Burn Out Smithsonians: Intellectual Property, Cultural Heritage, and Snoop Lion in the Museum

Curator's Note

Reggae artist Sizzla’s 2012 track "Burn Out Smithsonians" is ostensibly a take down of Snoop Lion. Scornful of Snoop’s embrace of Rasta culture (and subsequent name change), Sizzla calls out the rapper’s documentary Reincarnated. The film, which premiered at the 2012 Toronto Film Festival, documents Snoop’s spiritual awakening in Jamaica. “All you do is go round and record the sacred services in the holy temple of His Majesty and try to sell it,” Sizzla accuses.

But "Burn Out Smithsonians"is more than a diss track—indeed, Sizzla later spoke of the potential good that exposure from Snoop Lion could bring. Instead, the Smithsonian functions synecdochically as Sizzla takes on the legacy of cultural exploitation in the name of art, science, and capital. Sizzla’s track addresses the troubled relationship between "collecting" and the "source communities" of cultural heritage. For their part, museums have well-documented histories of collection practices motivated by multiple, sometimes competing interests—to preserve, to educate, to illustrate “ethnic difference,” to argue for cultural supremacy. And many of these histories are painful. (Part of the Smithsonian’s collection of early Zuni pottery, for example, was taken from religious shrines without the community’s knowledge.)

The problem is not only the synecdochic museum as collecting entity, but as gatekeeper of intellectual property. As researchers, tourists, or entertainers "come fi sell out Rasta people/waah come record and videotape/den run wey wid the copyright and think you escape dem," Sizzla concludes that, "everybody want a piece a mi culture/dem a raid it like vulture."

In the U.S., legislation like NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) has attempted to control the circulation of culturally sensitive objects. But what are the intellectual property—and privacy—rights of pieces of intangible heritage, like the Rasta ceremonies Sizzla references?

Initiatives like the Local Contexts project are attempting to address these problems. Local Contexts has developed a series of licenses—in the model of Creative Commons—and labels that designate the appropriate uses of tangible and intangible cultural heritage. These tools help users identify materials that may be culturally restricted (such as by gender, religious initiation status, or community membership). Reimagining the structures of intellectual property may help ameliorate the legacies of exploitative cultural heritage collecting practices.

 

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