I audibly groaned when I first saw the video for “Hymn for the Weekend.” I suspect that if you’re reading this, you did too.
If you don’t know, “Hymn for the Weekend” is Coldplay’s latest single and it features backing vocals from Beyoncé. The video, which you can see above, is a visually-stunning ode to India. The band traipses around Mumbai, performing and having fun with Indian children as they celebrate the Hindu holiday Holi, complete with the powdered pigment that is often used unceremoniously in Western “color runs.” Beyoncé—adorned in jewels and ornate clothing—is portrayed as a glamorous icon in the Bollywood tradition. The video includes images of Hindu priests, fire breathers, dancing (both breakdancing and traditional Indian styles) and Bollywood star Sonam Kapoor. Here are a few illustrative screen shots:
On the surface, it reads like a beautiful tribute to a culturally rich and vibrant nation. And the video’s director Ben Mor, who is cited by at least one publication as Indian (reps for RSA Films, where Mor is a featured director, did not respond to our request for clarity by press time), intended as much, as he explains in this interview:
“Hymn For The Weekend” is such an exuberant, life-affirming song and I wanted the visuals to compliment and heighten that tone. At the same time I wanted to spark people’s imagination and curiosity as they watch just a small fraction of what India has to offer.
All of which would be fine, if this video wasn’t guilty of some serious Orientalism.
To be clear, that’s Orientalism, not appropriation. It’s a distinction I came upon after I crowdsourced with my Desi circle about exactly why this video felt so icky.
Post-colonial scholar Edward Said defined “Orientalism” in his influential 1978 work of the same name. Although the book has faced tremendous criticism since its original publication, his screed against the then-ubiquitous field of “Oriental studies” still contains the best-articulated understanding of the term:
Always there lurks the assumption that although the Western consumer belongs to a numerical minority, he is entitled either to own or to expend (or both) the majority of the world resources. Why? Because he, unlike the Oriental, is a true human being. No better instance exists today of what Anwar Abdel Malek calls “the hegemonism of possessing minorities” and anthropocentrism allied with Europocentrism: a White middle-class Westerner believes it his human prerogative not only to manage the nonwhite world but also to own it, just because by definition “it” is not quite as human as “we” are. There is no purer example than this of dehumanized thought.
“Appropriation,” on the other hand, does not have such a clear definition in scholarly literature, and most of the debate about what it means has been carried out in the media. The most encompassing definition I found was in a 2015 piece on BlackGirlDangerous.org by poet and writer Fatimah Asghar:
Cultural appropriation occurs when members of a dominant group take elements and symbols of another culture for their own economic or social gain while simultaneously devaluing and silencing the bodies, opinions and voices of the oppressed culture.
“Appropriation” gets thrown around a lot by writers (including me) when they accuse big pop stars of misrepresenting or misinterpreting a marginalized culture. But the “Hymn for the Weekend” video isn’t really an exercise in taking something out of context and using it as your own. The real issue is that the Whiteness of Coldplay’s members stands in stark contrast to the rest of their surroundings, which solidifies their privileged outsider status.
As Asghar explains in her essay, the accusations of appropriation become more complicated when we consider the role of other people of color. In this case, that’s Beyoncé and Kapoor (and if he is Indian, director Mor):
My South Asian friends have complained about seeing other people of color rocking bindis or shalwaar kameez and called them appropriative. Yes, it hurts us to see our culture trivialized or worn as an easily dispensable fashion accessory, especially when it wasn’t seen as cool to wear those things growing up. However, it ignores the incredibly complex and rich history of exchange between East and North Africa and South Asia. Though bindis have an important place in Hinduism, they are not only a symbol of Hindu spirituality, but also have important symbolic value and origin in Africa. Therefore, people of the African diaspora have the cultural right to wear bindis in the same way people of the South Asian diaspora have that right.
To center the debate about this video on appropriation is to risk saying that Beyoncé, because of her industry power and American nationality, is misappropriating Indian culture. It’s a problematic assertion because of how disempowered Black women are in societies around the world (including India’s) and how inextricably connected Indian culture is to the cultures of the African diaspora (which the video simplifies into a display of “Look how cool this all is!”).
Plus, understanding this video as Orientalism also helps decipher the reduction of Beyoncé and Kapoor to mere props in Coldplay’s explorations. Both are rendered in Bollywood glam as part of a movie that Chris Martin sees in a dark movie theater—that is, they become monolithic and ambiguously glamorous eye candy, playing into notions of women of color as mere props for idolatry in the eyes of the West. This is furthered by the fact that Beyoncé is actually an uncredited vocalist on this song—just another Black woman adding flavor to British bands, the way that The Rolling Stones incorporated Merry Clayton on “Gimmie Shelter.” Coldplay did the same thing with Rihanna in the video for 2012’s “Princess of China,” and who’s to say they won’t do it again?
But no matter what you feel about Coldplay or their music, they seem to take center stage against the seeming “wonder” of India. They are four White British men who, like The Beatles decades before them, project their desire for transcendence and immersive beauty onto a culture that not only isn’t theirs now, but certainly wasn’t theirs when Britain colonized and exploited India for over a century. Unlike The Beatles, however, Coldplay seems to have no genuine interest in the musical traditions that anchor Indian music. Instead, the group seems only interested in a surface-level look at a country and region whose diaspora make up the largest group of people of color in Coldplay’s home country—something you might not know because British Asians have been virtually erased from America’s popular imagination of British identity. It’s safe to say that any British Asian act aiming to do the same thing would never get the kind of attention that Coldplay garners for looking cool and interesting against the backdrop of a country that the West doesn’t fully understand. There are a lot of Desi- and India-specific dynamics that I can’t even begin to touch on here—casteism, classism and religious chauvinism among them—which White Western artists also cannot touch without revealing their position of privilege. Definitions of what’s right and wrong are fluid, but the dynamics at play here don’t allow much room for Indians to visualize agency.
So, as we gear up to see the most ubiquitous Black female music star of the 21st century perform with four boring White British dudes who only got where they were by biting from Radiohead and U2 at this Sunday’s Super Bowl halftime show, we should hope that they don’t use India, South Asia or its people and diaspora as props on that global stage. That would be the best tribute they could give.
What did you think of the “Hymn for the Weekend” video? Let us know in the comments.