The issue of cultural appropriation has always been present in the media, but in the recent weeks it has moved into the forefront of discussion following the music video Hymn for the Weekend by Coldplay featuring Beyoncé. You can watch the video here.
Cultural appropriation is defined as the adoption or the use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture. Many of you are probably thinking, “Well what’s the problem with that?” It is true, that sharing cultures and ideas can be a beneficial thing. I have myself adopted the cultural dress of the Moroccan people when I visited, in order to be respectful to their way of life. This is not where the problem lies. It is fine to engage yourself in another culture if it offers mutual benefit, however when a dominant culture adopts aspects of a minor culture in a trivial or reckless way it is inherently disrespectful, and unnecessary. This is especially poignant if the dominant culture has repressed the minor culture in the past.
A perfect example of this is that of the Native American headdress. The headdress is reserved to the revered elders and is a spiritual item demonstrating leadership, selflessness and bravery. The Native Americans also belong to a minor culture which suffered from a widespread genocide almost wiping out their population in the United States. This genocide was committed by the dominating culture of the West. Their historically and spiritually important attire is an important symbol of their repressed community and is worn to maintain the roots of their culture and ancestor’s practices. To wear the Native American headdress for fancy dress, for fashion or to be “hipster” is to offend and demean their minority culture, and disrespect the current members of their community. A clear example of this is Pharell William’s cover of ELLE, as shown below.
Just like wearing the Native American headdress, Beyoncé’s adoption of the traditional Bollywood dress and the video’s depiction of the cultural Holi festival is also cultural appropriation. No matter how much we all love Beyoncé, and profess how she can do no wrong, the music video is clearly offensive to those who practice and take pride in their traditional Desi culture.
Those who have responded to the music video are in outrage, arguing that India is more than what Western directors choose to depict it as. There seems to be a fetishisation over particular aspects of Indian culture, there is an emphasis placed on the slums, the psychedelic colourings, and the oriental images. However India is so much more than this, it is fast becoming one of the worlds most important economic powers. The Western world never depicts India’s modern prowess or its cultural diversity.
However, Beyoncé is not the only celebrity at fault, many celebrities are reckless and thoughtless in appropriating minority cultures. Kylie Jenner, step sister of Kim Kardashian is depicted below in a bindi on the left, and on the right with cornrows. She is appropriating both Hindu culture, and Black culture.
Clearly, cultural appropriation is not being treated with enough importance in the Western world. So how do we stop it? The world we live in is unfortunately wrought with inequality and repression, and therefore it is difficult for cultures to mix without cultural appropriation, because there will always be a minor and dominant culture. Therefore the only way to prevent cultural appropriation is to call it out when you see it, and join in working towards a society where there is no racism, prejudice and repression of those who are the minority. Only when this position of equality is reached, will we be able to share cultures without appropriation being an issue.