Appropriation or appreciation? Styling in popular culture

It’s starting to seem as though, behind the success of every creative mind in the media industry, there has been at least one terribly planned “exotic moment”. In Western popular culture it has become a trend, most common in music videos, for artists to use a country or culture other than their own, to bring a certain aesthetic to their work. Often, these cultures are over simplified to fit certain stereotypes and please Western viewers.

This practice is called cultural appropriation, and the latest offenders are Coldplay and Beyoncé in the music video for Hymn for the Weekend. Directed by Ben Mor and filmed in Mumbai, two of the biggest Western music icons place themselves within the culture in a seemingly festive manner, focusing around the celebration of Holi, an ancient Hindu religious festival. However, following its release before Coldplay and Beyoncé’s planned performance at the Super Bowl, audiences from around the world took to Twitter to debate what everyone had been thinking throughout the whole video: is this cultural appropriation or harmless appreciation?

Simply put, cultural appropriation is the use by one culture of the traditions and expressions of another. The problem lies in the way that this practice almost always involves a majority group or Western culture appropriating the culture of a minority group or of a non-Western culture. While the western appropriation is praised or admired – think Kendall Jenner wearing a Bindi as a fashion accessory – the marginalized group is commonly discriminated against for their own use of a particular item, or for their participation in a practice.

Popular Western culture tends to feature these historically traditional practices as a trend only within a whitened and Westernised environment. This is harmful when included in multiple media platforms: it is commercialising foreign traditions to be easily consumed by Western audiences. As is the case for India, it is common for music videos to ignore its complexities and to instead portray the country as an over-exotic and spiritualsed backdrop in order to produce more exciting content.

In Coldplay’s video, Chris Martin plays the role of a tourist travelling through the streets of Mumbai, and we see through his eyes what is represented as an almost fairytale version of everyday life. He walks through groups of young children throwing vibrant colours at each other in celebration of Holi, and the band ends up performing for them in the streets.

In his rickshaw tour of Mumbai, Martin also passes one too many holy men, and even a child dressed as Lord Shiva. As he sits in a neighborhood cinema, he watches Beyoncé take on the role of a Bollywood actress, “Rani”, wearing traditional Indian clothing and henna on her gesturing hands. This depiction of Beyoncé is part of a wider debate in which Coldplay have been criticieed for using women of colour as props to portray “exotic” love interests after their 2012 release of “Princess of China” featuring Rihanna as an (incorrectly dressed) Geisha-type beauty.

In the overall illustration, it seems as though Ben Mor and Coldplay were aiming for a celebration of India’s lively culture, but missed all the facts. UEA student Shaivya Ramani, who was born in India, says that “the issue here is not the appropriation, but the orientalism”. The representation of India throughout many years of western media has been that of multiple stereotypes that keep its culture in the past, while the real India is “a country of high-rises and economic boom. We don’t play Holi every day. We’re not all about Hindu gods. We’re a secular country that nobody really cares to look into the culture of before [they use] it”.

It is true that we are now in a time in which the global is the local and we are seeing different cultures in our every day lives. But, when powerful western industries, keeping in mind a prominent imperialist past, wrongfully depict cultures and profit from of this misrepresentation, it is damaging to the development of a country.

While Coldplay is the most recent example of ignorant portrayal of South Asian culture, it is far from beingy. Indeed, it seems to be a step up from music videos of popular artists in the last year. DJ Snake, Major Lazer and MO’s music video for Lean On presented the group as having the time of their lives lounging around in inaccurate Indian clothing, occasionally joining in dancing with the Indian women entertaining them. In addition, Iggy Azalea’s music video for Bounce also misused an Indian as she sang about getting wasted in a club while actually in a Hindu temple, all whilst wearing a bindi and a traditional Hindu headpiece.

What is common to both of these examples is that India and its people are seen as a backdrop, completely irrelevant to the music being sung, adding only an “exotic” touch to Western music. What Coldplay did successfully achieve in comparison was the featuring of real Mumbai residents: Bharatanatyam dancers in traditional clothing, Indian Bollywood actress Sonam Kapoor, and even the lifelong employee of the local cinema shown. While the fact that one music video is less offending than the other doesn’t make misuse of traditions for Hollywood success acceptable, it does bring into debate where the line between appreciation and ignorant appropriation lies.

Overall, Coldplay and Beyoncé’s five-minute festivities in India are a stereotypical, historically and religiously condensed view of a complex country. The portrayed Westerners’-paradise fails to take into consideration the realities of everyday life in Mumbai, as the long-standing image of South Asia in the media has become a profitable tool for artists in Western popular culture.

What goes deeper than the argument of cultural appropriation is the ignorance in portrayal of cultures that aren’t our own. Multi-cultural inspiration for creative media is a necessary process and shouldn’t always be labeled as appropriation. However inviting western culture to celebrate India through only images of poverty, religion, and Bollywood, damages any tolerant understanding of their country.


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December 2021
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