Is it a bigger problem to see black bodies exploited in music videos? Or for them to be erased from sight in retro-imperialist renderings of Africa?
Taylor Swift seemed to pick the second choice—the un-Miley choice—with her latest video for "Wildest Dreams." The intersectionality-misunderstanding pop princess encounters colonial "Africa"*—we don’t know what country—as an old movie star (think Katharine Hepburn when she was filming "The African Queen"). She shoots a film and falls in love—all with white men. Of course, in this so-far unnamed country there are obligatory wild animals and stunning plains shots, but all of that contributed to something that happens too often in pop culture renderings of "Africa"—a simplification of beauty, erasure of "African" people as they really live, and reinforcement of "Africa" as an untamed wonderland for white fantasies.
Perhaps Swift shouldn’t be expected to actually include African people in her video, for that might have looked far too much like tokenism (and, based on what she did to African-American women in "Shake It Off," I wouldn’t trust her to actually represent Africans as anything other than tribal caricatures—would you?).
We are shocked to think that in 2015, Taylor Swift, her record label and her video production group would think it was OK to film a video that presents a glamorous version of the white colonial fantasy of Africa. Of course, this is not the first time that white people have romanticized colonialism: See Louis Vuitton’s 2014 campaign, Ernest Hemingway’s Snows of Kilimanjaro, the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia and of course Karen Blixen’s memoir Out of Africa.
But it still stings.
Here are some facts for Swift and her team: Colonialism was neither romantic nor beautiful. It was exploitative and brutal. The legacy of colonialism still lives quite loudly to this day. Scholars have argued that poor economic performance, weak property rights and tribal tensions across the continent can be traced to colonial strategies. So can other woes. In a place full of devastation and lawlessness, diseases spread like wildfire, conflict breaks out and dictators grab power.
African people have been featured in other artists’ music videos, in both problematic and empowering ways (sometimes in the same video), but their blueprints should have been used by Swift and video director Joseph Kahn for how to at least attempt to incorporate Africans. Here are five of the better examples from Western artists:
5. K’Naan -"Soobax"
Maybe this is cheating a little because K’Naan is a Somali emigrant to Canada and he shot the stark video for 2006’s "Soobax" among Somali refugees in Kenya, but the lesson remains that context is the key. Although this can easily be read as exploitative, K’Nann’s sense of African and Somali identity is pervasive in his art, and showing street life in documentary fashion is a great way to not erase the reality of one set of African lives.
4. Talib Kweli – "Hostile Gospel Pt. 1"
Kweli took to the streets of Lagos, Nigera, for this 2008 single, performing in night clubs and rapping in front of people praying, grounding this anthem for deliverance in some form of life for people in one of the continent’s largest cities.
3. Solange Knowles – "Losing You"
The baby Knowles sister had a more critically-exciting past few years than her familial counterpart, and the video for 2012’s electro-poppy "Losing You" shows part of why. She incorporates high fashion among the tapestry of vibrant Cape Town, South Africa, paying homage to newer Congolese fashion in particular and showing the infiltration of European iconogrphy in contemporary urban African society. Although this can be seen as unrealistic for many, Knowles is successful in portraying an alternate reality to the one that continually plagues depictions of Africa (and even South Africa, its most wealthy nation) as only poor and constantly victimized.
2. Corinne Bailey Rae – "Put Your Records On"
The British singer-songwriter proves that sun-splecked, fantastical versions of Africa (this video was shot in South Africa, in case you couldn’t tell—we couldn’t) needn’t be completely problematic. Including a diversity of women on bicycles behind her—some tacit acknowledgement of South Africa’s ethnographic tapestry—certainly didn’t hurt.
1. Janet Jackson ft. Q-Tip and Joni Mitchell – Got ’til It’s Gone
As much a study in aesthetics as history, Ms. Jackson is transported to apartheid-era South Africa for this video. Portraying a lounge singer amidst images of both vibrant parties and anti-segregation struggles, Jackson manages to capture both the spirt of subversion and pride at the heart of life for many South Africans during this time in history. She respects context and reinvents it, which is why we place this video at number one.
Of course, all of these videos expose some tensions primarily absent from Swift’s—potential for cultural exploitation, authenticity for African-American artists as projected on Africans, etc.—and are not perfect examples either because the nature of international cultural exchange means that anything runs the risk of being/looking exploitative or condescending. For white artists—none of whom are represented in our top five—this is especially contentous. However, the artists above have attempted an authentic vision of parts of the continent that respect realism and context without resorting to obvious or historically-proven neo-imperialist attitudes. For that reason, they deserve much of your (and Taylor Swift’s) attention.
Were there better examples for us to include? Let us know in the comments!
*Post has been updated since publication to reflect that, besides "Africa," the location of Swift’s video is unknown.