Vampire Weekend and Cultural Appropriation
When, as a young tiger, I was first looking into human culture, I was stunned by how foreign it seemed. Not only that, but all of the sources I was using–books, television shows, movies–depicted what seemed like a fairly fixed and stable, almost unitary culture. Sure, there was staggering variety of expression, appearance, and lifestyle unknown in the tiger world. After overcoming the initial shock, however, I started to get the idea that human culture was based on some unchanging principles.
1. Selfishness. Like tigers, humans seem to prefer to be solitary, yet are forced to meet and group together for some specific purposes. For tigers, that basically consists of procreation and cub-rearing. Humans are much more social, but most of the literature I read and films I watched tended to glorify the individual. What mattered was not how the community functioned in human culture but what the culture and community could give to each constitutive person. In fact, most of the protagonists in human narratives that I read–especially more recent ones–saw being together with others as a burden except in the case of romantic attachment. That, too, generally led to difficulty and tragedy, with love being expressed as something irresistible, alien, and wonderful all at once.
2. Search for Meaning. Even the most ardent nihilists I could find in literature wanted to do. The problem with doing is that you need motivations. Whether or not you think that your life ultimately mattered, there had to be something compelling or lovable about the world. To me, that sounds like meaning, in that it means something to you.
There were others, but that’s a pair of examples just illustrating what I thought were unbroken cultural touchstones. I formed assumptions based on the cultural artifacts I encountered and that lead me, for a time, to think that human culture was mostly fixed, revolving around and around the same few key themes. Now, I still believe that there are certain aspects of human nature that do recur in many, many cultural products. However, the important thing is that I no longer approach human culture assuming that it’s basically changeless.
I’ve noticed that humans can fall into a similar trap when looking at cultures beyond their own. I give you Vampire Weekend.
Having recently announced their third full-length LP, Vampire Weekend has been on my mind lately. Even in the depths of the land of Hungry Ghosts, there are times when I want a bit of highlife/indie rock jangle to start off a day in the doldrums. I am certainly not the most partisan supporter of Ezra Koenig (lead singer) and company, but I’m here today to defend them against a serious charge. That charge is aptly summarized in the following quotation, which comes from a Telegraph article by Andrew Perry:
“Vampire Weekend’s success rests upon their initial revamp of common-or-garden indie-pop, using the tingling guitars and jittery rhythms of African “highlife” — an inspired marriage, rather like Belle & Sebastian meets the Bhundu Boys. During their upward trajectory, though, there have been dissenting voices – occasional accusations of cultural piracy, with the subtext that the four alumni of Columbia University are some clique of Ivy League imperialists, stealing sounds from a less privileged continent.” (emphasis mine)
Let’s carefully enumerate the charges laid against the swank, musically talented defendants.
1. They are accused of being white, educated, rich, and privileged.
2. They are accused of incorporating African musical conventions into their music.
3. The combination of these two means that they are being imperialist or colonialist. In other words, they’re making music with diverse cultural influences in an insensitive way.
I think we can confirm that they are guilty of both 1. and 2. They all graduated from Columbia. Just having a college degree in this world makes you privileged. Their whiteness is a little less clear, since there are members of the band who are of Hungarian Jewish and Iranian descent. Let’s be clear; fifty years ago, there would be significant controversy over calling a Jew “white,” not to mention an Iranian. Technically, yes, Iranians are Indo-European people. Still, their status as “white” might be considered a little hazy, especially if they’re Muslims.
Just look at them in the picture above, though. So hatable. So smug and “cool.” I’ll bet they think the Belgian Congo was “cool.”
I have leopard friends who lived during the Belgian Congo. Well, they’re dead now, but we keep in touch. I think that, even if you do want to accuse a cosmopolitan indie rock band of colonialism and an imperial attitude, you have to grade your fury down. This is not to diminish in any way the horrific nature of European exploitation of Africa or the role that economic oppression and the remnants of colonial legacy in causing unrest and political trouble in Africa. Instead, I would like to argue that, though Vampire Weekend is guilty of being privileged and equally “guilty” of appropriating African music into their own, that is by no means a crime punishable by hanging. Or any other punishment, unless you think critical conversation is punishing.
First, let’s understand the genre of African music that from which VW most often borrows. That would be highlife. Now, to call it “African” would be accurate but misleading. It would be like calling mariachi “North American” music. True, but it suggests that North American is some kind of homogenous cultural mass. Highlife originated and achieved its greatest popularity in a West African country known as Ghana. It also achieved a certain degree of renown in Nigeria, Liberia and Sierra Leone, but Ghana was its home. According to Carole Boyce Davies’ Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora, the genre was particularly notable for its adaptation of the Spanish guitar. Think about that. Highlife did not emerge whole cloth from some untouched African village culture. It was a product of interaction between two cultures. For that matter, think about that Spanish guitar.
Guitars themselves were the product of centuries of refinement and transmission from one culture to another.
What I’m saying here is that Vampire Weekend is a band that sprung from one of the most multicultural and cosmopolitan cities in the world. They’re not Africans themselves, and perhaps there are of course some uncomfortable historical problems raised with this kind of mixing. However, I think VW has a style all its own and embodies it pretty honestly. Let’s not start pointing fingers at bands just because they incorporate aspects of other cultures. Cultures are fluid, and mixing things up can often result in something wonderful.