you realize, as you and your “western culture” shapes theirs. Cosmopolitan paradise? I wouldn’t go that far. But we’re all hybrids if we are willing to see it.


[1] After appearing as high as number 19 on the Billboard Hot Country charts, Billboard pulled Old Town Road from that (and not other) charts for not being a true country song, begging the obvious question that the idea of hybridity poses.

[2] I should point out that both jazz and country music were multiracial from the start, jazz coming up in polyglot New Orleans, and country being a fusion of Scots Irish and black influences. But in each case, once the music gained in popularity, its multiracial character disappeared, and each became the perceived domain of one racial group. From then on, any racial border crossing had to be done on the dominant racial group’s terms.


10 responses to “Hybridity and Why It Matters”

  1. I don’t think this is going to work, I’m afraid, at least not conceptually. Hybridity only makes sense as a concept if one has a clear and distinct conception of the ingredients that make up the alleged hybrid. But it’s precisely this that you say cannot be done: that is, you say we cannot give a clear and discrete account of a culture.

    Essentialism is a red-herring. One needn’t be an essentialist about concepts — that is, think they have necessary and sufficient conditions — in order to think that a concept is clear and distinct.

    I hope you can also see that expressions like “playing black” and the like cannot be made sense of in a context in which a concept cannot be treated as clear and distinct. And furthermore, “black” is not a culture. It is a color term that has been unscientifically and perniciously applied to people from all over the planet with nothing else otherwise in common.

    I understand what you are trying to do here, but I find it as regressive and philosophically indefensible as the thing it is meant to combat. [Inadvertently, of course.]

  2. Quite a few hits of the greatest soul label ever, Stax, were (co)written, (co)played and/or produced by whites like Steve Cropper and Wayne Jackson of the Memphis Horns. At Atlantic you had the Ertegun brothers (Turks) and Jerry Wexler. Hiphop is supposed to be black, but someone like Afrika Bambaataa knew very well what was happening in the Ruhr area in Germany where Kraftwerk resided. I could go on forever.

    I don’t like the idea of hybridization, but perhaps for another reason than Dan. To me, it seems to be an artificial construction, imposed on another artificial construction, namely the idea that there is something like intrinsically “black” or “white” or “hispanic” music, uninfluenced by other “cultures”. I don’t believe it exists, at least not since WWII. They’re nice categories that make life simple, allow us to classify artists etc. But modern artists never live in a vacuum. The borrow and steal everything they can lay their hands on, be it white, black or hispanic. The work of a modern musician is *never* pure. To describe this fact as an hybridization of things almost mythically pure, is a mistake. There is no pureness to start with.

    By the way, can anyone tell if this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nk-lLgt7CwI is white, black, hybrid, German or Italian?

  3. Maybe it’s my age, but this article seems historically myopic. In the ’60s and ’70s, we shoved music in a blender and out came some wild sounds, baby. Or maybe it was the drugs.

    I remember when a younger friend of mine went wild over REM using a mandolin for a song – “Listen to this! – a mandolin in a rock song!” Yeah, as if Faces never did “Maggie May.”

    Pop music eats its elders – and should; the market remains for the young to define and enjoy, and “rust never sleeps.”

    … So I’m listening to the tribute to Hendrix, “Jimi the Fox” off Goldberg and Bloomfield’s “Two Jews Blues,” when the guy at the next desk, getting in the groove, plays Zap Pow guitarist Dwight Pickney’s reggae “Hava Negila.” That reminds me of the period I hung out with Rastafarians listening to Nyahbinghi versions of old soul music and brain-mashing dub. (More drugs, of course – great ganja, mon.)

    I think this essay may be a response to the complaints of “cultural appropriation” coming out of some smart-ass collegiates when it comes to popular music, but the pragmatic response to such complaints is “eh, fuckit,” and listen to the music. The Academy has always had a difficult time with popular music, and probably should keep well out of it. At any rate, I don’t think we need any more academic classifications of pop music phenomena. “When the music hits, you feel no pain.”

  4. Good example. I love that song.

  5. Fun fact: the synthesizer was borrowed from a *classical* composer, Eberhard Schoener, and his assistant Robby Wedel aided Moroder and Bellote, the producers of the song. Hybridization doesn’t even start to describe what happened in that studio in Munich.

    Other fun fact: Donna Summer recorded the vocals in one take. One take! Incredible. How many takes do Taylor Swift and Beyoncé need nowadays? Donna, I miss you.

  6. Ira

    > guitarist Dwight Pickney’s reggae “Hava Negila

    Sly and Robbie are smiling

  7. Totally off topic, Ira, but how on earth are you still tolerating that cesspool over at BHTV? Lol. Some poor soul just tried to tell me Taiwan isn’t a real country.

  8. I’m constantly shocked that something so elementary as one country invading another with no provocation is not understood as a clear-cut case of right and wrong. With no exaggeration, this is quite literally a kindergarten-level concept.

    What is on display at BhTV is — in varying ways, depending on the commentator — the effect of different types of dogma. To be honest, it feels like I’m in some surreal world where basic concepts of common sense and fairness no longer apply.

  9. Terranbiped

    It’s American, though it doesn’t have to be. Is there any doubt why the American multiverse is the pop culture hegemon

  10. Terranbiped

    Oh, dear! Wait till Tarkheena hears about this;(