Bad Suns Album Art is Appropriation Masked by Alteration

The exploitation, misappropriation, and devaluation of indigenous culture is not a pattern unique to the 21st century. Familiar with America’s history of both colonization and white supremacy, we must remind ourselves: It has never been unique. The past and present stereotyping of Native Americans illuminates the fact that prejudice, though having always been there, is consistently evolving. It molds to the desires of post-colonial America through costume headdresses, professional sports team mascots, whiteshamanism…oh, and the Bad Suns’ Language and Perspective artwork.

Bad Suns is an Los Angeles-based indie rock band most famous for their debut album Language and Perspective. According to lead singer, Christo Bowman Language and Perspective is “about entering and dealing with young adulthood…making mistakes, learning from mistakes, falling in love, falling out, where you’re going to be.” So, where and how does the album artwork come into play?

The Zia Sun symbol featured on the New Mexico flag.

The Zia Sun symbol featured on the New Mexico flag.

The Zia Sun symbol is (and has been since 1583) a sacred symbol to the Zia people, who are a branch of the Pueblo community covering the Southwestern areas of the United States. The Zia Pueblo is located in Sandoval County, New Mexico, about 25 miles outside of Albuquerque. In the year 2000, this reservation was documented to have 646 people, 137 families, and 155 households.

The Zia people are often known for their pottery, which is often adorned with the sacred sun symbol, pointing in the four cardinal directions. For the Zia people, the number four has come to embody the four winds, four seasons, four directions, and four sacred obligations of Zia belief. Each of these four elements are represented on four sides of the sun. Due to its cultural and historical weight, the Zia Pueblo asks for users of the symbol to request permission before publicly utilizing it.

As for the process of trademarking the Zia Sun symbol, the Zia have developed an informal system along with federally trademarking the symbol. The Zia decided to use provisions of the Lanham Act, the U.S. trademark law, but soon realized that there are many discrepancies within federal trademark laws and the related intellectual property laws. Therefore, the Zia also developed an informal system allowing the tribe to profit off of outsiders’ use of the symbol, along with gaining more personal control of misappropriation of the symbol.

Pueblo Governor David Pino stated, “We like for them to ask they use permission and if they could donate money to the scholarship fund…What I usually ask them is, ‘Go ahead, ask for permission in paper, and give us a letter.’ Once we see the letter, we give it to our in-house attorney and he reviews it.” Pino also stated that despite other companies asking to use the symbol prior to publication (like Southwest’s “New Mexico One”), the question of whether or not Bad Suns has reached out is an open-ended one. Backlash for this lack of action has been expressed through many social media platforms.

In an interview with The Giggs, a student-run radio station at Barnard College, lead singer of Bad Suns was asked about the album artwork of Language and Perspective. Bowman stated:

“So basically what happened with that is, when we were naming the band, we found the name Bad Suns and then we kind of wanted something to identify with it. We liked the idea of having a symbol or something, we were just kind of playing around with ideas…So I was just googling around for cool design ideas and I searched sun symbol and I came across a Zia symbol, and I read into it, and I liked all that it had to do with sectoring into fours. It represents four seasons in a year, four stages of life, four stages in a day. And this band is so heavily dependent on the number four and kind of about four different personalities and so much of this different stuff in the chemistry where it felt really fitting. We altered it and made it our own a little bit and we kind of just felt really connected to it afterwards.”

Masking cultural appropriation through claims of “altering” original pieces and practices is what makes appropriation so dangerous. The context behind the word alteration itself implies that the original is something that needs fixing—something that needs to be modified in order to fit one’s desires. It is what makes appropriators feel better, and what helps them justify their actions.

But let’s be clear: Putting an image of an LA sunset behind a translucent Zia sun symbol is by no means an “alteration.” It is, by no means, “making it [one’s] own.” It is misappropriation without proper acknowledgement of the original source.

Bad Suns album artwork for "Language & Perspective" released in 2014 by Vagrant Records.

Bad Suns album artwork for “Language & Perspective” released in 2014 by Vagrant Records.

The connection felt by Bad Suns and this symbol does not need justification. However, the very fact that they were simply googling around for “cool design ideas” indicates that this connection is separate from its sacredness. And here lies the problem: To acknowledge something as sacred to a people unrelated to you is to acknowledge your own privilege and disconnect from that culture. This is what Bad Suns failed to do.

As of today, none of the band’s members have expressed relation to the Zia people. There has been no news of Governor Pino receiving a letter from Bad Suns, asking for permission to use the Zia sun symbol. There has also been no news of the Zia people taking legal action for the use of their symbol.

Language and Perspective has been praised for its memorable pop ballads and commended for Bowman’s impressive falsettos. However, its artwork has never been called into question or even acknowledged. Not to say that the use of this symbol takes away from the band’s talent or potential, but it does take away from the band’s sense of self. With so much of music being about expression, we need not separate the two. Album artwork summarizes an album’s content and links it to a single image. It’s underratedly powerful.

When listeners think of Language and Perspective, we often recall its album artwork. We think of palm trees and rainbow skies. We think of Coachella and other musical festivals that have grown to embody “alternative” and “tribal” vibes.

But instead, we should be thinking of New Mexico. We should be thinking of community, handmade pottery, and intergenerational beliefs. We should be thinking of, acknowledging, and respecting the Zia people’s Sacred Sun. The erasure of indigenous histories through the normalization of sacred symbols in pop culture needs to stop.

Bad Suns performed at last year’s Sun God Festival 2017, and will make another appearance at this year’s Rock ‘N Roosevelt on March 9. Other events happening both on- and off-campus March 9 are: UCSD Music Department’s free Experimental Music Forum, Great Hall’s Language Conversation Tables, Talib Kweli’s concert at the Music Box, and many more.

Ana Magallanes is the Arts and Culture Editor of the Triton. She can be reached at anamagallanes1@gmail.com.