Thoughts on Appropriation and Polka Hip Hop

April 6th, Bremen Café

April 6th, Bremen Café

NTSC here, melodeon player for your November Criminals. What follows will probably be rambling and incoherent. I’ll do my best to structure it as best I can.

Sometimes I need to take stock in how lucky I am. I play the melodeon—a diatonic button accordion—for a Polka Hip Hop band. For the only Polka Hip Hop band in the world.

I get to mix two of my favorite genres and perform them at the same time. Besides feeling lucky about getting this opportunity to express myself musically, I also need to zoom my focus out of my own life and recognize where I fit into a larger history of music, the people who make it and the performers who benefit from it.

I’m a white guy who grew up in an upper-middle-class family. I listened to a lot of rap growing up because that’s what the kids in my grade school listened to. I was fortunate that my parents raised me and my two sisters in one of the few truly diverse neighborhoods of Milwaukee, a city that is famously and depressingly segregated. The late eighties and early nineties were a boom for the popularity of hip hop groups, so that’s what I was exposed to.

On the flip side of that, I’ve always been a huge nerd. I would listen to the polka and folk programs on the radio in my room and play along on my harmonica. Being of Polish and German descent, I feel the music of those cultures very closely in my heart. They resonate somehow and I couldn’t even explain why. I don’t speak Polish any more than I speak German, which is not at all.

In high school I was introduced to Cajun and Zydeco music, which changed my life forever. I learned to play the Cajun style accordion (which is itself based on a traditional German style instrument) and I consumed a lot of Cajun and Zydeco music. A list of my biggest influences from those genres will reveal a trend, and point to the larger topic of this essay:

Left to right – Boozoo Chavis, Dwayne Dopsie, Andrus Espre, J. Paul Jr. Step Rideau, Steve Riley

Because the genre of Zydeco spoke so much to my musical tastes, I ended up emulating and worshiping primarily black musicians. The separations between traditional Acadian-influenced Cajun music and Creole/Black Creole Zydeco music run very deep in Louisiana, and have only recently begun to wear down a bit. The barriers still very much exist to this day. It’s a highly nuanced and complicated relationship, but a lot of it boils down to systemic racial bias and segregation, aka America’s entire history.

That’s how I picked up the accordion and made it my primary intrument. I played along with every Cajun and Zydeco CD I could get my hands on. I practiced endlessly until I’m sure my parents regretted ever encouraging me to pick the instrument up in the first place. Hell, they even bought me a second one! Gluttons for punishment, my parents.

Polish Immigrant with Concertina

Eventually I acquired a three-row melodeon and began to learn some traditional Slavic and Baltic music, in keeping with my ancestry. It was strange, but I began to develop a sense of comfort with polkas and waltzes from Eastern and Central Europe. It felt like the music belonged to me. I knew unconsciously that I had no place performing Zydeco and Cajun music. I’m not French, I’m not Acadian, I’m not Spanish and I’m especially not Creole or Black Creole. I’m a Polack—a uniquely Americanized version of a Pole. That is my heritage.

Cultural appropriation has run rampant in American society forever. I tried to do some research into when it began and was unable to find any high water mark. It’s been ever present. So long as there have been disenfranchised populations in this country, the privileged classes have taken every opportunity to steal their music, dress and language for entertainment. It can be argued that the most popular white bands in the nation’s history have all climbed to their positions of wealth and fame on the backs of black pioneers.

Jump to 2011 and the forming of the November Criminals. We had no idea what we were doing. It started as a single song for a single album and nothing more—until it became something more. All three of us, Brümeister, Spade One and myself, really loved the sound we had discovered. We loved the energy, the melody, the rhythm. We loved the freedom it afforded us. We had literally created a genre of music and could do with it whatever we pleased. There were no guidelines, no tropes, no boundaries. There was no road map or definition for what we were doing.

A few shows in, I began to struggle with the whole concept of us as a band. Spade One booked us on a series of hip hop shows at hip hop venues across the city. We were playing to audiences that expected an evening of pure hip hop, crafted and honed for their tastes. I can only imagine what they thought when I got on stage and plugged in my accordion. Needless to say, a lot of our audience took their smoke break while we performed. We played to a lot of empty rooms in those early days, and I felt it in my gut.

Art Bar 2012 - I am clearly lost

Art Bar 2012 – I am clearly lost

I knew inherently that I didn’t belong. I felt terrible, not from a self-pitying standpoint, but because the audiences continued to be so nice to me. After every show I got handshakes and words of generous praise. “That was awesome, man.”, “You guys rocked it.”, “You really play that thing!” and so on and so forth. It might have been my own self-doubt preying on my mind, but I don’t think it was. I would have felt better if we had been booed off the stage, or hissed at, or blacklisted. That would have felt more appropriate. It never happened.

We were nothing but accepted and thanked for our efforts. The hip hop community of this city gave us a stage and myriad opportunities, and never once told us to stop what we were doing. If anything, everyone emboldened us further! We would get pats on the back and offers of collaboration. It all made me feel even worse! I thanked my lucky stars that at least we were a Polka Hip Hop band. I’ll explain…

Syncretism is the merging of two or more systems of belief and/or culture into one amalgamated blending. It happened a lot in colonized areas where the invading empires needed to instill their own religion onto the native population. Aboriginal deities and ceremonies got merged with Christian saints and traditions, creating something altogether different and unique in the process. I feel like our band follows that strange, organic trend. The thought keeps me going.

Polka Hip Hop band with Concertina

So long as we are a blend of traditional Slavic/Baltic/European music and Hip Hop, I feel a little less like I’m just one of many thieves who have taken what isn’t theirs and appropriated it for their own ends. It’s crucial that I always remember where Hip Hop came from, and who it truly represents. Yes, Hip Hop has opened its arms to artists of literally every race, sex, gender, creed and culture. That doesn’t mean I can interpret it in any way I want and ignore the ramifications of that action.

Hip Hop is bigger than me. Its history is the history of jazz, and blues, and slavery and class struggle. I’m doing my best to make peace with my place in it now, and do right by every artist who made it what it is today. I know it will be an ongoing process. I’ll never be “done.”

Recently we were invited to perform at Dontre Day, a commemoration of the life of Dontre Hamilton who was slain by Milwaukee police officers on April 30, 2014. Due to weather, it was held in the beautiful congregation hall of the All Peoples Church. I don’t know that we’ve ever been invited into a more open, welcoming environment of love and worship. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt more out of place.

A beautiful mural in the All Peoples Church

A small group representing the Nation of Islam left just before our set, and I felt cowardly and grateful at the same time. We played our hearts out. I managed to successfully omit all the cussing in my verses (there is a lot) and we packed up quickly to make way for heartfelt and powerful words from the Hamilton family.

As always, without exception, we were thanked and welcomed and appreciated after the show. Whether or not people were just being polite is beside the point. The fact that the community, every community we’ve ever performed for has always treated us with respect and care is simultaneously gratifying and crushing in just about equal measure.

I’ll reiterate, I am incredibly lucky. I am privileged for so many reasons, one of which is that I benefit from this amazing opportunity. Yeah, we’re a weird band from a small city in a flyover state. We’ve got no audience to speak of and we toe the line of appropriate and ill-conceived every time we set foot on a stage. Still, I am ever grateful for what I have, for my brothers-in-arms and for the community that has nurtured us.

I am going to do my best to find my place in it while honoring and amplifying the history behind the genres I love. I know I’ll mess up bad, and probably already have a hundred times. Hopefully I can proceed with the right amount of awareness and respect to make this whole endeavor worthwhile, because I truly love what we do.

I’m a lucky guy.