First, “Hymn for the Weekend” is about the intoxication of love, and with that tone, the video depicts an intoxicating India. South Asia has always been rendered and reduced to its “exotic nature.” The Western world has always fought to control and attain the spices from the land, and to, simply put, commercialize its equally “spicy” culture. On balance, many South Asians have worked with this commercialization and have tried to benefit as well, selling culture as a product. The Bollywood industry has glorified Westernism: the most eligible bachelor is American-educated, and Caucasians present at parties signify higher class status. Consequently, any association with the West validates social standing in the Bollywood plotlines. However, complicity in cultural appropriation doesn’t mean permission for exploitation. Rather, it doesn’t matter what your identity is. If you are using a culture and relegating it to the background to get more YouTube views or to make money for your own personal gain, it’s appropriation.
Second, neither Coldplay nor Beyoncé are immune to criticism. Chris Martin plays the casual observer role of Caucasian backpacker exploring an Indian village during what seems to be Holi; he notices the typical sensationalist, saffron-colored scenes and the religious iconography. While Coldplay are tourists in an Indian fantasy, Beyoncé’s imagery is a little harder to contextualize. Beyoncé, clad in Indian attire, stars as a Bollywood rani (“queen”). Throughout the video, she moves her hands in a mudra, which has deep religious significance in Bharatanatyam, a Indian classical dance.
In consideration, one can ask, “How can Beyoncé, a black woman, appropriate another culture?” Usually, the argument of cultural appropriation lies within power structures in play. Black Americans and African- Americans undoubtedly face oppression each day. South Asians also face discrimination and prejudice. And by no means will I compare those negative realities. In this case, I would like to offer the idea that Beyoncé is an American celebrity with a great deal of achieved power; and she rightfully owns it. So is Coldplay. However, South Asia is not America, and the queen, or the actress Beyoncé plays in the video, is not India’s rani. Likewise, India doesn’t exist solely for Coldplay to find spiritual awakening. Assuredly, people of all identities, including minorities, can appropriate.
Third, “Hymn for the Weekend” could have left room for self-representation. Some argue that seeing a dark- skinned woman as a Bollywood actress challenges the South Asian cultural obsession with whiteness. In the Indian subcontinent, the “fair” skin (i.e. whiteness) is often considered far more beautiful and valuable than darker skin. This idea is both ingrained and widespread in culture and popular media. Consequently, it can be empowering to see darker-skinned women celebrated in the Bollywood limelight, but Beyoncé is not Indian and does not, by default of being costumed as a Bollywood actress, serve as an empowering image. In the context of India, Beyoncé is an American powerhouse celebrity and arguably, an exception to the oppressive South Asian cultural norms. When we will see “dusky” South Asian actresses on the Bollywood screen, those norms will be challenged. Yet, in “Hymn for the Weekend,” the only time a Bollywood actress, Sonam Kapoor, appears in the video is for a ephemeral clip, in which she seems distant and elusive to the viewer. She is part of the background. Perhaps, Beyoncé didn’t need to costume herself into an Indian; rather, the part, if even necessary, could have been easily played an actual South Asian. Indeed, allowing for self-representation is more conducive to cultural appreciation.
And last, neither Coldplay and Beyoncé needed to use India as the backdrop. Though they both are extremely popular and beloved artists, more views don’t hurt. Given the social media focus on cultural appropriation, certainly the controversy around “Hymn for the Weekend” has helped increased viewership on YouTube to more than 35 million views. Sure, Coldplay and Beyoncé may admire India, but it’s hard to justify its use for commercial gain. And even if it celebrated India, it merely reaffirmed Western perspectives: vibrant powder smogs, poverty and dancing children. Neither Beyoncé nor Coldplay needed to follow the India-exhibition trend in pop culture and history. I respect and enjoy Beyoncé and Coldplay’s work, but it’s disappointing that they jumped on a bandwagon for this particular song.
So, what’s not cultural appropriation in the capitalist market? To some inconvenience, there is not a definitive answer. However, we can take Beyoncé’s anthem, “Formation,” as an exemplar because it demonstrates that minority culture can be appreciated and take power and agency in the media. “Formation” works for the reasons that it is true to Beyoncé’s own black experience and is self-representative. Whether “Hymn for the Weekend” was culturally appreciative or appropriative will always be fiercely debated. However, there are few, if any, exceptions as to who can appropriate another culture. Power structures are far more complicated than politically constructed race or gender. Popular media should not seek to represent admired cultures with outside perspectives but should instead allow for self-representation.