Cultural appropriation. A phrase so laden with meaning in the modern media landscape, it almost feels like it should be a set of capitalised, proper nouns. It’s a term usually relegated to the uncultured masses who sport bindis and Native American headdresses at festivals. Oh, and Iggy Azealia. Unfortunately for Natasha Khan, a.k.a Bat For Lashes, Afghan-American artist Zohra Atash, from the New York band Religious to Damn and Azar Swan, has sullied her good name with accusations of the damning expression.
Khan has teamed up with producer Dan Carey and psychedelic rock band TOY to come together in 2013 for The Bride, a cover of Amir Rassaie’s Aroos Khanom. Carey first discovered it on the 2013 compilation Zendooni: Funk, Psychedelia And Pop From The Iranian Pre-Revolution Generation.
After officially reuniting earlier this year to form Sexwitch, the trio released their debut album of their same name off of Carey’s Speedy Wunderground label last month to a positive response. The album is made up of a collection of covers of 70s folk and psyche songs from countries all over the world like Morocco, Thailand, Iran and even the US.
However, Atash has taken up arms against Sexwitch in an essay for The Talkhouse, accusing them of gross misappropriation of Asian culture, saying that it strays into the imperialistic process of ‘othering’ that so many covers inevitably end up doing.
“Through the portal of six cover songs, we enter a Mean-Disney-era dystopia of imperialist, witch-burning othering where gender, cultures and archetypes are whittled down to the lowest common denominator for the sake of slapdash art,” writes Atash.
Despite the fact that Khan has Asian roots herself (she’s half Pakistani), Atash says Khan’s attempts at the Asian style of singing are “over-the-top attempts at heavy-melisma Eastern singing styles such as mawwal and alap.”
Atash also dregs up other insistences in which she believes Khan has committed cultural appropriation, such as the time that, “Natasha Khan homogenized a disenfranchised people by claiming some nebulous affinity with Native Americans and regularly wore feathered war bonnets and played a shaman stick live.”
She continues with by saying, “Asia is not one big country full of primal dancers and/or terrorists. We are living in a world in which tensions between East and West are reaching an apex. So forgive me if I’m not psyched — ha! — that you think the East is your blank canvas.”
However, the greatest offence Atash seems to take to the record is a “fuck-up so egregious” that is “calls into question the authenticity of the whole project”. She’s talking about of course the fifth track on the album Ghoroobaa Ghashangan from the Zendooni compilation, which Atash says does not resemble the original by an Iranian singer Ramesh.
Atash, who claims to be a longtime Ramesh fan, says the track is in fact a cover of a lesser known artist Pooneh called Hamishe Tanha. The ignorant mistake caused Atash to literally and involuntarily scream out an angered phrase in Farsi (for which no English translation exists – we can only assume its full of expletives).
Despite the criticism Atash had for the majority of the album, she have did praise for Helelyos and Kassidat el Hakka. There’s still no comment back yet from Sexwitch, there’s a very obvious lesson here for artists: be careful with incorporating other culture into your own.