The poster bore an image of a tiny kitten dangling from a clothesline, hind legs kicking desperately against the abyss. HANG IN THERE, the caption read. Horatio Salazar, Westside High School Appropriations Officer, had hung the poster in an attempt to reassure the students who were summoned to his office. Occasionally, it even worked. Xinyu loved that poster, Salazar thought, back when she was Consuela. Back before her third strike. A sweet girl. But she should have known that piñatas originated in China, and that they only became “Spanish” through cultural appropriation.
In the corner opposite the poster lurked Mr. Sybe, the massive, floating cybernetic automaton charged with ensuring the students’ safety. In Salazar’s experience, the presence of Mr. Sybe did not reassure the students. Perhaps it was the perceptive cortex, lit up like a pair of glowing red eyes, or the arms of corduroyed titanium, capable of restraining an adult bull elephant. The kitten worked better. Perhaps that was why, when Declan shambled through the door, staring sheepishly at the stain-proof carpet, he gravitated to the chair beneath the poster.
“Ah, Mr. O’Brien,” Salazar said, staring the boy down, watching freckles and acne war for dominion over his pale face. “Do you happen to know who Little Richard was?”
Declan’s eyes perked up beneath his mop of red hair. “Um…yeah sure! ‘A wop-bop-a-loo-bop, a wop-bam-boom!’” He grinned. A part of Salazar was impressed. He truly knows and appreciates the culture. A shame he couldn’t leave it at that.
“That line is from his 1955 song ‘Tutti Frutti’,” said Salazar. “A song that was, at the time, deemed to be too suggestive when performed by a person of color. So record companies assigned Pat Boone, a white man, to record a cover version. He, and they, made millions. Little Richard went hungry.” He paused. “Can you guess why you’re here, Mr. O’Brien?”
The boy licked his lips. Nodded. “The…the rap video, I guess.”
Salazar nodded. “The rap video.” He made a sweeping gesture to the far wall, and the sensors activated, transforming it to a video screen. An image of Declan, bedecked in iconic hip-hop fashion, flickered into existence. Behind him, a crew of similarly dressed cohorts flailed in unison to a syncopated beat. The boy in the foreground mugged cheerfully as he strutted and pranced, chanting in time:
I don’t wanna be lean!
Don’t wanna turn green!
Don’t want no crap
From the soda machine!
I hope ya understand
Jus’ exactly what I mean
When I say what I want is a…
The background lit up with images of tubers in various states of preparation—raw, baked, French-fried, boiled—as Declan’s crew joined him, chanting in celebration of their glory.
Salazar swiped contemptuously at the screen, which went blank. He turned his gaze on Declan, who stared down at the carpet, abashed. “Yeah,” he muttered. “It’s not our best work.”
“The quality is immaterial,” Salazar intoned. “Rap is an African-American art form, Mr. O’Brien. Pioneered on the east coast of the United States a century ago as a means of expressing that people’s unique and vibrant culture.” He paused. “And stolen almost immediately by Caucasians for their personal profit. Marshall Mathers. Iggy Azelia. Bonzo Ballimer. And now, it seems, by you.” He paused. “What do we call it, Mr. O’Brien, when an artist seeks to intrude upon another’s cultural expression by claiming it as his own?”
Declan gulped. “Appropriation,” he stammered. “But I swear, I never…”
Salazar returned his stare. “You’ve been warned before. Your previous video.” He glanced at Mr. Sybe for a moment. The robot’s visual sensors lit up with a cherry glow, and it glided silently across the room on its null-grav jets to lurk behind Declan.
Declan’s complexion had transitioned from merely pale to deathly white. He threw up his hands. “Yes! Yes! I get it. Two strikes. I didn’t mean to…I was just having…okay! Never again, I swear!”
Salazar shook his head. “Three strikes, Mr. O’Brien.” Declan’s eyes went wide with horror as Salazar gestured again at the wall, which sprung to life with a still image: Declan’s smiling face surrounded by a corona of swirling spuds. “Potatoes.”
Declan suddenly found himself unable to move; Mr. Sybe’s pincers had descended, pinning his arms to the armrests. “What—NO!” he shouted. “I’M IRISH! THAT’S MY CULTURE! POTATOES ARE IRISH!”
Salazar shook his head. “Appropriated,” he announced, his voice tolling like a bell. “Stolen from the Incas by Conquistadors.” He nodded to the panel in Sybe’s side from which a syringe with a six inch needle now protruded. “Not to worry. The Inca phenotype is well-represented therein.”
Salazar turned his back. At his gesture, the far wall lit up with the image of Declan’s video. The boy’s screaming really is quite excessive, he thought, and boosted the soundtrack to drown it out.
I was walkin’ through the supermarket
Just the other day
Clerk said “if you want those tater tots
You’re gonna have to pay…”
Salazar found himself tapping a toe to the rhythm. The boy does have some talent, he thought. Once the retrovirus does its work, there might be hope for him. Race had no basis in genetics, but Salazar had always found that the appearance of race was sufficient to trigger the relevant social effects. Once the alleles in Declan’s cells changed, altering his skin tone, his bone structure, his facial features; once he’d undergone acculturation with his new host family and chosen his new, culturally appropriate name; once he’d spend enough time behind his new face to be certified as Fully Authentic—well, who could say what was possible?
It could be that I’ve given the world a true artist, Salazar mused. He turned and gazed at the now-unconscious boy, and the hypodermic jutting from the side of his neck, pumping him full of authenticity. I am an educator by trade. But given that I am reshaping the materials I’ve been given into newer, more beautiful forms—he glanced at Declan–could it not be said that I am an artist as well?
Salazar smiled. An artist, then. The title struck him as entirely appropriate.