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Is Beyoncé guilty of cultural appropriation? A few Indian writers weigh in

Amandla Stenbergs 2015 viral video on cultural appropriation, Don't Cash Crop On My Cornrows, was a hard lesson on cultural sensitivity for a lot of people who knew nothing about the subject. After watching it, some people felt more aware of how they borrowed elements from other cultures, especially when it comes to fashion. But others probably felt a little confused on the differences between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation.


The end result is that the subject of cultural appropriation is still a hot button topic on the Internet. Social media users are becoming more aware of how borrowing elements of a culture, while not really caring about the people of the culture they’re borrowing from, could potentially be hurtful and harmful.

This is part of the reason why some people are upset with Coldplay’s new video, Hymn For The Weekend, which dropped on Jan. 29. The video features beautiful colors and landscapes from parts of India that some viewers may probably never get a chance to experience in person. It also features the beautiful and talented Beyoncé, who boasts extremely gorgeous costumes with cultural beads, henna, flowers, head garments, and embroidery that I most certainly found eye-catching and mesmerizing.

My attitude every time I see someone who proudly flies their "cultural insensitivity flag".

The problem is that Beyoncé’s costumes and hand gestures teeters the line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation.

As much as I love Bey, I found myself a little upset after watching the video. Lord knows I had a serious, major attitude when I saw Miley Cyrus twerking with teddy bears at the VMAs, or that God awful video of Katy Perry rocking cornrows in This Is How We Do, so I could only imagine how an Indian woman felt while watching “Hymn for the Weekend.”

I ended up talking to one of our loyal readers, who is an Indian woman, about the subject. She disagreed with my line of thought, and felt that the video wasn't offensive. In fact, she found it “exhilarating” to see Queen Bey appreciate the beauty of Indian culture.

As it turns out, there are a lot of people who are for and against Coldplay and Beyoncé’s visuals in their new music video. But I wanted to make sure that my anger wasn’t misplaced and I wanted to better understand why exactly some people felt put off by what they saw. So I did some research to see where other culture writers stood on the debate. Here is what they had to say:

“IT'S A CHANCE TO CREATE CONVERSATIONS AND ALTER PEOPLE'S PERCEPTION OF INDIA”

The Hindu writer Susanna Myrtle Lazarus didn’t find the video too offensive, but she did find stereotypes peppered throughout the visuals. For example, Indians don’t always run through the street throwing colors at everyone all year round, and you probably won’t find mystics floating in the air and chilling in their mystic steelo on every corner.

She said,

Yes, Beyoncé is wearing mehendi, and stars in a movie called Rani, but there’s nothing disrespectful about it... At the same time, young Indian boys are shown breakdancing, which is clearly adapted from Black/African-American culture. So where does cultural appropriation cross the line from being imitation as a form of flattery and become mockery? 

In Coldplay’s case, it shows healthy appreciation for Indian culture, peppered with the idea of India as seen in the Western world. They didn’t get it totally right, but it’s a chance to create conversations and alter people’s perception of the country, one music video at a time. 

IT'S LIKE A CELEBRITY SUCH AS BEYONCÉ PUTTING ON TRADITIONAL NATIVE HEAD FEATHERS...AND JUST HOPPING AROUND IN A CICLE

The editorial team at The Chakra didn't dig Beyoncé’s hand movement gestures and costumes in the least bit. They pointed out that even though some viewers found elements of the video offensive, it didn't take away the fact that the director did a good job with displaying the how Indians had a strong connection with Hindu-based spirituality.

But still, they hated the hand gestures and costumes.

As for Beyoncé’s role, it was awkward and sometimes felt disrespectful. Most of the frustration came around Beyoncé’s poor and effortless attempt at learning the ancient Hindu dance style Bharatnatyam. During her camera-time mimicking a Bollywood actress (not sure why they couldn’t have an Indian play for this role in the 1st place, but thats a later argument) she twirls her wrists and hands like its some exotic ritual and actual steps of an traditional Indian dance form. On the contrary, to anyone that watched Bharatnatyam dance performances, it looks like a mockery vs. authentic amateur attempt.

To give an analogy, it’s like a Celebrity such as Beyoncé putting traditional Native headfeathers on and just hopping around in a circle. This would be borderline racism and obvious cultural appropriation; hence why the comedic attempt at Beyoncé’s Bharatnatyam (or whatever Indian dance style the choreographer thought) was disturbing.

Another problem was Beyoncé’s dress – it was a weird attempt to mimick a traditional Indian Hindu sari but fell-short of looking like a Islamic Burqa mixed with a robotic android. Let us not forget the reality of when thousands of Indians, Hindus or other cultural groups wear their native attire as it’s not uncommon for them to face racism. For example, one of the most extreme hate-groups in America during the 80’s was called the ‘dot-busters’. Members of the ‘dot-busters’ group would randomly beat up Hindus, while targeting Hindu women wearing red-dots (known as bindis)…and we all know it’s cool (now) when celebrities like Selena Gomez or Beyoncé wear such things.

“THE INDIA REPRESENTED IN THE VIDEO IS THE INDIA OF 'SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE'”

The stills above are from three different productions set in India. As someone who has never been to India a day in my life, I can’t tell one from the other.

The above still came from the HFTW music video. While I don’t think the above still is nearly as stereotypical as Slumdog Millionaire, “Lean On” or “Bounce,” it’s still there, and I could see how someone would get tired of the same recycled images of the place they call home.

Teen Vogue writer Priya-Alika Elias pointed this out in an Op-Ed, and she agreed that the images were similar, and are not an accurate representation of Indian culture. She mentioned that while you may see fire breathers, people dancing in the streets, and joyous kids having a blast, it’s not all there is to Indian culture. This is why representation matters.

She wrote,

It's not that we don't dance in the streets: part of the reason I love my culture is that we do on occasion. But that's such a tiny part of who we are, and that’s the only part the West ever chooses to depict. That depiction is the reason white people still ask if I've ever charmed a snake. The India of "HFTW" is an India that bears very little relation to the real India, which is complex beyond belief.

In the real India, Bollywood is a billion-dollar industry that is better signified by glossy studio banners than decaying projectors or peeling movie posters. In the real India, many of the holy men are hustlers and the poverty isn't necessarily picturesque. But it's so much easier, so much simpler to talk about India as an exotic land where sadhus do the Great Indian Rope Trick, because that's what white people are comfortable with.

...CONSISTENT EXOTFICIATION OF AN ENTIRE SUBCONTINENT IS UTTERLY DRAINING

Jezebel writer Julianne Escobedo Shepherd’s views on the new Coldplay video was probably the one that opened my eyes the most.

In her commentary, she pointed out that there were some clichéd visuals that are getting overused, for instance the Holi references that we Westerners can’t seem to let go of in music videos or marketing advertisements. (Holi is a religious festival that has ancient origins, celebrating the triumph of good over evil. The colorful chalk throwing is part of what they do when celebrating Holi).

However, she did point out that cultural appropriation has a lot to do with power structure, and neither Beyoncé nor members of Coldplay had positioned themselves above the people they sit next to in the video. She wrote:

While white Britons in India is “never a good look,” as my Telugu partner succinctly put it, it is worth pointing out that neither she nor Coldplay are positioned as the powerful center in the same way both Iggy Azalea and Mø are the white loci amid brown women in their “Bounce” and “Lean On” videos.

Bey is wearing dupatta and mehndi—and traditional chains and face adornment reminiscent of the sort Givenchy appropriates again and again—and it doesn’t sit right with some, though others make the argument that a black American woman appropriating from Indian culture has less impact than a white woman doing the same. No matter where you sit on this issue, I’m sure we can all agree that that Eat Pray Love-ing and consistent exotification of an entire subcontinent is utterly draining, and the entirety of Western culture needs to learn some damn respect.

Watch the full video for “Hymn for the Weekend” below and let us know in the comments if you think Beyoncé and Coldplay re appropriating or appreciating Indian culture. 

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