By Guest Contributor Isaac Miller
While some critics are rightly noting the confusing and inaccurate message of Beyoncé’s new single “Run The World (Girls)” in the context of a world controlled by patriarchy, her song/video also raises the issue of how peoples, artists, and cultures from the global south are referenced and represented by artists from the first world. Several layers of referencing go on within this song/video, which makes this discussion a lot more complicated, lengthy and, at the same time, all the more necessary.
Please bear with me. This is an important conversation to have because of the ways in which this kind of sampling reinforces disparities of privilege and power. Furthermore, its important to note the ways that the profits and opportunities produced from this referencing are disproportionately transferred to people with white privilege or benefiting from larger structures of white supremacy.
I want to be upfront about my position as a white man from the United States. Recognizing my own privileges in this dialogue, I welcome critique and debate and I’m writing this in large part because I want to see what kind of conversation these issues can generate.
Beyoncé and the Ethics of Sampling
Beyoncé’s sampling from artists and cultures of the global south permeates this video. Her creative team saw a YouTube video of the kwaito dance troupe Tofo Tofo performing at a wedding in Mozambique and decided to reach out to them to choreograph and dance in part of the video. Frank Gatson Jr., Beyoncé’s choreographer, told MTV News that “It was hard finding them. They were really in a remote area; we had to get the embassy people involved. That was a process that took about two months or more. Beyoncé really loved them and I’m pretty sure we’ll see them again. It was magical.”
As “magical” an experience as this may have been for Beyoncé, its unclear what the experience was like for the dancers in Tofo Tofo. The MTV News interview with Gatson, Jr. offers the only information on them that’s available on the web. Nowhere are their names or backgrounds mentioned, let alone their opinions. Furthermore, as The Johannesburg Times notes, “While pantsula dance is nothing new to us Africans, it’s the first time that it has been given such exposure. I’m glad Beyoncé saw something great in them and the movement as a whole. But I wish the genre was as appreciated and respected here. Why do our artists always need the American/ European stamp of approval for us to value them?” We in the U.S. could also ask ourselves the same question: Why do we value third world culture only when its mediated via first world celebrity?
In one scene, Beyoncé is holding the chains of two hyenas, referencing the work of White, South African photographer Pieter Hugo and his photographs of Nigerian “Hyena Men.” This work has been stridently critiqued for the racialized and exotified undertones to his photography. This raises the uncomfortable issue of how so many images in Beyoncé’s video echo exotified, Orientalist representations of the third world (Africa and the Middle East in particular).
Gatson, Jr. explained that “The concept the team ended up settling on was a desert landscape ruled by two forces: Beyoncé and her supermodel minions and a very unwelcoming opposing army.” But these representations don’t take place in a vacuum. Particularly perplexing are the images of “Beyoncé and her supermodel minions” confronting phalanxes of riot police. Its unclear in what context we are supposed to read these images, particularly given the recent events of the “Arab Spring,” where protesters across North Africa and the Middle East have been facing the real life dangers of batons, water cannons, and bullets. Notably -in the context of Beyoncé’s video- many of the participants in these uprisings and revolutions have been Arab women who have fought for their freedom from repressive dictatorships. Many of these women have been met with violence, and even death.
Beyoncé’s audience is left wondering whether there is a clear reason for the imagery that she is using. While its possible to interpret these references as an act of solidarity with the protesters across North Africa and the Middle East, the contrast between the glamourized images of Beyoncé’s video and the violent struggles that those images reference seems disrespectful.
Furthermore, that lack of sensitivity for the experiences of women protesters actually undermines the ostensibly feminist message of Beyoncé’s song. Especially given that Beyoncé received $2 million to perform at a New Year’s party for the sons of Muammar Qaddafi, her politics on this issue are questionable. Though she eventually gave this money to Haiti earthquake relief efforts after the uprisings in Libya began, it seems hypocritical to incorporate this kind of imagery with such ease given her history here.
Ethar El-Katatney recently wrote an article (cross-posted on Racialicious), about a song by Sijal Hachem, a Lebanese singer whose video features “women as sexy riot police standing in formation behind barbed wire as men charge them”… “equating men standing up to their nagging wives with people revolting against dictatorships.” El-Katatney writes that “The imagery in the music video is disturbing on so many levels. To see scenes we witnessed in real life paralleled in a music video—of barbed wire, billowing smoke and burning tires and paper; of groups of men wearing masks to protect themselves from tear gas while holding sticks and rocks; and of state security standing in rows and hosing protesters standing peacefully with gallons of water—makes me shiver involuntarily. It was real, it was horrible, and it was traumatic.” Many of these same images also appear in Beyoncé’s video. What is their meaning there?
In thinking about these issues, its also important to examine the idea of “imperial feminism” discussed in Nadine Naber’s recent article “Imperial Feminism, Islamophobia, and the Egyptian Revolution.” Naber discusses the way that first world feminist demands for women’s rights intersect with U.S. geopolitical interests in the Middle East. Naber writes that: “Both rely upon a humanitarian logic that justifies military intervention, occupation, and bloodshed as strategies for promoting “democracy and women’s rights.” This humanitarian logic disavows U.S.-state violence against people of the Arab and Muslim regions rendering it acceptable and even, liberatory, particularly for women.” I wonder at what Beyoncé’s vision of women’s liberation implies when paired with these discourses over the “oppression of women by Islam.”
I’m not saying that Beyoncé’s video intentionally advances an agenda of Imperial Feminism, but that the very character of Imperial Feminism is that it takes a claim that is on one level liberatory -women’s rights- and grafts it onto a political project that in fact destroys the lives of those women, their families, and their communities. So no matter how earnest Beyoncé was in shaping the message of her video, that meaning is malleable depending on her audience. As an artist Beyoncé has the freedom to use whatever imagery matches her vision, but she should be conscious of the potential implications of that vision. Accordingly, does this video’s message subvert or provide sustenance to the imperial agenda that defines women’s liberation as military occupation?
Also striking is the way in which this trajectory of U.S. imperialism coincides with American cultural hegemony, or the way in which American popular culture has become global popular culture. In the video of Beyoncé’s recent performance of “Run The World (Girls)” at the Billboard Music Awards, she is introduced by such pop culture luminaries as Stevie Wonder, Lady Gaga, Barbara Streisand, Bono, and (not insignificantly) First Lady Michelle Obama. This leads into Beyoncé’s re-creating in live performance the music video to “Run The World (Girls)”, which weaves together an array of dazzling digital images, including lion and elephant heads (continuing in animal form the theme of third world inspired imagery). However, one of the most striking images was with the line “Endless Power”, where Beyoncé literally holds (an image of) the world in the palm of her hand. This serves as a powerful visual representation not only of the influence of superstars such as Beyoncé, but also of American cultural hegemony as a whole.
Interestingly, while Beyonce re-enacts the Tofo Tofo dance sequence sans Tofo Tofo (replaced instead by a legion of digitally replicated Beyonce’s), she does include a sequence with Les Twins, a French dance duo made up of brothers Larry and Laurent Bourgeois. Though its troubling that Tofo Tofo’s contribution was absent from this performance (no mention of them in Beyonce’s acceptance speech for the Billboard Millenium Award when she thanked her family, Destiny’s Child, and her husband Jay-Z), they were swapped out as Beyonce’s male backup dancers with Les Twins, two other dancers representing global hip hop culture.
Opening with the words “Power is ever present” echoing through the auditorium, this performance gives little thought the way that power plays out in this very song. Taking this statement at face value, under the guise of a feminist anthem, “Run the World (Girls)” speaks much more directly to the dynamics of power between first world artists and third world culture. But to really get at the racialized dimensions behind Beyonce’s latest mega-hit, its necessary to not only examine her music video and Billboard Awards performance, but also the song and video that “Run The World (Girls)” samples for its beat.
“Pon De Floor”: Major Lazer and the Representation of Black Bodies
“Pon De Floor”
Bianca I. Laureano writes about watching the “Pon De Floor” video by Major Lazer in her article “Major Lazer: Cyborgs, Dancehall, Racism, & Colonization in Music”:
“I was immediately excited because the dancing in the video was very much the kind of Dancehall I find fascinating, yet also complex as it is overly sexually graphic. Basically performers are reenacting some sexual activities on the dance floor, yet are doing so in a way that challenges our ideas of athleticism in dancing in this way. Another aspect of the video that I was excited about was that the women dancing were large bodied women. Some may even call them “fat dancers” yet for me their bodies were so much like my own it was as though I was watching myself dance…
My online searching led me to the shocking knowledge that Major Lazer is a fictional Black cyborg created by two White men, Diplo from Philidelphia (of M.I.A. fame), and Switch, from the UK who specializes in “House” music…
At the end of the day I kind of feel duped, hoodwinked, bamboozled. I fell for imagery that was crafted by outsiders to represent something meaningful that I valued as an important part of my Caribbean identity.”
My reaction to the video was different than Laureano’s. Before I saw the video I had followed the work of Major Lazer and knew that the group was composed of two white DJs. Watching the video, as a white person, I immediately felt uncomfortable because it seemed made by and for white people. That is to say it felt exploitative, racist, disingenuous, and totally uncritical of its own white gaze. The video was filmed by a white director (Eric Wareheim) for a group of white DJs. Though the vocalist on the track and the dancers in the video are all people of color and the song, as a Dancehall track, draws on a genre that originates from a community of color, it is interpreted through the gaze of white artists. Eric Wareheim had already created a similarly themed, but even more graphic video “Parisian Goldfish” for the group Flying Lotus and if the comments section of the Vimeo pages for both of these videos are any indication, the majority of the people watching them are white.
As Laureano points out, the Major Lazer project is itself a bizarre racialized fantasy where two white artists created a Black “cyborg” Major Lazer, who serves as their vehicle for representing Jamaican Dancehall culture to the world. What I question are the meanings conveyed when a predominantly white audience views this video and how it plays into racialized depictions of Black people as hyper-sexualized beings– stereotypes that go back to slavery and serve to reinforce characterizations of people of color as animalistic and inhuman (fundamentally Other and inferior to White people).
While “Pon De Floor” incorporates “Daggering” from Dancehall culture, the “Pon De Floor” video, as well as a subsequent one, titled “Major Lazer’s Guide to Daggering”, de-contextualize Dancehall as just another ironic commodity for white people to gawk and laugh at. Clearly these racist attitudes continue to this day (you need look no further than the YouTube comments sections to see this). So to play around with these hyper-sexual depictions of Black people in the name of hipster irony is not only confused but also dangerous. These images are not being controlled by people from the communities that are being represented. The lens is fundamentally different than if, for example, the video was conceptualized and produced by the women who appear in the video, and if they possessed the same level of creative control as Diplo, Switch, and the director Eric Wareheim.
“Major Lazer’s Guide to Daggering”
To highlight the importance of context in determining the meanings these images convey, it is necessary to understand where Daggering comes from. For example, A Newsweek article by Kate Dailey on “Daggering” quotes Jamaican DJ Jah Prince: “The majority of the time it [is] done with full disclosure to the patrons and only enacted by a hand few of ‘characters’ in the crowd.” Dailey writes, “‘Dancehall’ in fact, refers to music so suggestive that it could only be heard in clubs.” Dailey then quotes Annie Paul, a Kingston-based blogger who says “Jamaican society is extremely stratified, and people at the bottom are the core participants of dancehall culture… It is one of the few spaces and phenomenon they have control over.” The context that Dancehall comes from influences the meanings that the culture conveys. When “Pon De Floor” is posted on the internet and viewed by a majority white audience, those meanings change drastically.
And those meanings change even more live. This video interview with Diplo which showcases footage from Major Lazer’s SXSW showcase makes it clear that Diplo has no doubt about who his audience really is…
“Major Lazer Showcase at SXSW”
“We have this wild Daggering video *laughs*, its called “Pon De Floor”… anywhere you go, you can watch it. Its crazy and its just nuts. You can see it today, we’re gonna do it live. We have Skerrit Bwoy… You can expect a party that looks kinda like that video.” – Diplo
Major Lazer can’t be ignorant to the racialized dimensions of Black dancers performing a Daggering routine live in front of a majority white crowd. Diplo seems to glory in the irony of it all. But as with all minstrelsy, the contradictions do not diminish the racism involved. White artists presenting Black bodies as a sexual spectacle to a predominantly White audience is loaded with racism, however ironic it may be.
Diplo’s Relationship to Third World Artists/Artists of Color
Diplo (Wesley Pentz), even before Major Lazer, made a name for himself as a “musical Columbus” discovering the cutting edge of third world musical genres originating in some of the most impoverished and oppressed urban communities of color on the planet. He has been given credit for bringing introducing these styles to the global north, at tremendous personal success. Diplo, a former producer (and ex-boyfriend) of indie hip hop artist M.I.A. -producing her first mixtape “Piracy Funds Terrorism” as well as hits such as “Bucky Done Gun” and “Paper Planes”- is famous for bringing attention to the musical genre of Baile Funk (or Funk Carioca), originating in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. The underside of Diplo’s rising success is his history of using the work of third world artists without attribution. This includes his baile funk mixes “Favela on Blast” and “Favela Strikes Back”, as well as the anonymous baile funk tracks he included on MIA’s Piracy Funds Terrorism mixtape, and the song Bucky Done Gun on MIA’s first album Arular, which reproduced without acknowledgement a beat from Brazilian funk DJ Marlboro. M.I.A.’s label later took steps to acknowledge DJ Marlboro (as well as Deize Tigrona, the MC whose song the beat was originally used for), and Diplo attempted to bring more attention to baile funk artists in Brazil through touring with some of them and even producing a documentary on Baile Funk called “Favela on Blast.” However, he continues to come under criticism for exploiting artists of color. This recently resulted in a heated twitter debate between him and DJ Venus Iceberg X (covered in a recent Racialicious post), a queer woman of color producer who played shows with artists signed to Diplo’s record label Mad Decent and noticed some of the shady patterns to Diplo/Mad Decent’s business practices. She called him out publicly after he tried to record one of her shows without permission. As described in another post on Racialicious, “Its Complicated: DJs, Appropriation, and a Whole Host of Other Ish”, Diplo has a pattern of using the work of artists of color who make music in the latest genre that he takes interest in and then leaves those artists behind as he moves on to the next genre that grabs his attention.
What will Major Lazer’s newfound mainstream success mean for all of the artists of color who Diplo has worked with who have not seen similar success? Diplo is now producing for some of the most powerful superstars in pop music. “Pon De Floor” was sampled not only for “Run The World (Girls)” but also for “Ass On The Floor” a Swizz Beatz produced track on Diddy’s Dirty Money album and Diplo recently co-produced Chris Brown’s hit “Look At Me Now.” Furthermore, Diplo recently starred in a BlackBerry commercial and continues to tour all over the world. In contrast, Maluca, an ex-girlfriend and artist signed to his label, recently released a video showing her life beyond the limelight. In the video Maluca contrasts appearing in fashion shows and touring as an opener for Robyn with qualifying for EBT and living with her mother. In the Fader article “Diplo Cannot Keep You Out of the Poorhouse”, the author zings Maluca for holding a Mud Truck coffee cup in her video, and in the comments section someone critiques her for showing up to apply for food stamps wearing a fur hat. But another commenter notes “In her interview with T Magazine she says that she doesn’t have a cell phone, so I think going out and buying a cup of coffee is a fair exchange. Just because she isn’t the poorest person in the world doesn’t mean she is not poor.”
What’s particularly complicated is that Diplo has placed himself in the role of ambassador and intermediary for an array of global hip hop genres originating in the global south (in particular Baile Funk and Dancehall). On the one hand, Diplo presents himself is as someone concerned with the well-being and success of the communities that he engages with. He claims to be committed to their development and has engaged in a number of projects that have brought considerable attention to artists and communities in the global south, as well as artists of color in the global north. He has worked on projects such as the “Favela on Blast” documentary on Baile Funk in Rio’s favelas and the Heaps Decent NGO that supports the development of indigenous hip hop artists in Australia. And certainly Baile Funk has received greater attention and audiences in the global north as a result of Diplo’s work. The same with Dancehall culture via Major Lazer. However, no artists in these communities have gained even a fraction of the mainstream success and attention that Diplo/Major Lazer has. Not. Even. Close. And if Diplo’s career continues to move in the direction that it has been going, that disparity will only continue to grow. Perhaps he will be able to bring increased attention to even more artists and will use his resources to support projects that create genuine impacts on these communities. I wonder, though, for how long and how deep will the impact be.
“Interview with Diplo”
“I’ve gotten a lot of criticism, from journalists mostly, and also other people who do what I do in America. I’ve tried to confront all of them because I think its really important to at least recognize that I’m a white guy from America and I can work under the guise that I’m a White guy from Mississippi, from Florida, I’m from a working-class family… [but] I have a passport and I have access to travel outside my country, which 90% of the world doesn’t have. Probably more. Doesn’t even recognize that they can do these things that I can do. So its important to confront that reality because it exists. I have the freedom to come to Rio and work, while at the same time almost all the favelados don’t have the freedom to leave the favela, or even have the notion in their mind that they’re capable of doing that because of the social aspects in Brazil…”
In this quote it seems like he understands that there are some serious imbalances in power between himself and the artists he works with in the global south. But what does it mean to “confront that reality because it exists”? And, really, what does that mean in practice, as in getting the people who came up with this music in the first place paid? It is significant that Diplo makes attempts to engage his critics, albeit in ways that are often cynical and dismissive. Perhaps this is just a publicity ploy, a learned tactic of leaning towards controversy, because of the resulting buzz. But Diplo doesn’t have to respond to these criticisms. No one is forcing him to acknowledge them, especially as he enters the rarified air of stardom. So it’s interesting that he continues to do so. It seems like a lot of his response is: What do you want me to do differently? That’s an important question for all of us who critique him. And a question that we should consider the answer to, not just when directed at him, but also when the answer is turned on ourselves.
Global Hip Hop: Creating the Alternative
Beyonce’s incorporation of Dancehall, as well as Kwaito through Tofo Tofo and “New Style” hip hop dance through Les Twins offers a glimpse into a more holistic, global hip hop culture. However, this global vision is still mediated through the work of a U.S. superstar. This is symbolic of the overarching global balance of power. However, while the U.S. still acts as the global center of media, music, and film, immense networks of media production are burgeoning across the global south.
It seems like Diplo wants to create networks, audiences, and opportunities for the communities he engages with. But so long as he is the necessary Western interlocutor for artists of color from the global south, I question how much will these artists and cultures actually be “represented” globally. Like other forms of Western “development” that created the very conditions of poverty that these musics and cultures exist in, Diplo’s brand of development reproduces the very inequality that it claims to solve.
Yes, Diplo plays a part in this and should be held accountable…but so should all of us. But what would it mean for us as consumers, fans, critics, and so forth, to genuinely support the work of artists from the global south, particularly women of color/queer artists (both in the U.S./first world and in the global south)? More specifically:
When it comes down to it, this conversation is much larger than Diplo or Beyonce. They are not the creators of the systems of oppression that they participates in (consciously or not). Diplo is not the first white artist to perpetrate cultural appropriation. Beyonce is not the first First World superstar to capitalize on third world imagery and culture. And they will certainly not be the last.
Be that as it may, global hip hop culture has never been as expansive, diverse, and vibrant as it is today. There are musical genres like Dancehall, Baile Funk/Funk Carioca, Kuduro, Kwaito, and Reggaeton. There are artists like Anita Tijoux, ChocQuibTown, Buraka Som Sistema, Bomba Estereo, and DAM. There are documentaries like Homegrown: Hip-Life in Ghana, Inventos: Hip Hop Cubano, Slingshot Hip Hop, Democracy In Dakar, and, yes, Favela on Blast. Hip Hop played a role in sparking the Tunisian revolution and in raising international solidarity with the Egyptian revolution. There are even academic conferences such as the Trinity International Hip Hop Festival, and Stanford’s Global Hip Hop Conference.
If global hip hop is this vibrant, then we—white people and people of color, celebrities and everyday people– in the global north need to help create genuine collaborations and infrastructures with these artists to get them paid instead of continuing to feed off the global south’s creativity.