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Cultural Appropriation In Pop Music — When Are Artists In The Wrong?


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. The Super Bowl halftime usually features the biggest names in music. Today will be no different with Coldplay and Beyonce on stage. They will not, however, be performing their new song, "Hymn For The Weekend." The music video for the song dropped last week.


COLDPLAY AND BEYONCE: (Singing) Oh, angel sent from up above. You know you make my world light up.

MARTIN: And then the headlines followed. Here's one of them. Dear Coldplay and Beyonce, India is not an Orientalist fantasy. Coldplay has said they're not performing the song because it's, quote, "too new."

Whatever the reason, the controversy around "Hymn For The Weekend" has continued, so we called up Justin Charity. He's a staff writer at the magazine Complex. And I asked him first off to just describe the video.

JUSTIN CHARITY: Basically, Coldplay and Beyonce went to Mumbai, and the music video is shot with a lot of imagery from the Hindu Holi festival of colors. The music video features Chris Martin running around with local children and sort of throwing dry coloring and dye. And Beyonce's also in it, and she is basically a Bollywood actress. And she's adorned in lace and bangles and henna, and this is all somewhat strange imagery to associate with either Beyonce or Coldplay.

MARTIN: Neither of them are Indian.

CHARITY: Right. We should note that Chris Martin is a white man.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

CHARITY: Beyonce is a black woman from Houston, Texas.

MARTIN: So what does this mean? It means if you're an artist, you are only allowed to operate in an artistic space that reflects your own ethnic identity?

CHARITY: I don't think that that's necessarily the complaint about the song - right? - because Chris Martin has talked about writing "Hymn For The Weekend," and he was hearing a Flo Rida song, and he thought, I really want to write a club hit. So to go from Chris Martin hearing a Flo Rida pop rap record to Chris Martin and Beyonce being in Mumbai is a strange cultural leap that seems like it's basically appropriating a very distant culture that the music video's not really engaging with as this sort of visual aesthetic for what is ultimately Coldplay trying to do a Flo Rida song (laughter).

MARTIN: So you're saying it's different if the song had some resonance, some direct connection to South Asia or to these traditions.

CHARITY: Right, and if the song or the video seemed at all curious about its surrounding, which it doesn't, you know. I can't help but think of it as basically every big pop musician looks with a sense of - how do I engage with another culture that my brand is pretty removed from? And they almost always botch it.

MARTIN: So, you know, it's hard to have a conversation about cultural appropriation without bringing up Iggy Azalea.

CHARITY: Iggy Azalea has been in this territory with the music video for "Bounce," I believe, which also is basically appropriating a Bollywood aesthetic for the sake of a white Australian rapper who is doing a strange approximation of Atlanta rap music. So it's even stranger in Iggy's case, right?

MARTIN: And Miley and the twerking?

CHARITY: Well, that's the thing. It's, like, you can talk about Miley and twerking. We can talk about Gwen Stefani - I think, like, 12 years ago in the Harajuku Girls controversy.

MARTIN: Yeah. Madonna even did this stuff in the '90s.

CHARITY: Right. Right (laughter).

MARTIN: So, why does it keep happening? Something about that formula works to some degree.

CHARITY: I think it's more about the fact that this is what pop culture does. You know, you can look to the fact that in the late '90s and beyond, like, hip-hop went from being a very New York-local genre of music to being a multimillion dollar industry that profited a lot of people beyond just the artisan producers involved in the creation of the music, right? That's sort of the M.O. of pop music. That's the M.O. of record labels. That's the M.O. of artists once they engage with pop culture on a certain level, is to find ways to commodify imagery that's interesting to people, even if that imagery is interesting to consumers at a great distance.

MARTIN: Justin Charity writes for Complex. Thanks so much, Justin.

CHARITY: Thank you, Rachel.


COLDPLAY AND BEYONCE: (Singing) Ah, ah-ah, ah-ah, la, la, la, la, la, la, la... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.