Fortnite's Appropriation Issue Isn't About Copyright Law, It's About Ethics
Epic Games must credit the black artists whose work it has appropriated.
Illustration by Chris Kindred
At a recent wedding, after the main course is taken away and the desserts come out, the least weighed-down guests slowly make our way to the dance floor. All of a sudden, a group of kids dash out and immediately begin performing Blocboy JB’s Shoot dance, a goofy, energetic strut made famous in the eponymously named music video. As the oldest one kicks his limbs out in the signature style of the dance, he shouts “Fortnite!” to the confused adults looking on.
To his understanding, he is merely acting out the “Hype,” an iconic and highly prized Fortnite Emote. Reaching the dance’s true terminus would take him to the streets of Memphis, Tennessee; to the assembled young men, as they are captured in the song’s video, leaning on the trunks of cars, throwing dice, holding guns, laughing and dancing with abandon. But for him, and many others, the cultural connotations of the moves he is making begin and end within Fortnite’s shimmering, enclosing walls.
Fortnite, Epic’s ultra-successful free-to-play Battle Royale game, has come under increasing scrutiny for the wide breadth of popular dance routines it has cannibalized to make its Emotes, digitized dance moves which, along with weapon colors, outfits and character designs, can be purchased in-game using real currency. Many of the artists who’ve raised concerns about Epic’s behavior, some even resorting to lawsuits, are black.
Rappers like Blocboy JB and 2 Milly (whose arm-swinging “Milly rock” dance shows up in the game as the “Swipe It” Emote) have emerged at the forefront of those raising concern about Epic’s blatant appropriation of well-known black dances. The list continues, including other black entertainers like Marlon Webb, Alfonso Ribeiro, and Donald Faison, who all contributed comedic dances to the zeitgeist, with miscomprehension and exploitative cribbing as their reward.
Though no creative feat is achieved without inspiration, the manner in which Fortnite has transplanted the creative output of these men into its brightly colored marionettes, without permission, credit, or compensation feels particularly egregious. After all, the direction that this creativity travels is from those with less, those who spark viral brilliance from nothing, to those with so much more, absorbing whatever they can, erasing the past in the process.
The direction that this creativity travels is from those with less... to those with so much more, absorbing whatever they can, erasing the past in the process.
Much of the discussion surrounding Epic’s appropriations is concerned with whether the lawsuits being brought by 2 Milly, Ribeiro, and others, are legally feasible; it centers the letter of the law, asking whether Epic is allowed to lift these dance moves. But this ignores the (at least) equally pertinent question of whether it should. This question cannot be adequately answered without squaring Epic’s behavior within a long history of mainstream white America stealing music and dance from black artists, decontextualizing their work, and repackaging it to make it more palatable (and thus, profitable) to white audiences. From early vaudeville and minstrel shows, to television shows like Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, to musicians like Elvis Presley, white America has long maintained a largely unacknowledged extractive relationship with the creative output of its black folk.
Some of the earliest examples of black cultural appropriation can be found in minstrel shows: vaudeville acts in which white performers would paint their skin tar black and create poor mimicries of the cultural traditions and speech patterns of slaves and free blacks. In his essay, “Soul Thieves: White America and the Appropriation of Hip Hop and Black Culture,” Baruti N. Kopano describes minstrelsy as a marginal fantasy space where whites could “...deflect many of their inhibitions, unfulfilled desires, and insecurities onto a group with relative powerlessness.”
Gif courtesy Voices of Color by Insider.
Many of these insecurities had to do with the jealousy and grudging admiration for black culture white Americans hid behind layers of stereotype and insult. Like the other acts of appropriation being discussed here, minstrelsy sought to capture the “...vital emotionalism, spontaneity, and rhythm unique to black expression,” according to Alfred Pasteur and Ivory Toldson in “The Roots of Soul: The Psychology of Black Expressiveness.” The practice, in games like Fortnite, of mapping dance moves made famous by black artists onto digital facsimiles, in order to add some measure of perceived coolness, reflects a similarly fetishisitic and one-sided form of admiration.
Even as black artists became freer to perform, color barriers keeping them isolated from mainstream culture remained. The label “black music,” was a brand that kept black musicians from getting airtime on national radio networks or billing at most major venues. This didn’t stop white musicians from taking the unique sound that had been generated in the few segregated spaces left to black performers and repackaging it as their own invention. The iconic twang of the electric guitar string, for example, layered into most modern examples of rock and roll, has its origin in the music of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the Pentecostal gospel songs she so memorably performed.
Sister Rosetta’s lifelong ties to gospel music and the black church imbued her music with a deep spiritual meaning that was mostly lost when her sound was picked up by bigger, whiter names and personalities, who “...appropriated the euphoric practice of tongue-speaking in their guitar solos. They too made their instruments talk, in the language of a strutting and ebullient masculinity,” as Gayle F. Wald writes in “Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-And-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe.”
Social dancing, the kind to be found on dance floors and sidewalks, rather than on stages and in studios, has always been plagued by appropriation and unoriginality. Many of the popular dance routines of the twenties and thirties, usually depicted as the domain of white flappers and swing dancers, originated in black neighborhoods and at black-friendly establishments like The Savoy in Harlem. After witnessing the daring finesse of black dancers at spots like Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom, white audiences would replicate them as best they could, to the extent that black performers had to come up with their own old-fashioned DRM. Speaking in the documentary “Dancing, New Worlds, New Forms,” about the Lindy Hop, a dance made popular by the black community in the twenties, former dancer Norma Mailer remarked: “We wanted our tempos fast, and the white dancers didn’t like that. It was always fast because we didn’t want them taking our dance. They had everything else, so we couldn't allow them to take the Lindy hop.”
They “weren’t allowed to say that black people taught us.”
With television came shows like American Bandstand, which relied on de facto segregation methods like specific dress codes and ID cards to prevent black dancers from participating, but was more than happy to allow white performers on air, who then went on to claim the dances they had cribbed as their own inventions. In John A. Jackson’s, “American Bandstand: Dick Clark and the Making of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Empire,” former Bandstand dancer, Jimmy Peatross, when asked about the origin of their routines, admits they “weren’t allowed to say that black people taught us.”
Despite the long passage of time since the Jazz Age, it’s easy to spot similar patterns of appropriation in Epic’s handling of Fortnite’s Emotes. Dances that originated in black spaces, that were born specifically from circumstances associated with growing up black in this country, are lifted, intact, and slotted neatly within Fortnite’s endless, heavily monetized library. Their cultural significance is stripped away and used to superficially spice up the game as a whole, without giving needed context to the art and style of what is being appropriated. In “Black Looks: Race and Representation,” bell hooks writes that “for black people, the pain of learning that we cannot control our images, how we see ourselves ....or how we are seen is so intense that it rends us.” Seeing a game as otherwise aesthetically ambiguous as Fortnite, seeing an interchangeable action ken doll with cargo pants and grenade holsters slip into regional performances from Memphis, Atlanta, and New York, is an uncomfortable reminder of the exploitable nature of hip hop culture, of the easy way blackness can be taken, remixed and made profitable outside the black community.
Beyond the theft alone, appropriation tends to be ruthlessly destructive to the original performance being absconded with. Why? Because it reimagines the act, the dance, the song, or piece of art as a solitary, disconnected moment in time. Dance is joy in the shadow of oppression. “Constructing the black male body as a site of pleasure and power, rap and the dances associated with it suggest vibrancy, intensity, and an unsurpassed joy in living.” hooks writes, “It emerged in the streets—outside the confines of a domesticity shaped and informed by poverty, outside enclosed spaces where young male bodies had to be contained and controlled.” This rebellious spirit lives on in the form and motion of the dance, even if it is never displayed on the surface.
Gif courtesy Voices of Color by Insider.
But when these dances are turned into to Emotes, their connections with poverty and racism are elided and they are reduced to nothing more than a funny dance, cut off and erased, made vanilla and palatable. This is not simply bad luck, it is the latest in a long trend of omission. In his book, “Everything But The Burden,” Greg Tate points out that “The black body is a desired taboo, something to be possessed and something to be erased…” Shoot becomes Hype, Milly Rock becomes Swipe It. Blackness becomes a grey area, becomes bundles of mocap data, and is made ultimately invisible.
As a company, Epic is not unfamiliar with recycling ideas first made popular by others: they are open about lifting the game’s mechanical formula, stating in a press release from September 19, 2017 that they “love Battle Royale games like PUBG and thought Fortnite would make a great foundation for our own version.” By basing itself on games like Playerunknown's Battlegrounds, itself built piecemeal from borrowed premises, Fortnite fits within a lineage of modern creative work lacking a self-sustained identity. From the beginning, Fortnite has striven to be everything to everyone: A technicolored Minecraft-esque fantasy world and a military shooter at the same time. A highly competitive, cutthroat contest and a social space to hang out with your friends. And as part of this identity crises, the game lets the player pick and invest in countless sub-cultural artifacts in order to generate a Frankensteinian identity of their own. A sprinkle of decades-old TV nostalgia, a dash of inscrutable meme culture, and BlocBoy JB’s Shoot dance to top it off.
Watching the music video for Shoot, the “unsurpassed joy” and creativity of these performers is obvious. So is the cultural and political context of the video. Shedding that context robs the art of some of its power. It becomes a zombie in service of another master. When Alfonso Ribeiro ad-libbed his “Carlton dance” on the set of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, it was out of a creative impulse to mock the stiffness of white dance. According to him, “it’s the Eddie Murphy ‘white boy’ dance in the Delirious video, and it was Courtney Cox in the “Dancing in the Dark” Bruce Springsteen video, where he pulled her up on stage.” This mockery, once biting, when Eddie Murphy pulled it off, has long since lost its efficacy.
Gif courtesy Voices of Color by Insider.
The final nail in the coffin to its relevance is seeing it available in Fortnite as the “Fresh” Emote. After Ribeiro announced his suit against Epic for stealing the dance, TMZ accused him of confessing to stealing it himself. But unlike Fortnite’s appropriation of the dance, Ribeiro’s riffing is a cultural commentary; part of a long tradition of black people in America making light of their oppression by mocking the awkwardness of white culture. In the 1920s, the Cakewalk was a dance made popular by former slaves who had “...watched white folks’ parties where the guests danced a minuet and then paraded in a grand march…” according to a former slave’s account in “The Cakewalk: A Study in Stereotype and Reality.” Rather than being meant as an homage, they “...used to mock em, every step.” Eventually, the Cakewalk became nationally practiced, embraced by white Americans, even though its earliest intentions were to mock them. The overwhelming influence of white culture and ability to absorb black creativity is the tradition which Fortnite fits into, along with a growing number of other video games.
It’s worth pointing out that a big reason dance appears in games to begin with is because dancing in games is novel and fun. In a medium where the modes of interactivity largely center on violent and destructive behavior, it’s refreshing to be able to bust a move once in a while. In Bungie’s Destiny 2, a game which also cribs many of its dances from popular culture, which released a dance-centric commercial in Japan, every spare moment of downtime leads to Guardians holstering their weapons and grooving together, on the hulls of battleships, in the middle of dripping dungeons and before the threatening bulk of raid bosses. It follows that in social games, a social activity like dancing should be able to find a place. But the social nature and relationships of dance in America have always been fraught. There has always been a division between black performers and the fruit of their creativity.
But there doesn’t need to be. In a tweet about the subject, Chance the Rapper voiced his desire for there to be space for popular dances in Fortnite that also allowed artists to be compensated: “Black creatives created and popularized these dances but never monetized them. Imagine the money people are spending on these Emotes being shared with the artists that made them.” Beyond compensation alone, these artists deserve to be credited and highlighted.
Recently, the white electronic musician, Marshmello, received a branded Emote and Fortnite’s first in-game concert. Meanwhile black artists must resort to lawsuits to even be acknowledged. Here, the same pattern we’ve seen in the arts of passing over the creative work of black people, for safer, white performers with “mainstream” appeal, is reified. Marshmello is allowed to perform as himself, while Blocboy JB, 2 Milly, and the rest have only their moves stolen and placed in anonymized bodies. In order that the history these artists are currently in the process of making is not sidelined to diminishing sub-genres and forgotten to time, in order for these elements of modern black culture to be seen as elements of black culture, credit must be applied where it is due.
Choreographer, Katherine Dunham wrote that there is “a strong connection between the dance, music and archaic ceremonies of a people and that people’s social and economic history.” There is a clear link between the systemic racism that plagues black people in America and the theft and decontextualization of their own cultural output. As the character Marlo puts it during the finale of The Wire, before he is processed into the oblivion of the American carceral system: “My name is my name.” To recognize someone’s contribution to culture is to lend that person, and their community some measure of power. As forward-looking as games purport to be, they could not exist without inspiration from the past, without taking the power and prestige of countless nameless creative sources for themselves. It’s vital that their names and their history be remembered, and in so doing, returned.