Around the World at 180 Beats per Minute

by Racialicious Special Correspondent Wendi Muse

A few years ago, when M.I.A. was more commonly known as a military acronym than as the stage name of a Sri Lankan-born singer with a seductive British accent, my friends and I were busy spreading the word via burnt cds and “have you heard?” interjections about Ms. Arulpragasam. Her tracks, which somehow touched on just about every form of music I’d ever loved, remained in heavy rotation on my faux-Pod. Her voice was unique, but what I enjoyed most about her music was what I heard in the background. It wasn’t until I went to her free Central Park concert in the summer of 2005 that I realized who was the culprit for the music behind the lyrics. Diplo, M.I.A.’s Philadelphia-based on-again/off-again love interest, was the one who had produced and remixed the songs on M.I.A’s underground cd entitled Piracy Funds Terrorism, which sparked M.I.A.’s first major release: Arular, an eclectic mix of reggae, funk, electro, bhangra, grime, and hip hop. He had helped to propel her career and make her a prime candidate for collaborations with artists like Missy Elliot and Timbaland and sampling by DJs worldwide.

Diplo was suddenly to underground music as Pier One was to imports.

He had successfully highlighted the talents of a Third Culture Kid, all the while satiating an American audience’s hunger for something “different.” He was welcomed by various ethnic groups and music junkies, mainly for his ability to highlight the new and cool without turning it into a cliché exhibition of the exotic. He invited us all to join in on this form of musical exploration, not simply as spectators, but also as participants, as he combined aspects of distinctive music from the U.S. like dirty south hip hop, to remind us of his roots, with a few notes from the international underground, to remind us that he had a well-used passport. We all had something to contribute as well as something to learn. And while some Americans still may not know of Diplo, it seems that the rest of the world, in particular the oft-ignored “global south,” is paying close attention.

And for good reason.

Though films, music, and tv shows from the U.S. have come to dominate the global market as the end-all, be-all of exportable pop culture, Diplo and his cohorts at Mad Decent, the record label he established in 2006, have worked to reverse this trend. Serving somewhat as a curator of global music and culture, he has used the label to promote his moving museum of sound throughout the club scene. Having already formed relationships with well-known DJs in countries like England, Sweden, and the United States by way of his mix albums and the club and music collective Hollertronix, the man known to his parents and friends as Wesley Pentz set out for countries like Brazil, Angola, Australia, and Israel/Palestine not only to play music, but to learn more about the musical traditions of the population. Fully knowledgeable of the power of subculture, as his success was due in part to his influence therein, Diplo has made a concerted effort to connect with members of the lower class around the world. Ironically, the ingenuity they exhibit despite their economic and social misfortune has become a key element in Diplo’s success, thus begging the question of whether or not his role is one of student turned educator or appropriator cum exploiter.

As the line between those positions are often blurred, especially if the person in question comes from a place of privilege and the people whom he or she observes do not, it’s sometimes difficult to be sure that the original intention of the artist evolves into a correlative outcome. Diplo is a white male from the United States, whereas the communities from whom he gains musical knowledge are impoverished communities of color ranging from working class blacks and Latinos in the United States to, most notably as of late, Brazilian faveladas (people who live in Brazilian slums, known in Portuguese as “favelas”), the focal point of his upcoming documentary Favela on Blast, which highlights the evolution of funk carioca. Funk carioca, known more commonly outside of the Portuguese-speaking world as “baile funk” (though this is slightly inaccurate as “baile funk” is actually the name of the large funk parties where the music is played) is a highly danceable combination of Miami bass, American hip hop and rock samples, and Portuguese lyrics that originated in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro but that is gaining a considerable following in the United States, Europe and the rest of Latin America. In this instance, Diplo could be considered as one of the hundreds of others cashing in on America’s fascination with the lifestyles of the international and impoverished, but the press kit from Favela on Blast seems to indicate quite the opposite:

The intention is not to create a ‘fast-food documentary’ on the characters who form the funk culture, which could be seen on TV and then discarded. On the other hand, this is also not some sort of ‘cinema verité,’ in which the depth is slowly revealed. This project is more interested in creating a spin around a music expression that is unique in its contrasts and mixtures. This film investigates the particular universe of funk carioca, which is a world composed [of] characters who have remarkable talent and also notorious inadequacies. This way, it becomes more possible [for] us to get to know the inner layers of each of them, while the events are revealed on the screen.

Despite the fact that Diplo and the team working on the film (which includes scholars in Brazilian culture), seem to have the best of intentions, how this message will translate to the viewing audiences will be the true test of the function artists like Diplo serve. The documentary, when coupled with Diplo’s music resume, may come across as a trivialization and, arguably, glorification of a life in the slums, overshadowing the poverty and social injustice its inhabitants face. By putting the party styles of the poor “on blast,” Diplo may be positioning his audience as privileged onlookers to only a minute portion of what some experience as a grim quotidian reality.

Culture is currency these days, and, falling right in line with the economic trends of globalization, it is often sown by those who have little, only to be harvested for financial gain by others. With the appropriation and transportation of culture, there is, without a doubt, a portion of its authenticity that gets lost in translation. For example, a large portion of the music Diplo samples and sponsors is in languages he doesn’t even speak. On the Mad Decent blog page, he and Canadian DJ Paul Devro provide synopses of (non-English) international song lyrics that range from slightly imprecise to total shots in the dark, producing narrative results that are about as nerve-wracking for me to read as erroneous subtitles on foreign films. However, the blog contributors (artists of the Mad Decent label, Diplo, and friends) provide their readers with a crash course in musical appreciation that includes local interviews, a brief history of the featured track and/or mix, and a smattering of contemporary political/social information on the side, thus distracting from any momentary blips of translative inaccuracy.

Also, despite his “undergound” status, Diplo is guilty of exhibiting one of mainstream American music’s most infamous flaws: the objectification of women. During a recent Diplo, DJ Blaqstarr, and Bonde do Role concert I attended at Studio B in Brooklyn, I was having an amazing time until, in the middle of Diplo’s DJ set, I looked up and noticed the bouncing T&A of bikini-clad brown women whose faces remained a mystery. With their bodies on big-screen display as my backdrop, I realized that I was one of a handful of brown-skinned women in a sea of white, and immediately felt uncomfortable. As the dancing on the screen became more lewd and the music became more intense, I felt like I was the subject of the hooting and hollering audience around me, as if seeing my face alongside the nearly naked bodies of the women whose skin color matched mine completed the image in their heads. Diplo had, in one moment, served as a facilitator in the popular, and in this instance, predominately white, consumption of some of the world’s most exploited “possessions”: women’s bodies and “foreign” culture.

This thought process didn’t occur immediately. I came to this conclusion after I let all my thoughts stew in my head during the early morning subway ride home. Yet a few hours later, I had let bygones be bygones. Like most music listeners, I found that I had allowed the power of a song outweigh the possible social consequences of the performer’s actions (R. Kelly, anyone?). I also thought about what Diplo, and DJs like him, meant to the music industry as a whole. Wasn’t he simply relaying whatever respective cultures he had featured in their complete form? I may object to some aspects of that “completeness,” but wouldn’t censoring it have run counter to my desire to see the full articulation of a culture despite extraction from its original environment? Would someone who didn’t understand Portuguese, for example, have realized that the song “Injeçao” was about more than just a shot at the doctor’s office if the video hadn’t accompanied it? Could I blame Diplo for playing the messenger?

I’m not really sure.

Though I could write Diplo off as a well-connected party boy on a global club-hopping spree, I hesitate to do so. After all, this is the man who can closely identify with creators of the music he samples, more than many of us may be willing to acknowledge simply because he and his influencers live in worlds that are skin hues and dollar signs apart. In a 2005 article for Philadelphia Weekly, Diplo, then known by friends as Wes Gully for his family’s shrimp boating and bait shop-owning past, explains more of his background:

My grandmother had her first child when she was 13 and had 10 after that . . . I come from a real Southern family. I got cousins that are older than my uncles. My uncle had a mobile home, so he was always going to Mexico, doing gospel retreats, bringing Bibles to Mexicans. I took trips with him to Oklahoma, and visited my aunt in Alabama. I spent my time in those states. That’s how I grew up.

As the son of “the local hospital’s CEO–a Vietnam vet and the only one of his siblings to go to college–and a born-again Christian whose devotion to God is matched only by her devotion to the Republi-can Party,” Diplo’s future life choices made him a textbook example of reactionary theory. He was an avid attendee of graffiti shows and b-boy battles across Florida, the state where he spent most of his teenage years. He read lots of Zora Neale Hurston and Gabriel García Márquez and decided on a college major in film, just about the furthest thing from shrimp boating he could possibly find. He was later greatly inspired while working as a teacher in inner-city schools, where he learned about different forms of rap from his students. In an interview in the newest Elle Magazine, Diplo recounts how he came up with his record label name:

Before I was deejaying, I was an elementary school teacher at an inner-city school in Philly. All the kids would say there was a grade scale of what was good and bad. If something was bad, it was corny. If it was good, it was really decent.

To this day, he continues to gain valuable ideas from multiple sources and widely promotes the artists he meets in his travels, even signing a few to his label, demonstrating his sincere interest in providing opportunity to those who have inspired many facets of his own musical career and subsequent success.

So much like other musical artists, he is a walking contradiction of sorts. Though in his case, I am left questioning the social impact of his actions far more than his intent. In many ways, he is exhibiting behavior that we expect other musicians and pop icons to carry out, but that they often neglect to display (i.e. giving back to the community, helping other musicians find a start, giving credit to their sources of inspiration, be it individuals or cultures). Despite that, however, I worry that his intentions may be lost on those who see his music merely as entertainment. The social commentary inevitably fused into his beats may be interpreted by some as a good marketing scheme or the simple satiation of an audience that feeds off an exploitative relationship with the “third world.” I want to wait a few years before I fully weigh in on this. In the meantime, you be the judge.

Trailer 4 for Favela on Blast (featuring the song “Injeçao” by Deise Tigrona and some fun, “try this at home”-friendly choregraphy)
Video for the Diplo remix of the song “Percão” by Pantera Os Danadinhos
Mad Decent Radio (featuring podcasts of Diplo remix sets and local interviews)
Mad Decent Blog (maintained by Mad Decent artists and Diplo; also contains numerous songs and mixes you can download for free)

Pictured above: Diplo holding up a copy of his newly acquired visa to travel and perform in Angola.