'members of a dominant group exploiting the culture of less privileged groups - often with little understanding of the latter's history, experience and traditions'. Deepa Lakshmin expands, describing cultural appropriation as 'when a privileged group or individual borrows practices, traditions, clothes, and so forth from a marginalized group and is praised for being cool and unique, while the marginalized culture is looked down upon for participating in the same (their own) customs'.
So what about that burrito? Well, I freely admit that I do not have an understanding of Mexico's 'history, experience and traditions' when I struggle not to coat myself in salsa from a disintegrating wrap. It's also probably the case that Western franchises that sell burritos do much better than more authentic Mexican fare. Imagine that this hypothetical restaurant is adorned with copious Mexican clichés, sombreros around every corner (which, coincidentally, were banned by the University of East Anglia last year). Should I still be eating there? Or is it enough to maintain an awareness that this is not an accurate representation of the culture it claims to represent?
|Me and the shirt (second from the right)|
To get back to Coldplay for a moment, they clearly do not understand the culture they think they're representing. Beyoncé is seen at one point wearing a mattha-patti on her face when it's actually meant for the forehead, which Nishta Chugh fabulously compares to 'wearing your tie seven inches higher than where it should be'. Then it's slightly problematic that Martin and co. are 'portrayed as dynamic, modern Westerners who entrance the city with their formulaic pop song'. It's almost as if all those Indian children just exist to chuck paint at them.
There are those that defend the video. A quick glance at the YouTube comments shows that the vast majority praise it for it's positive portrayal of India. Lakshim even goes as far to say that 'the musicians feel secondary to the community in which they're performing'. I'm not too sure about that myself, but it's debatable. A good comparison is with The Staves' Indian-shot 'Blood I Bleed' video, a band who also have the advantage of not being Coldplay. You can watch it below:
'Blood I Bleed' does not burn you retinas with fluorescent primary colours, or feature the band cavorting around India like it's an exotic playground. The Staves sisters are nowhere to be seen, and instead we're given a polyphonic snapshot of Indians from various walks of life engaged in both mundane and life-changing acts. It may be better, but the question is, is this video still cultural appropriation? Is India still just been used as a pretty backdrop for an unrelated alt-folk song?
There are no easy answers. When does healthy cultural interchange become cultural appropriation? The Staves' video seems better than the Coldplay one, aside from its obvious musical superiority. But perhaps it is just generally a bad idea for Western artists to set their videos in foreign climes, as music videos are never going to be the most intelligent ways of exploring other cultures. I am sure there are genuine attempts by non-residents to portray the beauty of a country they do not have reliable first hand experience of, but when does a fascination with another nation become theft of its cultural belongings? Coldplay's intentions in this instance don't really matter. Even if they were trying to respectfully portray Indian culture, the fact they have missed the mark so dramatically ensures the video does more harm than good.
It's easy to object to 'Hymn for the Weekend', which is essentially a half-understood mish-mash of stereotypes that appeal to Westerners who know very little about India. The question is, how much of an understanding of the culture do you have to have before it stops becoming cultural appropriation and a mere fashion statement, and starts becoming cultural exchange? There is an argument to say that no matter how much you know about a country, attempting to portray it in art is dangerous ground if you're not a resident. But then again, if your music video does not feature any glaring factual inaccuracies or disturbing post-colonial undertones, it's probably OK. I hesitate to state this with any certainty, as I'm sure there are many people who disagree with me.
Anyhow, that concludes our adventures in cultural appropriation. If you have any thoughts or objections, don't hesitate to comment below.
Note: A previous version of this article referred to a 'traditional Indian shirt'. In fact it was nothing of the sort, and worn predominantly by Western admirers of Indian culture and religion rather than Indians themselves. Considering the nature of this article, it was a pretty ironic mistake, so apologies if my ignorance has caused offence.