A rickshaw zooms past. A child flashes a worried expression in front of a hut. A man swings his cricket bat, knocking a ball across an impoverished street. Adorned in beautiful red bridal lehenga and bindi, Iggy Azalea begins to rap, in a southern African American accent, “Make It Bounce!”
This describes the opening credits to Iggy Azalea’s infamous “Bounce” music video. “Bounce” is one of the many contemporary music videos heavily criticized for cultural appropriation.
Also among those criticized are the monstrously popular music videos – “Lean On” by Major Lazer and “Hymn for the Weekend” by Coldplay.
Indian Culture Reduced to a Recurrent Set of Profitable Stereotypes
All of these music videos share a number of similarities – they were all shot in India, all performed by heavily successful and influential western music artists. And more importantly, all of these music videos display unsurprising, habitual, and stereotypical depictions of India from a Westerner’s perspective.
All too often, India is portrayed as a distant mystical land infested with poverty. While it is true that a large majority of the Indian population suffers from poverty, the scenes described only strengthen the associations of these stereotypical characteristics with India.
These music videos serve as examples of cultural appropriation – a recent and hotly debated topic within the music industry.
As defined by Nadra Kareem Nittle, cultural appropriation usually involves “members of a dominant group exploiting the culture of less privileged groups — often with little understanding of the latter’s history, experience, and traditions.”
All of these music videos ignited a large amount of controversy surrounding their depictions of India.
Considering that the songs, both melodically and lyrically do not have any direct Indian influence, one can thus question, “What is the significance of filming them in India and in Indian attire?”
In the description box from the “Lean On” music video on Youtube, DJ Diplo responds to that question, stating, “we wanted to incorporate [India’s] attitude and positive vibes into our video… Major Lazer has always been a culture mash up to us…” (Diplo).
Diplo’s statement serves as an example of what many other artists such as Katy Perry and Avril Lavigne hide behind as a shield for their unbeknownst appropriation. They reason that their music videos aim at celebrating and appreciating the cultures that they depict. However, this isn’t always the case.
Appropriation vs. Appreciation: It all boils down to Profit
“Appreciating” a culture requires a certain desire to not only understand it but to also recognize and appreciate its different nuances which contribute to making it the way it is.
For example, when I see a bindi being worn by Iggy Azalea as she tries her best to mimic a Bollywood dance move in “Bounce”, I fondly recall a time when my once puzzled eight year-old self asked my mother why she herself wore a bindi. She replied to me saying, “we wear bindis because it signifies wisdom. It marks the exact place of the third eye, right in between your eyebrows.”
A bindi is worn to retain energy, increase concentration, and is sometimes worn by married women to symbolize their marital status.
I sincerely believe that this was not the same definition at work in Iggy Azalea’s mind as she was wearing it and simultaneously rapping “go nuts in this bitch”, nor in Vanessa Hudgens’ mind as she proudly posted her “fashionable” Coachella outfit with it to Instagram.
We are a country that possesses some of the most sacred cultures and practices of life- not the artistic back-up dancers of predominantly western artists to come and shoot viral videos.
In all honesty, when I see foreigners wearing elements of Indian clothing – saris, bindis, or mehndi, I do feel a certain sense of happiness as I see different types of people embracing aspects of my Indian culture. I like to see that people are unselfishly exploring cultures that they themselves aren’t associated with, as I believe this is a great way to ripen one’s knowledge and combat cultural ignorance.
It’s endearing to watch the world become a smaller place through people who hail from all corners of the world embracing a culture dissimilar to their own.
Western Artists Willfully Miss the Point of South Asian Cultural Traditions
However, when these actions are taken half-heartedly for the sake of providing an “exotic” appeal for a music video or to increase YouTube views by neither acknowledging nor understanding its significance or history, it is not only ridiculous but also humiliating and offensive to myself and almost a sixth of this planet’s population – Indians.
It feels as though my thousand-year-old culture and country, home to 22 official languages and over 2000 recognized ethnic groups, is merely belittled and utilized as an easy, convenient tool for the creation of a foreign-looking colorful backdrop to please the Western eye.
We are a country that possesses some of the most sacred cultures and practices of life and not merely the artistic back-up dancers of predominantly western artists to come and shoot viral videos. We coexist as worshippers of 9 different religions and unite as Indians.
Our region, which is riddled in diversity, is reduced by producers and directors to a number of stereotypical associations.
Challenging Western Entertainers to be Honest in their Intentions and Outlook
So my own questions for Diplo are these: in what way is adorning the women in your music video with saris and black opaque Nike sports bras a meaningful incorporation of authentic Indian culture? The sari is a strong emblem of Indian femininity sometimes worn when a girl is once considered a woman, not a costume.
Or your use of Ganesh, a widely worshiped and adored Indian God, as Lean On’s cover art with a man lying down on his lap? Or the frankly, lazy repetitive Bollywood dance step that you do in “Lean On?”
Cultural appropriation usually involves “members of a dominant group exploiting the culture of less privileged groups — often with little understanding of the latter’s history, experience, and traditions. (Nittle).
How do any of these gestures successfully incorporate “[India’s] attitude and positive vibes… that embodies the essence of Major Lazer?”
Does the essence of Major Lazer involve the misuse of foreign cultures? Is your brand built on the belittling of an entire region into a couple of lazy, effortless scenes of dancing in golden palaces and on top of buses amidst poverty?
If it is, than I have to agree - you are definitely doing a bang-up job.
Alisha Mahtani currently works for Blank Label Records as a Digital and Social Media Strategist. She is a music and Indian cultural enthusiast. You can follow her work for Blank Label Records on their Twitter Account at @BlankLabelRecs .