Coldplay and Beyoncé: Skip the Cultural Appropriation for Super Bowl Halftime


Coldplay’s Hymn for the Weekend video featuring Beyoncé is already caught in a heated conversation about cultural appreciation of Indian religion and culture versus cultural appropriation of that culture for the western gaze. The video is a beautiful work of cinematography, yet it is untethered from meanings of religious and social significance the imagery contains.

The song is on deck to be performed at the Super Bowl halftime show this weekend, watched by millions of Americans and countless others around the world. Here’s hoping that Coldplay has decided to give their song a different visual cue, rather than trying to make the Super Bowl into a religious festival and a Bollywood extravaganza at halftime.

In the last few years, Indian culture has been used in videos by MIA, Major Lazer and Iggy Azalea, among others. In each of these videos, western artists are foregrounded as having a blast, while Indians are background dancers and set decoration. These videos, along with Coldplay’s, continue a long, dubious tradition of depicting India as a backdrop for western fun and enlightenment. Hymn for the Weekend mixes cultural and religious practices, commodifying them into a banal, but beautiful message of imagined solidarity.

I’m sure many people will say I’m overstating the case and talk about how political correctness is ruining everything. After all, it’s just a video, right?

But music videos, despite being on the wane from their days of MTV dominance, still have a way of conveying culture to people who will never have a chance to visit exotic places or understand that, while hennaed hands are beautiful, they do have social and religious significance. Desis on Twitter, Facebook and social media have denounced the video, commenting on the penchant for western artists to commodify their religion, culture and fashion.

It all reminds me of a line from Edward Said’s Orientalism: “From the beginning of Western speculation about the orient, the one thing the orient could not do is represent itself.” The wonders of India and Mumbai are seen through the eyes of Chris Martin and Coldplay, while Beyoncé, not Sonam Kapoor or another Indian actress, is depicted as a blonde Bollywood screen queen and goddess.

With blonde hair, green eyes and seemingly bleached-out skin, Beyoncé stands as a message to both black women and Desi women: if you want to be beautiful, light skin, light eyes and blonde hair is the way to go, no matter what clothes you are wearing. In India, that message has been a terrible burden for women. If director Ben Mor wanted to appreciate, and not appropriate, a Bollywood actress should have won her role.

The other issue with the video is the depiction of religious practices. Priests in saffron robes, a child dressed as Lord Shiva, a sadhu balancing on a rope and a celebration of the Hindu festival of Holi lend an air of mystery to the video, but for what purpose? For anyone with little knowledge of India or Hinduism, the depictions of various religious practices simply add to the exotic element of Mumbai, dissected from their true meaning, becoming simply video entertainment.

The debate between appreciation and appropriation has a long history. While I am not Desi, I do know that I am still not buying Beyoncé, an African American woman from Houston, Texas, as a Bollywood queen. While Chris Martin has a deep interest in yoga spirituality, it does not make him an expert on how best to portray Desi heritage.

There will be no room to rehash these errors or mistakes of cultural appropriation when Coldplay and Beyoncé perform together at the Super Bowl on 7 February. The conversation of cultural appropriation versus appreciation is especially important for the NFL as it seeks to expand its fan base to London and all over the world. Avoiding the music video’s mistakes at the performance would be a good start.

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