Oct/Nov Featured Story

A Sacred Sound Industry Insider Reflects on the Commodification of Spirituality and Cultural Appropriation within Her Field

It’s the 2010s, and I’ve just swallowed two small cups of the hallucinogenic drink Ayahuasca. It tastes like dirt, and nothing much happens for the first hour. I spend this time sitting in a forest in the United States. A man from Central America, who is leading the ceremony, plays a variety of instruments laid out on a makeshift altar before him. These include shakers, Native American flutes and Native American drums. 

Below the mountain clearing where we’ve set up the ceremony is a Native American sweat lodge. It’s operated by a Native American man and his partner, a white woman initiated by local Grandmothers as a pipe carrier in the tradition of the Ani-Coosa. This couple knows all of us in the clearing well and has granted us permission to use the land.

After the brew takes hold, I experience the sensation of dissolving into a void where I undergo what feels like several cycles of death and rebirth. Just as I internally make peace with the thought that I might have actually died, I hear the familiar sound of fingers striking steel, emitting a harmonic vibration that permeates the proverbial “veil.” 

Each note serves as a kind of sonic breadcrumb, guiding me back to myself. When I open my eyes, I see my then husband, sitting across from me under the starlight, playing an instrument built by the company we owned together. 

Mainstreaming the Medicine Show

My experience is not unique. 

Look beyond Western Civilization, and you’ll find stories about medicine people that date back centuries. They were respected community leaders who facilitated sacred ceremonies designed to promote healing within individual community members and society as a whole. 

In some parts of the world, these practices continue in alignment with time-honored traditions. However, they have also become increasingly popular in Western culture. 

Throughout the 2000s, North Americans and Europeans have traveled to South America, Central America and Africa to participate in ceremonies, performed by indigenous leaders and Western immigrants alike. 

US citizens of European heritage have participated in Native American sweat lodges and Sun Dance ceremonies–sometimes under the leadership of consenting Native Americans, other times in their own approximations of these religious rites. 

Meanwhile, the use of white sage, Native American musical instruments and Native American headdresses have become popular trends, prevalent at Coachella and other music festivals. Secular references to Native American concepts like “spirit animals” have also become mainstream. 

Cultural Appropriation 101

Susan Scafidi, author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, defines cultural appropriation as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.” 

While the idea of cultural appropriation has existed for decades, mainstream acknowledgement is relatively new. 

Like many others, I first heard the term in 2013 after both Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus came under fire for appropriating Asian and Black culture, respectively, at major music award ceremonies. Five years later, the Oxford English Dictionary added the term in March 2018. 

Since then, discussion of appropriation within the mainstream music industry has continued to focus primarily on Black culture and Asian culture. The result has been an ongoing debate around appropriating a culture as a tribute versus appropriating a culture as a means of profiting from it. 

When it comes to Miley’s twerking or Katy Perry’s impersonation of a Geisha, the evidence of appropriating for profit is pretty clear. 

When it comes to Native American drum circles and indigenous plant medicine ceremonies, the space between appropriation and appreciation is more grey. These practices are not designed to entertain a paying audience. Rather, they use music as a form of medicine. However, this usually comes with a fee, and that makes the practices vulnerable to both cultural appropriation and other forms of abuse.  

At best, indigenous ceremonies combine the consumption of plants, ritual dance and acts of physical endurance with music to produce a spiritually profound experience, which may have additional mental and physical therapeutic benefits. 

At worst, the same ceremonies recklessly endanger people who are encouraged to participate despite known contraindications and open the doorway for self-proclaimed healers to commit acts of psychological manipulation and sexual abuse. 

My Contributions to Sacred Sound

My individual experience of Ayahuasca has been positive. I feel it has helped alleviate anxiety and depression. That first night in the woods also provided me with a vision of how I would later overcome codependency and make peace with a cancer diagnosis. I’ve had similar experiences participating in drum circles and Native American sweat lodge ceremonies. 

I’m also a white woman of 100 percent European descent, who continues to profit to some degree from the sale of a musical instrument that has a complicated history.

Generically called a “handpan,” the type of instrument my company made originated in Switzerland, where Felix Roehner opened the company PANart to distribute his creation, the Hang. A dome-shaped, hand-played percussion instrument that sounds as much like a harp as a drum, the Hang takes its inspiration from multiple other instruments. Of these, the most influential is the steel pan, itself the product of a rich Afro-Carribean heritage. 

My company paid partial tribute to the handpan’s Afro-Carribean lineage thanks to our collaboration with late Trinidadian steel pan pioneer Ellie Mannette.We also aligned ourselves with consenting Indigenous medicine practitioners as a result of deciding to make the instrument following a plant medicine ceremony. 

Taken as a whole, the severity and impact of appropriation that I’ve both witnessed and perpetuated is mixed. As the company closes, I feel more good than harm has come from the venture. I also feel there is room to do better. When envisioning a clear path forward within the sacred sound industry, I’m inspired by the psychedelic community’s emphasis on the importance of “set” and “setting.”

Set, Setting and Social Justice 

Simply put, “set” refers to a person’s state of mind prior to imbibing hallucinogenic substances, and “setting” refers to the environment within which they do so. Each has a profound impact on a person’s experience as their perception of reality shifts. 

Thus far, the year 2020 has inspired a collective shift in humanity’s perception of reality. This is especially strong in the United States, which has remained the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic for many consecutive months. Amid the pandemic, the United States is also experiencing a highly polarized presidential election, a financial crisis, devastating wildfires and a new civil rights era. 

This collective setting has resulted in a variety of individual sets, ranging from paranoid and conspiratorial to passionately determined to enact lasting social change. 

In the wake of social distancing, Westernized sweat lodges, drum circles and plant medicine ceremonies have also slowed to a virtual halt–giving everyone in the sacred sound industry an opportunity to reflect. As we reintegrate into society, I think it’s time to raise our awareness.

While I support access to Native music and traditions for all, I also realize this can’t happen until there is justice for Native people. Otherwise, prioritizing Western access to sacred music and traditions will come to exemplify what journalist Nadra Kareem Nittle describes in A Guide to Understanding and Avoiding Cultural Appropriation when she writes: 

Ultimately, art and music forms that originated with minority groups come to be associated with members of the dominant group. As a result, the dominant group is deemed innovative and edgy, while the disadvantaged groups they “borrow” from face negative stereotypes.

Native Justice Now 

Via her blog Native Appropriations, activist and academic Adrienne Keene provides a dynamic portrait of the challenges facing contemporary Native American society. A member of the Cherokee Nation, as well as a graduate of both Stanford and Harvard, Keene cites cultural appropriation as a danger to Native peoples for three key reasons: 

  • First, it’s often a misguided and blatantly disrespectful commodification of spirituality that inherently devalues Native American culture. 
  • Second, sweeping appropriations enforce stereotypes that Native American culture is monolithic rather than dynamic and varied across over 500 diverse tribes. 
  • Third, it regards Native people as part of the historic past, separating them from contemporary society and thus undermining their existence. 

So, how can sacred sound evolve to meet the needs of a more just world? 

For that, I look to Instagram, where Atlanta-based musician Brooklyn recently shared a particularly insightful post. While promoting her new line of hand-made rosemary and sage incense cones, the artist wrote:

This sage is NOT white sage. While I do come from Afro-Native American descent , (specifically, Blackfoot) I was not raised in the culture and have not cultivated my own white sage; therefore, I do not feel confident in making these cones from white sage. If you do purchase white sage, please either purchase directly from Indigenous people or from shops that carry White Sage made from Indigenous people!

While Brooklyn’s talking sage, her simple point holds true for Native American drums, flutes, ceremonies, and art. If we want to participate in these practices, we must use our spending power to support the Indigenous people with whom these traditions originated, and we must respect them as the relevant, contemporary authorities they are.

Kelli Lynn Grey is an Atlanta-based copywriter, curriculum designer, essayist and poet. She presently manages the fledgling imprint BAMF Books and formerly co-founded TerraTonz LLC, a global-facing steel percussion business. A mother of two and defender of civil and human rights, she shares updates about writing and life through her newsletter The Grey Way


CONNECT WITH KELLI: Twitter

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