Although colonial rule no longer functions, its legacy still persists, every now and then making an appearance in the most unexpected of places. This became apparent in September, when Taylor Swift was called out for the representation of Africa in her music video, ‘Wildest Dreams’, which features an unspecific beautiful African desert with no native people, but rich wildlife. The video also came as a response to the publicly protested poaching of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe, with proceeds from the video going towards wildlife conservation. However, in its philanthropic agenda, ‘Wildest Dreams’ fell prey to the good old colonial tropes and frameworks used to represent Africa: as all wilderness.
This sparked an interest in colonial discourses present in other music videos which represent different cultural spaces. As Edward Said’s influential Orientalism made explicit, representation of colonies was (and perhaps still is) very much linked to the politics and power dynamics of colonial rule. The Orient was often presented as the Occident’s ‘Other’, leading to neat binaries between the Occident/Orient, masculine/feminine, culture/nature—an ‘us vs them’ rhetoric, that had very material effects as it justified colonialism. Though it is now many years since the end of colonialism, some of these discourses can still be discerned in popular cultures, such as music videos. Further, the wide reach of music videos produced in Western countries such as USA and UK, ensures that its depictions of otherness and difference matters.
It is, therefore, unfortunate that some colonial stereotypes continue to be perpetuated. For, Swift is not the only singer guilty of presenting limiting stereotypes of the African continent. Michael Jackson’s ‘Black or White’ spreads the beautiful message of transcending racial identities, but also turns to the stereotypical notions of the African region as all wilderness and nature in the video. The British Band Aid produced song, ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ also has a philanthropic agenda, to raise money for worthy causes such as famine and disease pertaining to the continent, but is appalling in the dehumanising images of Africa it conjures. The song, initially produced in 1984 and re-recorded in 2014, is patronising to say the least, making distinctions between ‘us’, the fortunate ones and ‘them’, the poor and less fortunate. Lyrics such as ‘There’s a world outside your window, and it’s a world of dread and fear’, among many others from the 1984 version is a case in point of orientalism. The 2014 remake, to raise money to fight Ebola in West Africa, tweaked some of its predecessor’s incriminating lyrics, but still perpetuates certain stereotypes of the African region as a place of sickness and suffering. Where in the colonial times the same rhetoric would have been utilised to justify colonial rule, here it is being used as a cause for charity. Though Band Aid might mean well, these songs generalise one negative aspect to a vast and diverse region, and thereby do more harm than good.
The South Asian region, however, is more often than not overly exoticized. Because of my location, I was intrigued by three Duran Duran videos, from their 1982 album Rio, filmed in Sri Lanka (here, here and here). Duran Duran has been credited with taking the music video genre out of the studio and into the world by some. And going by the three videos, Duran Duran surely ventured to a strange and exotic world. In the video of ‘Lonely In Your Nightmare’ a woman tosses and turns in her sleep while dreaming of a mystic and exotic land, complete with beaches, snakes and local dancers. Most interesting is the video for ‘Hungry Like The Wolf’. It follows an Indiana Jones formula, with the lead singer Simon Le Bon in hot pursuit of a wild creature, presumably a native woman though she looks more of African than South Asian origin. He is at odds with the environment, having to walk through overcrowded market places, travel through murky rivers and tussle with his prey, the woman, in the jungles. Apart from the problematic gender politics, the video also re-enacts the colonial project of the white man (the West) in pursuit of a wild woman (the ‘Orient’). More recently, another video for a very catchy song ‘Lean on’ by Major Lazor and DJ Snake featuring MØ, also appropriates Indian culture, referencing India through exotic frameworks of excess and opulence, such as decadent palaces and sari clad dancers. Though, to be fair, the video does not shy away from showing a more modern India as well.
However, the matter is far more complicated than simple misplaced representation. The Duran Duran videos also spiked tourism in Sri Lanka (see here and here). And today, it is not only the so called West that reproduces these stereotypes, but also local states, the very erstwhile colonies as well. Tourist images as seen on the official tourism website of Sri Lanka presents a narrative similar to the Duran Duran videos—of beaches and exotic landscape, hospitable people, rich culture, ancient history, etc. Another example of self-exoticisation is Priyanka Chopra’s song ‘Exotic’. The song explicitly plays on the exotic trope, and like the Duran Duran video, draws parallels between the tropical landscape and the female body (‘I’m feeling quite exotic, I’m hotter than the tropics’). And yet, this is an Indian woman (though the song and video is produced in USA) who is presenting herself as such. Clearly today the power dynamics of these representations are far more complicated. However the question remains as to whether such representations are empowering and if agency is retained with the subject represented?
One might ask at this point, what is the problem with exoticism. Apart from reproducing stereotypes, exoticism commodifies culture, people, and space as something to consume and, therefore, the discourse has within it a tendency to objectification and exploitation. As Graham Huggan notes in his book, The Post-Colonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins, exoticism makes the unfamiliar familiar while maintaining certain mysticism and manufacturing otherness, to a primarily Western audience. It is tied to power, having a history with colonialism. Today, as Huggan notes, exoticism serves not colonialism but global capitalism. Tourism advertisements are the most blatant examples of gross exoticisation to serve a market interest. Further, if this is the only way in which you are known, as something exotic or as someone to be sympathised and pitied, it is deeply problematic as, it robs you of your politics, agency and story, reducing the people and places to limiting stereotypes and vast generalisations which can have a very real impact on one’s lived reality, as evidenced in a recent TGE article. Chimananda Ngozi Adiche in her Ted talk eloquently points this out, in what she calls ‘the danger of a single story’.
Though the music video genre still seems to have a long way to go, other genres such as television have made progress in its proliferations of diversity and difference. The Mindy Project, Master of None and Quantico which has an Indian (the very same Priyanka Chopra) as the lead, are some shows that do not follow the stereotypes, though I am still to see a more diverse representation of other South Asians in mainstream TV. And where some limiting representations may persist, the internet also offers a platform to counter this. For just as it is sad that many years since the end of colonialism, ‘Africa’ is referenced through the same frameworks passed down from the colonial period, the flak that ‘Wildest Dreams’ received, shows that we have indeed come a long way since.
Article by Asnah Anver