No, Beyoncé Is Not Appropriating Anything In Coldplay’s New Video

Beyonce has been accused of cultural appropriation for her participation in the video for “Hymn For The Weekend”, a collaboration with rock band Coldplay. In a piece for Bustle, writer Alexis Rhiannon explains:

Sure, she’s forgone the bindi, which has cropped up recently as a trend that’s actually just cultural appropriation in disguise, but otherwise she’s fully costumed at various points throughout the video in everything from a head covering, elaborately embroidered and beaded garments, bangles, a crown of flowers, henna, a full decorative neck and face piece, and thick kohl liner. And “costumed” is absolutely the word I want to use there, because that’s what it feels like.”

Before I begin to tackle the question of whether this is a case of appropriation or not, I think it is very important to make known the history of the varying aspects of Beyonce’s “costume,”  mainly because not acknowledging that many of these adornments are popular in Africa is, in and of itself, a form of erasure. Here are some examples:

  • Henna: The history of henna is incredibly hard to trace because of centuries of human migration and cultural exchanges in early human history. One thing is certain: henna is popular in many African countries as well as in the Middle East.
  • Bangles: Originally a form of jewelry, manillas — bracelets made of bronze or copper —were used as currency during the slave trade in Africa. Prior to using these bracelets as a form of money, West African women adorned themselves with them to signify their husband’s wealth and position in society. This is just one of many examples of wrist jewelry found in African culture.
  • Decorative neck and face pieces: A simple Google search of the words “itsekiri wedding jewelry” will reveal an African jewelry aesthetic very similar to what many solely associate with Indian culture.
  • Thick kohl eyeliner: Kohl eyeliner has been used traditionally in many ancient cultures across South Asia, the Middle East and Africa. It is not specific to a region, but its use predates even Indian civilization.
  • Beaded and embroidered garments: Almost all thriving early civilizations used beads and embroidery.

The complexity of Beyonce wearing these items as a black woman should be wholly appreciated, especially considering the fact that she is the descendant of Africans who were forced to come to America as slaves. Much of the “costuming” she wore in the video is specific to Africa and even specifically to Western Africa, where many slaves were captured and transported via the Atlantic slave trade.

However, within the context of this video, it is safe to assume that Beyonce is, indeed, playing the role of a female Indian actress. The video, shot in Mumbai, India during varying festivals and celebrations, depicts a pretty stereotypical view of an ancient culture — the mystics, a random boy painted blue to represent Vishnu, street dancing —but fails to acknowledge that the culture has since developed in magnificent ways left uncelebrated. Instead of displaying the multi-faceted nature of the Asian nation that has exploded with economic growth in the past few decades, the video exoticizes and exploits the country’s rich history and culture. And Beyonce, most certainly, is a part of that exploitation.

But, is Beyonce appropriating Indian culture? As a black woman, her occupation of role of an “Indian actress” in this exploitative video doesn’t impose or perpetuate any pre-existing hierarchal structure of her culture’s creation. Cultural appropriation is most problematic and seen as controversial when elements of a minority culture are used by a member of a dominant culture, an oppressive act that strips the minority group of its identity. While it is true that Beyonce’s role as a Bollywood star could’ve been played by an Indian woman, her playing that role will never, ever, bar other Indian women from doing so on the broader scale. In fact, Beyonce doesn’t even pass India’s extremely colorist, “lighter” is better policy, that would likely bar her — and most other black people — from the Bollywood industry (with the exception of in this fictional role). Beyonce pretending to be an Indian star will never negate the reality that India is extremely colorist and racist (especially post European colonialization/imperialism). Her image or images of other black women like herself will never replace the lighter-skinned Indian women who are adored by Bollywood.

She is not appropriating any bit of Indian culture by participating in it, because as a black woman she is not a part of a dominant culture and simply does not have the power to steal any aspect of Indian culture for her own.

Are white people the only ones who can be accused of cultural appropriation? The short answer: Yes.

Early human history’s constant exchange of knowledge, customs and culture connects all of Africa, the Middle East and Asia in complex ways. Many of their traditions have similar roots because of proximity —not only geographically but also in terms of time period during which civilizations developed.  We cannot and should not ever fail to see that interconnectedness.

Within the context of the recent human history of European colonialization, imperialism, enslavement of other groups and the enforcement of systemic cultural/economic dominance, no other group really has the power to appropriate, because no other groups truly have power. That will only change when the structure of the modern world changes. When whiteness and white culture is no longer dominant.

When will black people, like Beyonce, be capable of appropriation? Well, only time will tell that tale.

For a follow-up to this post that fully explores cultural appropriation, please read “Let’s Talk About Who Bears Responsibility For Cultural Appropriation.”