anthropomagic

My Thoughts On Cultural Appropriation

…In the context of the recent Coldplay music video “Hymn for the Weekend” featuring Bayonce:

This video has sparked controversy in the beautiful and as always judgement-free Web sphere, with people on one side accusing it of appropriating Indian culture, while others hailing it instead as cultural appreciation.

I have read a few articles describing the fiery Twitter wars, but couldn’t find any analysis of the issue until I stumbled upon “Coldplay: only the latest pop stars to misrepresent India as an exotic playground”, a well written piece by Rashmee Kumar. Complementing it nicely is an article written by Maisha Z. Johnson with a click-baity title “What’s Wrong with Cultural Appropriation? These 9 Answers Reveal Its Harm“.

Both articles delve (somehow) deep into the complex and intricate issue which is cultural appropriation, focusing on power structures stemming from the history of colonialism and oppression, which shape today’s relations between dominant and marginalised cultures. Both articles try to explain why cultural appropriation is wrong. Most importantly, both articles stress how important context becomes when defining cultural appropriation, one of the only points I would agree on.

Yup, I think both Kumar and Johnson wrote a great explanation of how damaging cultural appropriation can be, however I do not think it applies to the “Hymn for the Weekend”.

Let’s start with the most basic definition of cultural appropriation I found on Wikipedia, which describes it as “the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture”. In this case Kumar used a similar definition and stated that

If cultural appropriation means that a privileged group adopts the symbols and practices of a marginalized one for profit or social capital, then yes, Coldplay’s video is committing cultural appropriation

But is Beyonce or Coldplay adopting Indian culture? The video specifically looks at India from a point of view of a white male tourist. We are looking through his eyes at what seems to be an exotic paradise, full of rich colours, customs, and traditions (all of them quite stereotypical, but I’ll get to that in two sentences). It does not seem to be an issue of adopting culture, since Beyonce and Coldplay are not making Indian culture part of their own, instead, they are representing it. Or rather, MISREPRESENTING it. Kumar even pointed out how important the video is, because it is a “system of representation that shapes how the west understands and engages with the world” and specifically “this idealized India obscures the realities of a complex nation in favor of reductive tropes originally intended to preserve western hegemony”. Both very true and important arguments.

Still, representation does not equal adoption. Me eating Indian curry is adoption, a form cultural appropriation. I have taken that curry and made it part of my diet, my life. I can’t live without it (I know I’m being over dramatic). curryBeyonce putting on traditional desi clothes is however meant to (mis)represent Indian culture and not make it part of her own culture.

The reason why I am distinguishing between misrepresentation of a culture and cultural appropriation is because not all appropriation is inherently bad. As Johnson points out, context matters. However, she also argues that “cultural appropriation is not the same as cultural exchange, when people share mutually with each other – because cultural exchange lacks that systemic power dynamic”. However, if cultural exchange is defined by the lack of “systemic power dynamic” then cultural exchange doesn’t exist or would be very hard to find, since most, if any type of exchange is usually based on some kind of power dynamic.

Let me illustrate my point with one well known globalising power: MacDonald’s. It has made its way to most countries around world, seemingly all-powerful and unstoppable. Yet, it is not. Its power is curbed by what consumers want in any given nation and culture. MacDonald had to tailor its menu in places like Japan, so it  could appeal to its customers. In this instance, the customers are the ones who hold the power. In a case of reverse cultural flow (often ignored by mainstream media) sushi made its way into everyday lives of western citizens and became extremely popular. Its power lied in the exotic, oriental image it conjured, drawing people into the unknown world of chopsticks and raw fish. However, while sushi needed to be exotic and oriental, it also needed to appeal to the western consumer’s palate, otherwise it would not sell. This is the reason why sushi in the western world is often quite different compared to what you would find in Japan.

sushi

On the surface the MacDonald’s-Sushi reciprocation seems like a nice example of cultural exchange, and yet clearly the power dynamics are still there. Does it mean it’s instead an example of cultural appropriation? What shall we do about it?

Nothing really. We will keep enjoying sushi, while Japanese people will keep enjoying MacDonald’s. Cultural appropriation can be damaging (I do recommend that article by Johnson), but it can also be good. People have sometimes a hard time wrapping their heads around the idea that one thing can have two contradictory meanings, like boobs being both sexual and non-sexual (though I should probably deal with that another time).

The most important thing is to not be ignorant of the context in which a cultural artifact is appropriated. And when it comes to Coldplay’s video, ignorance is thriving at its best. While it has stunning imagery, we can all agree that the misrepresentation of a whole nation and culture is quite the cultural faux pas.

Anyways, have a nice day filled with awesome things like sushi, fries, and boobs.

 

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10 thoughts on “My Thoughts On Cultural Appropriation

  1. Yes, do agree with you, it is a faux pas. Also the title is misleading. Since Hindis don’t focus on weekend worship with Hymns, or at anytime. You know who Hymns are sung to.

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    • I’ve read the lyrics and they don’t seem to have anything to do with the video. They’re more party lyrics than anything else.

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      • So, the title is also misleading, after listen to the video, there seems to be a dycotomy between the visual and the words, for me the music is like a bandaid backdrop to the visual, hence the accent on colour, makeup, jewelry, and powdered colour, as an appreciation of Beyonce’s talent, it’s a very costly mise-en-scene, music wise benine. As for the offence she has stirred, let’s see the effect. Because, although she uses many cultural attributes, there isn’t a negative scene, all are smiling, only the happy little Hindis are running with the coloured powder, and the allusion to Bollywood, is an audience appreciation. Cinema. As for the coloured powder throwing, India has it publicised as a tourist attraction… So why the huff! Perhaps, it’s more a money issue?… Will she be sued? Bolly/Hollywood , the more attention, the better the sales, that’s the way the world spirals.

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      • The coloured powder throwing is a tradition during the Holi festival in India. I recommend you the article I linked in the post by Kumar- you can click on it and it will explain the issue with the misrepresentation of Indian culture in the music video.

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  2. No boobfilling day for me, but lots of almonds, cashews,..and colourful sunsets reflecting on the mountains

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  3. Perhaps, but they, India still uses it as a commercial attraction, via BBC Asia, and many different travel brochures, what some Indians consider holi others don’t, hence the uproar…

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    • Yes, but this video is not a travel brochure. It pretends to be an authentic look at the Indian culture, while in truth it just promotes western stereotypical views of India. Have you read the article?

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      • Perhaps you’re right when reading the article. However, putting aside the article and its inherent premises. Have my own views, and prefer to open the discussion and put forward another reflection. This is why after viewing the video in question, and further, how India promotes its tourism with similar videos including western tourists, participating in their cultural activities, in order to entice the tourist to travel to India,… Well does Beyoncé appropriate India’s culture? No she uses it professionally, as a back drop to make a video. As stated previously, she does not change Indias culture or denigrate it. May I draw your attention to BBC’s video regarding the Festival of colour? Or the multitude of travel agencies that repeat practically every aspect of Beyoncé s video, except the voluminous chest ending. By the way, Bollywood does also expose cleavages. So, who is/are the ones accusing, that what Beyoncé produced is new and”appropriating” India’s culture? It seems to me that the complaint has an underlying financial protectionist alarm…. She simply does a very lavish and expensive production. And with more and more articles, more and more money…for her. That’s showbiz

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  4. this. is. everything.

    Liked by 1 person

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