I’ve loved Bruce Hornsby ever since I first heard “Gonna Be Some Changes Made” in the background of a Lowes commercial when I was 10. The main piano riff plays while children run amok in the paint aisle of a Lowes store, scribbling on walls, stroking a display of paintbrushes and huffing open vats of paint. The commercial itself was pretty unremarkable; however, the song was absolutely haunting. Though at the time I didn’t even know the name of the song, the melody stuck in my mind like an earworm.

One day I asked my father, “Dad, do you know the name of the song that goes ‘do do do, do do do, do do?’” Miraculously, he knew exactly what I was talking about. From out of his black leather-bound CD storage binder (which in my eyes was the Ark of the Covenant) he pulled a bright red cassette disk with the words “Halcyon Days” emblazoned across the front in big, pink bubble-letters and told me that the song I was looking for was the opening track. Delighted, I took the disc and disappeared into my room with my Walkman. 

That’s the first time that I ever sat down and actively listened to an album from start to finish. The entire thing was completely arresting. Hornsby sang with the lyrical honesty and imagery of Townes Van Zandt and played the piano like his hands were on fire. His songs moved with a rhythm that was familiar yet felt fresh and original. Beyond all of that, however, there was still something that I found indescribable about the sound. I was drawn to it for reasons that I did not understand.

Eventually I came to realize what was special about Hornsby’s music. It seemed to lay somewhere in between the music I was exposed to by my father–The Gap Band, Stevie Wonder, Teddy Pendergrass–and my mother’s Van Morrison, Celtic Thunder, and Fleetwood Mac. Hornsby’s music displays a lot of characteristics of black music; the syncopated rhythms, cross-beats and jazzy chords that fill “Halcyon Days” seem like they’d be more at home on a Duke Ellington record than peppered throughout this collection of Randy Newman-esque Americana tunes. That is not to say that “Halcyon Days” is “black music,”—in fact, I once played it for one of my roommates and he responded with “cut that gluten-free, vanilla Wonder bread-flavored mayonnaise shit out.” So even though Hornsby’s music is not “black music” per se, it does benefit from its interpolation of black musical aesthetics. I’m not the first person to notice this: Hornsby’s sound has been dubbed “the Virginia Sound” and has been lauded for its fusion of jazz with the stereotypically white musical traditions of country and bluegrass.

One might argue that this constitutes an act of appropriation. In my time at Bowdoin, I’ve seen how the notion of cultural appropriation has entered into and become a dominant theme in racial discourses on campus. I had never heard the term “cultural appropriation” until the infamous “Cracksgiving” debacle of 2014, but after the “tequila” party happened last year, you’d be hard-pressed to find a student on campus who didn’t have a strong opinion on the subject. Sadly, those strong opinions caused the conflation in many students’ minds of the ideas of cultural appropriation and exchange. As I have come to understand it, appropriation comes from a place of exploitation, whereas exchange come from a place of appreciation. Moreover, appropriation happens from the top down—one culture clearly dominates the other—whereas an instance of exchange leaves room for ideas to travel back and forth.

I’d argue that the incorporation of black music aesthetics into Hornsby’s sound is an example of cultural exchange. Though Hornsby uses the conventions of black music, he does not exploit black culture in doing so. In fact, he made it a point to address systemic racism in what is undoubtedly his most famous song, “The Way it Is.” Shortly after that song was released, 2pac sampled it to make “Changes,” E-40 used it to make “Things’ll Never Change,” and Mase used it on “Same Niggas.” This kind of back-and-forth is exemplary of cultural exchange.

As a young biracial child, I’m sure that this exchange comforted me on an unconscious level. Growing up, sometimes I felt like I was mixed with water and oil. Hearing music that borrowed from the sonic traditions of both of my heritages proved to me that a harmonious marriage of blackness and whiteness was possible.