Adele, Bantu knots and a Jamaica flag bra: how the cultural appropriation conversation sparked a diaspora war

Instead of being a moment for learning, the back and forth on both sides of the Atlantic raged on, amplifying ignorance held in all camps

Chanté Joseph
Wednesday 02 September 2020 11:21 BST
Notting Hill Carnival goes online for 2020

The image of Adele in her Jamaica flag bra, smiling awkwardly as her extremely tight blond Bantu Knots gave her an involuntary facelift is permanently etched in my brain. After the sheer shock and disbelief passed however, it became a very funny moment. Who knew that picture would start a conversation that had everyone from UK and US Black Twitter, British MPs and Piers Morgan embroiled in a very strange but revealing conversation about cultural appropriation and identity?

Between all of the memes, Gifs and reggae remixes of Adele’s songs, there was also a more confusing conversation brewing about whether or not we should be offended and whether, despite Adele’s London-charm, so heavily influenced by Black Brits, she should be allowed to escape the dreaded label of cultural appropriator.

So, are Adele’s impending traction alopecia Bantu Knots a form of cultural appropriation? Let's get this out of the way early. The short of it is, by definition, no. Emma Dabiri, author of Don’t Touch My Hair sums it up perfectly in this thread on Twitter. “Cultural appropriation operates as part of a structural power dynamic where the ‘appropriating’ actors belong to an advantaged group.” she writes, quoting her book. “This group systematically extracts the cultural resources of a subordinate group, erasing the subordinate group’s involvement in the process.”

We know that Adele isn’t someone who is far removed from the culture, using it for exposure or financial gain while erasing its originator’s history she is participating in a culture she knows. It is because of this the reactions, particularly from Black British Twitter, were mixed. She is loved and adored by our faves such as Stormzy who raps: “I was in the O2 singing my lungs out /Rudeboy, you're never too big for Adele” and she is so brashly London that it would be hard to come to the conclusion that there isn't some familiarity with that culture.

However, just because Adele isn’t appropriating Black British/Caribbean culture, it doesn’t make it not offensive. One thing social media doesn’t allow space for is broad and open conversations. We can love Adele, her music and her vibrant South London personality and we can also feel uncomfortable about what she’s doing. We can acknowledge that if Adele was a Black woman in British Soul music she would likely not enjoy the same level of fame and that she is a benefactor of white privilege while simultaneously acknowledging her upbringing, proximity and understanding of Black British culture.

We can also acknowledge that the situation was actually quite funny, while also remembering that global anti-blackness is the reason we still fight about hair discrimination even in predominantly Black countries today. We love and know Adele but that doesn’t stop her from being ignorant or causing harm, however unintentional.

The Jamaican High Commission estimates that there are around 800,000 British people of Jamaican origin in the UK. Jamaican immigrants are the 16th largest foreign-born group in the UK. The dominance of Jamaican culture in Britain means that anything remotely Caribbean is painted as Jamaican. This is why Adele’s choice of clothes to mark Notting Hill Carnival also became a talking point. Carnivals are more of an Eastern Caribbean tradition and not necessarily Jamaican in origin. However, it is worth remembering that Notting Hill Carnival is a uniquely Caribbean-British tradition, which means alongside the decorated masqueraders a direct import of our West Indian elders – you have off-shoots of Garage, Jungle and Drum and Bass sound systems which are influenced by Jamaican culture both sonically and in their set up.

Trailer: Notting Hill Carnival goes virtual for the first time in its 54-year history

Notting Hill Carnival is Black British Caribbean in the sense that the children of West Indian Immigrants and the cultures they created have become a part of the celebration with time. It is still important to recognise that the origins of traditions practised at Notting Hill Carnival, particularly mas (short for masquerade), have roots in slavery and are deeply sacred to Caribbean people. “Because mas came out of slavery, a transgressive critique of white imperialism is inherent in the performance,” Sirin Kale writes in The Guardian. “you can’t play mas without understanding the bloodied past of the Caribbean.”

Despite Adele’s innocent nod to Caribbean culture, I see her choice to don feathers as a masquerader as more distasteful than it seemed to some. This is a celebration for and by formerly enslaved peoples, of which, she is not one.

While those from north and south London battled it out to claim Adele as one of their own and Black British Twitter ran jokes that amped up the lightness of the situation – with many defending Adele – our African American counterparts were not having it at all. We were accused of defending the indefensible and allowing white people to pick at our culture while being accused of having no culture. Twitter rarely goes a week without diaspora wars of some kind, but of all the strange things 2020 has delivered, a diaspora war ignited by Adele was not expected. Instead of being a moment for learning, the back and forth on both sides of the Atlantic raged on, amplifying ignorance held in all camps. Perhaps the most upsetting part of the argument was that throughout most of it, few really asked or acknowledged how those native to the Caribbean felt about this. Nor were the cultural differences between Caribbean nations acknowledged. Unfortunately, the catty one-upmanship culture that social media fosters didn’t allow us to have a nuanced conversation about our varied and overlapping identities. But again, that’s Twitter for you.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in