So last night I saw M.I.A. with everythingbutharleyquinn, which was an amazing experience overall.
But I wanna talk about some stuff on the internets which I doubt I’ll have a chance to do in person.
Even though we got there super early and went inside just as the doors opened (which is why we were close enough to the front to touch her), I managed to spot stuff that pissed me off early on.
Like white girls wearing bindhis. Which would be bad enough, but one was also wearing jhumki earrings (with a pretty ordinary T-shirt and shorts, which just lookedwrong).
Also the atrocious support act with the obnoxious fans.
And more fucking white girls with bindhis.
But then M.I.A. opened her set with a 3D animated clip set to the Shri Venkateshwara Suprabhatam (seems like it was a series of scenes strung together from the animated videos set to various bhajans, slokas & mantras by this youtube).
And I bet about 1/4 of the audience there got it.
If you watch any of the clips, you’ll see just how much they fulfill so many stereotypes of Hindu religious iconography as being all full of too many lurid colours, too many goddamn gods, anthropomorphic animals, etc. which, thanks to western pop music, is a well-worn feature of pop music iconography too.
But like most cultural appropriation there’s no distinctions between anything - styles of music, their histories, the histories of various styles of iconography, fashion - cultural appropriation and a white, western gaze renders all of these things interchangeable and unchanging.
But unlike all those pop musicians & designers & whatnot, and their intended audiences of white peers, I reckon like a third of the audience last night grew up listening to the M.S. Subhalakshmi version of the Shri Venkateshwara Suprabhatam. My mum used to put it on for every religious holiday while I was a kid - we didn’t have that many tapes that my parents brought over from India when we moved, and that was one of the few they brought.
The South Asian diaspora seems to have this super romanticised and sanitised view of all that kind of stuff, divorced from the realities of caste supremacy and Hindu nationalism, as well as all kinds of cultural repression and misogyny, that go along with hyper-religious traditionalism. So for all the second-generation kids like me, reactions to cultural appropriation are part of that romantic nostalgia for a set of meanings & traditions.
Which was why it was refreshing to see them satirised at a gig.
When the only kinds of cultural expression we get, as Hindu South Asians in the diaspora, is pretty much romanticised religion, or sugar-coated, Bollywood-ised film, some critical satire, even though it’s fairly superficial, is really welcome.
I get wanting to defend against appropriation, and stereotypes - more than half the audience would’ve been totally baffled, or amused, by the animation, and the mantra - but I’m really over being defensive about my culture. It’s such a one-dimensional way to engage with it. It’s not validating to just have to constantly either rapturously affirm your culture, or defend it against racist criticism and/or exploitation.
And probably a lot of white kids will walk away with an idea that the funny videos & images would be great to mash-up for some kind of hipster culture jam… frankly, I don’t really care about that right now.
White kids disillusioned with Christianity have had heaps of pop-cultural outlets for dramatising their frustrations, from the Ozzy Osbourne/Marilyn Manson school of shock-metal, to Tori Amos’ quiet ballads about masturbation and abortion.
I read this article, a long while back, about how people within a cultural group can pick up on behaviour, language, inflection, and other signs of others’ belonging to the same cultural group, which isn’t visible to people outside that cultural group. Which to me is obvious, because there are stacks of things about my culture that only people in my community know about (in fact, most people who don’t know me don’t even know what languages I speak!). Like how they speak, or particular ways of dressing, that nobody ever names as being particular to that group.
Which is why, even though all the things Maya was doing, if a white artist had done them, would have been appropriative, aren’t.
Appropriation is taking cultural elements outside of a culture by a process of imperialist supremacy & aggrandisement.
And even though most of the audience was white (gig was in Newtown), and a lot of M.I.A.’s global audience is white, and the industry behind her is invariably white, I still felt like she was speaking to people other than them.
Sure, for the white kids, it was a pretty show. “How exotic & worldly!” etc.
But there was a whole lot going on there, on a stage at a mainstream entertainment venue in the inner west of Sydney, that white people would never have picked up on. Like, a whole lot of stuff from Tamil culture that people who aren’t South Asian wouldn’t get, and that I really appreciate because of how much Tamil culture and Tamil people have contributed to my community (hint: I’m not Tamil but I am South Indian!) - a pretty refreshing change from all the assumptions about how I must speak Hindi & be familiar with North Indian stuff cos I’m brown.
Too often, like me, people who are critical from South Asian diaspora cultures & communities are drawn away from them, and don’t get a chance to express our frustrations and limitations. The Hindu fundamentalist kids usually get the distinction of being ‘part of the community’ (for Hindu communities), but people who are politically radical, queer, artistic (in none of the pre-approved ways), or intellectual usually don’t get to express anything in the terms of our cultures, or to each other.
And because we’re talking from a diasporic space (if anyone uses the terms “sourceland” or “hyphenate” in replying to this I will cut you), what we have to work with is always already appropriated. Like, on one level, yeah the white girls in bindhis shit me off. On another level, I’m living in spaces & working with cultures that are already transformed by imperialism and neoliberalism. And what I appreciated about the show was how much it came from that already-transformed space and eschewed any pretense to authenticity or cultural purity, but claimed continuity with a culture that gets compressed and marginalised in the places it’s migrated to.
So when I said it was a “religious experience”, I also meant that the satire, the way that celebrity worship is so much like how hyper-religious people respond to charismatic faith-healers, all of that culminated for me at the gig last night.
IDK, I’m not a mind reader. I have no idea if that’s what Maya intended. It just sticks out when I feel validated because it’s so rare, so maybe I’m grasping at things that aren’t there.
But art is what you make of it, so… I had a cry. I’ll move on, I promise.