Wednesday, February 24, 2016

We need to talk about Beyoncé

[Photo Source:Screenshot via for the Weekend]
When Coldplay’s music video for their track Hymn For The Weekend was released, it became controversial almost instantly. I saw my friends sharing posts on Facebook, saw articles published by publications I respected, and was even asked in person multiple times about the video and what exactly made it controversial. Caught up with schoolwork, planning for weekend trips, and a few other obligations, I put off watching the video. I thought that when I saw it, I’d want to consider writing a blog post about it. And when I finally sat down to watch the videoand after some time to process itI knew I wanted to write about it. Beyoncé's cultural appropriation stood out most to me, along with Coldplay's very decision to shoot in India. Cultural appropriation is something I think about often, especially while I’m here in India. It’s something that’s important to me, and before I get into what I think of the music video, I’d like to explain why.

A bit of background

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more aware of, critical of, and passionate about the systemic disregard and exclusion of Indians and other South Asians both in the U.S. and worldwide. Because it’s not just that this exclusion affected a lot of how I grew up, how my family and friends and thousands of other Indians and Indian-Americans have lived in America, but it’s also how it continues to affect how we live.

Where Coldplay comes in

The video opens up to a montage of peacocks and holy men before we catch our first glimpse of Beyoncé, clad in a sari, and Chris Martin, sitting in an auto-rickshaw. Hindu imagery continues throughout the video, and it even appears that the video takes place on Holi, which is confusing to me because it’s a seemingly random choice to pick that one day of the year. Sure you might be going for aesthetic appeal, but there are so many other options that go beyond the cliché Holi shots. But okay, we’ll chalk this up to a lack of creativity, or a lack of imagination, even sheer laziness if you will.

But then we go on to more Hindu imagery. There is a little boy dressed as Krishna and plenty of holy men and orange flags to go around. This confuses me because it makes me feel as though Hinduism is being exotified by the Western gaze, being shown as being cool or pretty or having cultural value solely because it’s Other. But okay, fine. Let’s excuse this, too, by maybe thinking about how many other music videos in the history of the music video use religious imagery from other world religions. Fine, maybe 
despite being problematic, this in and of itself isn’t a problem.

Let’s move on

Oh the lyrics have started. I’m trying to understand what this song has to do with India or Holi or Hinduism or anything. I’m not saying that the director of a music video should be a literalist. In fact, I’m sure my professors would argue that he or she shouldn’t. But it’s weird to me that someone would choose a lazy, uncreative (although very visually appealing) representation of India—a country and culture that are already systemically misrepresented, devalued, dismissed—for a song that has nothing to do with India.

And as my fabulous friend Alena points out, this is just another example of the fetishization of poverty, foreign cultures, and people of color. As she says, the use of color here distracts from the common depictions of India as Martin walks through low-income neighborhoods with colorful buildings and children running around him.

We need to talk about Beyoncé

First and foremost, I’m just going to say it: I don't get what the big deal about Beyoncé is. Is she talented? I mean duh. Is she beautiful and successful? Obviously. Is she an unproblematic, genuine feminist and activist? Yeah definitely no. And that’s where my issue comes in. I’m not even going to touch upon how troubling and problematic and downright offensive Beyonce’s marketed brand of “feminism” is. But within the context of this video, let’s talk about how this Beyoncé-worshipping needs to be reexamined.

The first time we see her, she’s on a billboard in a flower crown. I’ve already discussed a lack of imagination, so let’s move on. The next time we see her, she’s in a sari. Does she look beautiful? Oh, absolutely. But would we be okay with this if it was Katy Perry or Miley Cyrus or pretty much anyone else? (I’m just going to point out that this has happened, countless times. Jessica Alba in The Love Guru, Iggy Azalea in the video for Bounce, etc.) It doesn’t matter to me that she’s a person of color. Being a POC doesn’t entitle you to disrespect or appropriate another culture. In fact, some might argue that being a POC should teach you better. I’m not saying I agree (and in fact, saying so is problematic itself because it places unequal expectations across races and excuses some while blaming others). I’m just saying that Beyoncé should not be excused because she’s Beyoncé or because she’s a POC or because Coldplay made the video or whatever.

This gets even more frustrating when she appears on a movie screen while Chris Martin watches her. Here, she’s wearing jewelry that isn’t even Indian, her henna is bedazzled (?????), and she’s performing a sad excuse for Indian dance moves (I’ve seen five year olds do better). And later she’s not even wearing a sari and the dried henna hasn’t even been taken off? I’m so confused and frustrated someone please explain what’s going on. 

Why couldn’t they just have an Indian or Indian-American singer play her role, the role that is supposedly of a famous Bollywood actress who sings and dances on the big screen? 

When I see people excuse Beyoncé's role in this video because she's Beyoncé (and yes, this has actually happened, multiple times), I find it insulting. It automatically suggests that Beyoncé is more important than my culture, my heritage, my background and how it is treated. As Alena points out, Beyoncé is so outspoken about oppression and appropriation towards her race and culture, but why should she be given a pass when she perpetuates the same for others? She has called out people for using her culture, her identity as a prop, and yet this is exactly what she does in Hymn for the WeekendI'm not here to turn anyone away from their Beyoncé-worship, but I urge you to be a little more critical of her, to recognize that this sort of behavior is not okay, not even for Bey.

Still confused? Read this.

This is not what India is

I don’t expect you to represent the entirety of a culture and its history and its people in a music video. I’m sure no one does. But it’s not too much to ask that you think beyond the stereotypes, the all-too-presented images that everyone already associates with India. It’s not too much to ask that you don’t contribute to the orientalizing and exotifying portrayal that already exists.

Who cares?

When I spoke to Indians here—as opposed to American students studying at the same university as me—I found a general indifference, even a feeling that people were making an issue where there was none. No one was pleased with the video’s focus on specific details such as Holi or streetchildren, but it seemed that not many people were bothered. (Which might explain Sonam Kapoor's cameo.) And those who were—at least from who I’ve spoken with about the video—were other Americans.

I'm trying to understand what can explain the disparity in opinions and the only thing I can think of is this: media representation and cultural appropriation affect you very differently when they become part of your everyday life on a personal level. I feel like Indian-Americans are so frustrated with this because they deal with this kind of thing all the time and are tired of it, tired of accommodating others' ignorances and tired of their background not being seen as worthy of defense. As for my friends here, I've been lucky enough to be surrounded by many socially-conscious and just genuinely kind people. My friends here have already been critical of the way India is seen in the media; we've already been talking about what is or is not okay for Americans abroad (wearing bindis, speaking in Indian accents, etc.). I wasn't surprised when some of my friends shared my anger and frustration with this video, but it was just so reassuring and comforting to know that other people care, that other people get it.

Bottom line

Look, the song is catchy as hell and Coldplay’s gonna have to move onto my list of problematic faves (hello Drizzy) and Beyoncé doesn’t bother me any more than she already has—actually, yes she does—but it’s exhausting to see yet another example how people continue to disregard misrepresentations of Indians and other South Asians in the media and beyond. In the conversations on race in America—ranging from topics such as diversity to police brutality to hate crimes to the model minority to Affirmative Action—Indians and other South Asians continue to be devalued and disregarded, often left out of the conversation altogether. On the topic of intersectionality, let us strive to focus on power dynamics that aren’t being questioned or discussed. I hope that the controversy that this video has sparked will push people to consume and create a little more critically. Now if you'll excuse me, I'll be working on getting the song out of my head.

~ V

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