Bruno Mars and the appropriation of Black music

Bruno Mars, Grammys

In the wake of major cultural success, many have celebrated Bruno Mars for “bringing back funk”. But just like when Prince threw shade at Justin Timberlake for claiming to bring sexy back, funk never left. The truth is that Bruno Mars is actively appropriating Black culture. I’ve outlined the reasons why and how he keeps getting a pass for it.

When I heard that Bruno Mars was set to open the 2017 BET Awards, I couldn’t help but feel some kinda way. Not that I haven’t enjoyed his music. Not that I don’t recognize his talent. My issue is that a non-Black singer who appropriates Black culture and sounds was scheduled to open the biggest celebration of Black music for the entire year.

If you are like many people on social media, that statement alone has you deep in your feelings. So pause a second and take some deep breaths. Let your blood pressure return to normal. Now read on and understand how sinister (purposefully or not) Bruno Mars is to Black artists.

The Evolution of Bruno Mars

First things first, let’s stop pretending as if Bruno Mars has been a champion for Black music his entire career. As a child, Bruno Mars was an Elvis impersonator in his father’s rock & roll review, even appearing in Honeymoon to Vegas with Nicolas Cage. Funny how he was raised impersonating one of the most notorious appropriators of Black music in history, only to follow in his footsteps.

His first album, Doo-Wops & Hooligans, made pop music out of heavy usage of Doo-Wop conventions. You can’t tell me that’s not what “The Lazy Song” and “Marry You” were. His second album, Unorthodox Jukebox, started his partnership with Mark Ronson as well as his funk influences. And then came “Uptown Funk” and his 24K Magic album. Both dove right into using funk and other historically Black musical genres as their basis. And the appropriation evolution was complete.

My claims aren’t unfounded or even outside of the mainstream. Even top music magazine Billboard reviewed his most recent album with a track-by-track listing of the artists he used as “inspiration”. It is no secret that Mars leans heavily on the past for his music. So much so, that many of his songs are sonically undiscernable from the songs and artists he “credits”.

The Legal Cases Against Bruno Mars

Beyond claims of appropriation, there are legal actions being taken against Bruno Mars as well. Just like “Blurred Lines”, some of the artists who Mars claims as his inspirations see his music as theft

  • The Gap Band took issue with “Uptown Funk”, claiming it borrowed from their “Oops Upside Your Head”. In the end, they were granted 17% of all publishing royalties.
  • Serbian artist Snezana Miskovic (who sings under the name Viktorija) made similar claims against “Uptown Funk”. And after a listen to the songs side-by-side, I can’t disagree.
  • Collage attacked the song as well, saying it is just like their song “Young Girls”.
  • Argentine rock legend Charly Garcia claims the same for his song “Fanky” (though I think this comparison is as obvious)
  • Angie Stone and former members of the Sequence have also accused Mars and Ronson of stealing their sounds

And the list goes on and on. even put together a list of 8 artists who could sue on similar grounds.

This is by no means meant to be an exhaustive list of all the legal challenges thrown at Mars. This illustrates that what Bruno Mars might call an homage many artists see as a thinly-veiled copy. And if these artists themselves take issue with it, why are we so quick to give him a pass?

The Weakness of Giving Credit

Many are quick to refute the belief that Bruno Mars is appropriating Black music because he gives them credit. And as proof, they always point to his recent feature in Latina magazine.

But this quote only acknowledges that Bruno Mars understands the roots of the music he makes. It does not address the fact that he is profiting off of the cultural expressions of Black people. In fact, it read more like a means for him to defend his actions. If we agree with him that all music is Black music, then our music is pretty much up for everyone’s use. By giving us “credit”, he both honors our efforts and provides cover for him to continue profiting from them.

Trending on Twitter

This conversation spilled onto Twitter and trended for hours today. After just broaching the subject, our own EIC Jenn M. Jackson faced a deluge of “Hooligans” (the moniker chosen by Bruno Mars superfans) with clutched pearls of outrage. Honestly, we spent the day leisurely hanging out with family, not all that invested in the conversation. But by the afternoon, her tweets had received millions of impressions and even drew the ire of a member of the singer’s band. even posted a write-up about it (without reaching out to her for comment or using her actual name, as most outlets would do).

Just imagine if all of those furious Twitter users around the world mobilized for something like #BlackLivesMatter or social justice or any of the major issues the world is facing in this moment.

But in all of the conversation and criticism (much of it devolving into misogynistic, racist, and superficial hatred), no one was able to defend Bruno Mars from three simple points: 1) Bruno Mars does not self-identify as Black; 2) he receives a pass where other do not (likely because of patriarchy); and 3) giving credit to other artists isn’t enough.

I’d argue that as someone who has so publicly stated that his work is inspired by others, Bruno Mars should be working to advocate for the genre. Yet he seems far more interested in defending and advocating for himself.


Let’s Think Critically About Bruno Mars

Blackness is not open and available to anyone’s use. In most cases, Black folk have become hyper-vigilant about protecting our cultural heritage. But for some reason, many have nothing to say about Bruno Mars. Maybe it’s because they think he is Black. Maybe it’s because they just really like his music. Or maybe it’s because they just haven’t thought critically about what his place in the music industry actually means. I sincerely hope that those people read this article, and whether they agree or disagree, can come to better understand.

If Bruno Mars were Black-identifying, no one could criticize him for creating Black music. It’d be his birthright, for better or for worse. But Mars does not identify that way.

So why do so many people cape for him? My best guess is patriarchy and anti-Blackness. Why else would he get invited to the cookout while Iggy Azalea and Katy Perry have been almost universally shunned? Maybe their being white has some influence here. But, let’s not forget, Robin Thicke and Justin Timberlake only got dropped from the cookout after a couple years on the guest list. It’s time to rescind Bruno Mars’s invite too.

Yes, Black people created all the best styles of music. That doesn’t mean that you have to steal it. Better yet, don’t just copy (or worse, water down) what has been successful or groundbreaking before. Do something that is uniquely you.

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Daren W. Jackson

Daren is one half of the Water Cooler Convos team. He's a writer, music connoisseur, and comic book geek who spends his free time working on his novel and other short stories.