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"Half-Breed": Cher and the Problem of Cultural Appropriation

Cher's 1973 chart-topping hit, "Half-Breed," has always been drenched in controversy. Sure, she isn't half-Cherokee herself, but she didn't let that stop her from stepping into the shoes of a half-white, half-Cherokee woman grappling with her identity. This isn't the first time she's assumed an ethnic identity that she didn't inherently possess. In her first solo #1, "Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves," she portrayed the role of a Romani, despite not being one.

Her unusual choices, given her Armenian and mostly Western European heritage, were a part of her identity during her early music career, and they definitely raised a few eyebrows. In fact, some critics have gone so far as to compare her portrayal of different ethnicities to Rachel Dolezal's story.

This striking display was right in the middle of the '70s, a time when Cher was at her zenith and didn't exactly blend into the crowd of faces on our TV screens. She was a big, big deal during these years. Her show with then-husband Sonny Bono, The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, was a huge hit. One could argue that her unique look might have been part of the motivation behind her penchant for assuming different ethnic identities in her songs.

American Singer-Actress riding on a horse, dressed as a Cherokee indian, for the album cover of "Half-Breed" (1973)

It's important to note, however, that Cher didn't write "Half-Breed." Lyricist Mary Dean did, with Al Capps. It was Dean who envisioned Cher while crafting the song, and producer Snuff Garrett believed no one else could deliver the song quite like her. Garrett, who had stopped working with Sonny and Cher due to a conflict regarding the kind of songs Cher should be recording, returned to work with her because he saw "Half-Breed" as a song that only Cher could truly embody. Garrett even defended it as Cher's story, despite the obvious discrepancy.

Perhaps this is where we're missing the point. Maybe, just maybe, it's less about Cher appropriating an identity and more about her assuming a character, telling a story. Granted, "Half-Breed" might not be Cher's own tale, but it could very well resonate with someone out there, someone wrestling with their mixed heritage, facing racial slurs, and trying to find their place in the world.

Cher dressed as a Cherokee indian, with a Cherokee-inspired headdress, in 1973; promo photoshoot for her album "Half-Breed".

There's no denying that the song strikes a chord, with its narrative about the tribulations of the half-Cherokee protagonist who learns to hate the word "half-breed." The pain in Cher's voice, the steely control on the verses, and the anguished yelp on the choruses—it all paints a picture of a tragic and melodramatic, yet in some ways, a proud tale.

From a musical standpoint, "Half-Breed" is intriguingly complex. The opening tribal toms, mixed with icy string-shivers, make it feel like a proto-disco song, a few years prior to the dramatic rise (and subsequent fatigue) of the disco genre in the US music charts. The melody, carried by Cher's vaudevillian flair, is a beautiful fusion of '70s studio-pop and cabaret. This absorption of different sounds and ideas, a signature of Cher's music during this time, was part of what made her music unique and impactful.

Cher performing "Half-Breed" live in 2017 (left) and in 1973 (right).

It's undeniable that Cher's use of Native American imagery, including the infamous headdress she wore while performing the song, provoked a strong reaction. And yes, she has continued to perform and defend the song despite the backlash, which has included criticism as recently as 2017. In fact, she had to handle a minor Twitter PR crisis when a fresh wave of listeners discovered the song and raised questions about its appropriateness.

So, here's a fresh perspective: Cher's iconic "Half-Breed," while surrounded by controversy, could be seen as an earnest attempt to voice a story that otherwise might have remained unheard. Its ability to spark discussions around identity, alongside its unique musical fusion, illustrates the transformative power of music. Cher's bold decision to assume the character, despite the criticism, reflects her audacious spirit. This resilience and her talent to provoke dialogue through music are part of what makes her such a treasured and enduring figure in the industry. Controversial, maybe, but nonetheless, "Half-Breed" stands as a significant chapter in Cher's illustrious career. Half a century later, the song's echoes continue to reverberate. It shows its enduring relevance in a world that is increasingly prone to judge its own past through today’s lenses of “cultural appropriation,” yet painfully unaware of how dull and uninspired it has become.

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