Polycultural Reflections on Coldplay and Beyoncé

Last weekend, my social media feeds were on fire with the release of Coldplay’s new song featuring Beyoncé, Hymn for the Weekend.  And what a provocative moment! On Facebook, lines were quickly drawn among my family, friends, and colleagues. The ultimate debate. Was this song, and its video representation, cultural appropriation, or not? For those of us who have done our social justice homework, we have great reminders of the components of cultural appropriation– and how the collective impact of these components perpetuate racism. I found myself torn. At first glance, my head, told me- yes, this is absolutely cultural appropriation, or a manifestation of orientalism at least; but I will be really honest, my heart felt something different. It felt deeply conflicted.

I engaged in questions, trying to create my cultural appropriation litmus test.  

  • Is it cultural appropriation (or a performance of orientalism) on the part of Coldplay?  Beyoncé? Both of them?
  • Can people of color of different diasporas appropriate one another’s cultures?
  • Would I have been more easily offended if Beyonce was a white artist?  Why?
  • Do the intentions and identities of the artists, video director, participants in the video matter?
  • What would it mean to be in dialogue around these, and other questions? What would it mean for me?  What are my truths? How will I recognize the truths of others who share different emotions around this topic?

As an educator, I was trained in multicultural affairs, and I quickly asked questions that any thoughtful multiculturally competent educator might ask. But what if the lens of my inquiry is incomplete?  What is my end goal? Is it to diagnose Chris Martin, Coldplay, and Beyoncé?  Is it to imagine a broader humanity? One of the most humbling elements of my praxis has been to interrupt my multicultural affairs mindset- that will be my lifelong personal work.  

One of the most impactful readings for me, to this day, is Vijay Prashad’s book, “Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and The Myth of Cultural Purity”. In it, he applies Robin Kelley’s notion of polyculturalism as a critique to our general mainstream practice of multiculturalism. Multiculturalism, grounded in the “liberalism of the skin” binds my thinking and feeling- it forces me to put boundaries around cultures and their dynamic interplay and evolution. It diminishes the intersectional moments of groups, over time, and forces me to ignore the compounding of intersectionality over dozens of centuries. Ironically, multiculturalism forces me to participate in the erasure of the rich tapestries of stories that have emerged from the interplay of complexities of identities. Prashad, invoking polyculturalism, proposes that “unlike multiculturalism, assumes that people live coherent lives made up of a host of lineages” and our job is to “make sense of how people live culturally dynamic lives.” Ajay Nair frames polyculturalism as a paradigm that can liberate us to move the margin to the center- which is the core of our work as educators. 

The truth is that there has been a dynamic history between the African and Desi diaspora, for centuries.  (see some references below). When I learned that one of my favorite Bollywood songs from the ‘60s was filmed in blackface, (and another here) I was devastated.  Some of my favorite Hindi music is very clearly borrowed from African musical tradition. Take these three songs (Jumma Chumma De DeTamma Tamma LogeTama)- two from Hindi films, inspired by the third, Guinean artist, Mori Kante. When I served as an advisor to six different South Asian/Desi fraternities and sororities, those organizations embraced the stepping and strolling traditions of African American fraternities and sororities. When Priyanka Chopra wanted us to celebrate being Exotic, in her duet with Pitbull, I also had a mixed emotion moment. These are just a few examples that come to my mind, from my own lived experience. I offer these as other polycultural moments that contribute to the topography of this conversation. And, there is an entire tapestry of moments like this, especially pre-European colonization.  

When we look at this video, in the boundaries of today’s politics, or in an singular national context, we may reach a different- more textured analysis than the one we might consider when looking at this video as a transnational polycultural moment, a jugalbandi of cultural engagements and expressions over centuries. Hopefully our analysis leads us to thinking about ways in which the single-story representations of peoples, genders, traditions, class/caste, and colorism have situated cultures and communities over time, and that we can be empowered to think differently about how we might approach our own practices and decisions.  Hopefully we can also think about the cultural evolution that is happening.  Even in the biological world, the evolutionary process has moments that result in the advancement of species, and processes that do not yield a more progressive or resilient life form. We are watching a cultural evolutionary moment, and our participation in this moment matters. This is complex- and messy. And this is the work most worth doing.  

Is it about right and wrong?  Good or bad?  Or is it about understanding this moment, and all of these moments- in all of their complexities?  In my own early career practice, I was a social justice diagnostician, and my multicultural frame did not lead me to liberation, mutual understanding, and reconciliation. Our practice as educators must be for the long haul, with reconciliation within ourselves, and alongside one another as our goal.  I have found that a process that allows us to ask the right questions, and those that allow for multiple points of entry into the dialogue, take us on the path to reconciliation. The answers matter- and the process to the answers matters more. As college educators, we, and our profession are uniquely situated to be the conveners and facilitators of reconciliatory moments, processes, and experiences.  

Some references:

http://qz.com/440978/meet-the-fast-disappearing-community-of-indians-and-pakistanis-of-african-origin/

http://kafila.org/2016/01/14/the-need-for-black-south-asian-solidarity-lavanya-nott/

https://medium.com/@varathas/connecting-the-disconnected-when-south-asians-accuse-east-africans-of-cultural-appropriation-76527a872484#.276zq4ggu

http://thewire.in/2016/01/18/scholars-suicide-discrimination-in-higher-education-reflects-the-violence-of-a-casteist-culture-19548/

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