I don’t know about you, but I can’t stop listening to “Hymn for the Weekend” on repeat.
However, before I had even listened to Chris Martin and Queen Bey meld their voices in a divine mesh of harmonies, I was reading about it on Tumblr.
Cultural Appreciation vs. Appropriation
The first thing I heard about the video was that it had some pretty rampant cultural appropriation. Since there have been a number of music videos and performances accused of cultural appropriation over the last few years, I wasn’t too surprised to hear about “Hymn for the Weekend” being added to the list.
The video quickly split viewers into two groups, those who considered it cultural appropriation, and those who appreciated the video’s focus on Indian culture. The clip below highlights a few of the key elements that have been discussed and criticized.
This discussion is tricky for a variety of reasons. For example, there is a time and place when a white person can wear Indian clothing and accessories without coming off as disrespectful. In some cases, it’s actually much more respectful to embrace local dress customs than to ignore them.
There are even music videos where diverse customs and styles have been featured without any backlash about appropriation.
This debate can also seem confusing when Indian fans, or fans with Indian heritage, don’t seem to be bothered by the video’s representation of their culture.
In her article, “My Generation Hates Cultural Appropriation – But My Indian Parents Love It” Nikita Redkar explains why we often see this divide between Indian immigrants and their children [emphasis hers]:
“[My parents] lauded Jillian Michaels’ yoga series, embraced Selena Gomez’s and Iggy Azalea’s respective interweaving of Indian culture with western music, and admired Kendall Jenner for adorning a bindi at Coachella.
To them, it was a sign of their culture gaining mainstream acceptance. To me, it was thievery and a selfish promotion tactic.
What shift in mindset occurred in the span of one generation that placed me on a starkly different side of the spectrum from my parents?
My parents emigrated from India to America in 1991, and had me two years later. I was born one culture, yet born in another one. From as long as I can remember, I have constantly been reminded of my other-ness. I was bullied so much for my school lunches that I often boycotted eating all together.
Kids reduced me to my country’s worst stereotype – being eternally stinky from eating curry – and mercilessly mocked me for putting coconut oil in my hair, a typical home practice in India to maintain our thick hair.
I remember an Indian girl in my fourth grade class who hung out with the popular girls because she had the luxury of residing right next door to our grade’s queen bee. She quietly parted from her friends and came up to me while I was crying in the library.
With a deceptive cool masking the inkling of solidarity in her tone, she told me: “Don’t worry. My mom puts oil on my hair too. Just make sure you do it during the weekend and wash it off before you come to school.”
Looking back at that now, I realized us first-generation kids spend our most formative years trying to fit into a culture that demands assimilation while simultaneously barring us from it.”
I don’t think the issue of appropriation vs. appreciation is always cut and dried. However, I do think it’s the responsibility of performers to actually engage with this discussion – and the people who are most affected – if they want to represent other cultures in their work.
Coldplay and the Exotic Black Woman
The accusations of cultural appropriation are particularly complex when they are levelled at Beyoncé.
The backlash against Beyoncé’s role in the video was so swift that it prompted one Tumblr user to remark,
It’s so disturbing that the overall response to Beyonce fucking up has been “AHAHA TAKE THAT, BLACK PEOPLE!”.
While the main discussion around the video has focused on appropriation, there have been some viewers who argue that Beyoncé actually fit the role she portrayed.
Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley and Natassja Omidina Gunasena argue that Beyoncé’s role in the video as a Bollywood actress highlights African presences in South Asian history. The insist that “her role offers viewers a rare opportunity to see how much and how beautifully blackness is part of South Asian culture.” Additionally, they argue that for many dark skinned Indian women, it was “empowering … to see a dark-skinned woman portraying a Bollywood star.”
While I’ve read articles both attacking Beyoncé and defending her, the most interesting critique of Beyoncé’s role that I’ve read so far didn’t even target her directly. Instead, it examined how Coldplay has featured black women in their videos [emphasis theirs]:
“Whether of not Black Americans have the power to be cultural appropriators is an important discussion with no easy answers.
Coldplay, however, is the primary offender. The group has in the past used another Black woman to represent the ‘exotic.’ Rihanna stars in their video Princess of China dressed, strangely, in Japanese attire.”
The idea that Coldplay would exoticize American black women in their videos shouldn’t have really surprised me, considering my recent article on the othering of black women in science fiction movies, yet somehow, it did.
As two of the most famous women in the world, and massively influential American cultural icons, you would think that Beyoncé and Rihanna might not be considered particularly exotic.
Unfortunately, when they partnered with Coldplay, both women ended up representing a foreign and exotic damsel.
This raises a whole new question on the topic of appropriation: If two of the most famous black women in the world still represent the mysterious other, how can any group of people ever hope to be represented as anything more than a cliché?