Culture | M.I.A.: cultural appropriation or cultural engagement?

International artist censored mid-production over fears of cultural appropriation

Ahead of the release of her upcoming 3-song mixtape, M.I.A. took to Twitter to float a question about cultural appropriation to her fans. The English recording artist of Sri Lankan Tamil heritage tweeted, “I wanna talk about [cultural] appropriation! I’ve been told I can’t put out a video because it’s shot in Africa. Discuss.” At the time of publication, 1,212 accounts responded to the tweet. While some cited her Bad Girls music video as a glaring instance of exploitative appropriation, her fans overwhelmingly came to her defense, citing her efforts to make a “world town where music fashion [and] culture are remixed” as justification enough.

It’s concerning to see an artist like M.I.A. preemptively questioned about cultural appropriation when artists ranging from Taylor Swift to Lily Allen to Katy Perry to Shakira roll out grotesquely appropriative music videos without second thought, duking it out in the court of public opinion post-production. This is evidence of an insidious double standard in the music industry where white and whitewashed artists get a carte blanche for their appropriative images, while artists of color who push marginalized perspectives into the mainstream consciousness are told to check themselves.

M.I.A. tweeted, “What happens when I shoot videos in America or Germany it makes no sense to the 00.01% of artists like me.” While this comment doesn’t exactly capture the idea of cultural appropriation, it illustrates well its widespread misconception. M.I.A.’s label sees any engagement in a culture not of one’s own as cultural appropriation. However, speaking about, playing music from, and appearing with members of other cultures isn’t appropriation. Speaking like, claiming music from, and appearing as members of other cultures is cultural appropriation.

M.I.A.’s label sees any engagement in a culture not of one’s own as cultural appropriation.

At its core, cultural appropriation is a hegemonic exercise. Dominant social groups and cultures demand those they dominate to conform to their norms and standards. Historically, colonizers demanded this from those they colonized. In addition, the dominant group has the privilege of picking and choosing aspects of other cultures to emulate and claim, erasing any sort of analysis or awareness of the cultural, historical, or political nature of appropriated symbols or practices.

As Amandla Stenberg stated in her viral history class video Don’t Cash Crop On My Cornrows, “…the line between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange is always going to be blurred, but here is the thing. Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated, but is deemed as high fashion, cool, or funny when the privileged take it for themselves. Appropriation occurs when the appropriator is not aware of the deep significance of the culture they are partaking in.”

Appropriation occurs when the appropriator is not aware of the deep significance of the culture they are partaking in.

M.I.A. most certainly does not approach her music from this benighted position. Just the opposite –  she actively works to reverse the process of cultural appropriation with the music she creates, consistently spotlighting groups around the world that Western media may otherwise ignore. M.I.A. re-politicizes symbols and sounds that are otherwise homogenized by the Western music industry and infuses them with adrenaline and anxiety to purposefully make the listener uncomfortable. Even her most numbingly simple hit “Paper Planes” sneaks scathing critique of American immigration policy and the artist’s placement on the Homeland Security Risk List in 2006 behind the song’s deceptively straightforward lyrics.

According to M.I.A’s tweets, the video in question is a one-shot take of a talented dancer from Côte d’Ivoire who “was never going to make ‘____ got talent’.” She elaborates that “if the music industry allows an African artist to come through this year on the intnl level, [she] would gladly give him this video for free,” betraying a fatalist view of inclusivity in the music industry most likely formed through experience.

For all intents and purposes, M.I.A. is a bulwark against the very cultural appropriation her label is wringing its hands over. As one of the few non-Black American artists of color with international reach who regularly engages in global politics, it is cause for concern when M.I.A. experiences pushback mid-production while her contemporaries are given a blank check.

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