BENGALURU, INDIA — At around 1 a.m. Saturday, January 30 — 4 p.m. Friday in the U.S. — Coldplay and Beyoncé’s “Hymn For The Weekend” music video, the band’s second single off their A Head Full of Dreams, popped up on my newsfeed. It was my last day on vacation in Bengaluru, a city I visited every other summer as a child. I’m Indian-American, you see, and my mom’s side of the family lives in India. I was feeling all sorts of sentimental about saying goodbye to my cousins, aunties, uncles and grandmother before heading back to New York City.
It felt like fate that Coldplay’s video, filmed in Mumbai, dropped on the final day of my trip. Stunning cinematography shows the band exploring the annual Holi festival, when residents cover themselves (and everyone around them) in colorful powder to celebrate the arrival of spring. The vibrant scenes made me homesick for India before I’d even left.
Beyoncé plays a Bollywood actress decked out in Indian clothes, jewelry, and mehndi (a.k.a. henna) in the video. Lead singer Chris Martin watches her starring role in the movie Rani, which means queen in Hindi. (And in a few days, the whole country will watch Coldplay and Bey perform HFTW for the first time at Super Bowl 50’s halftime show.)
I must’ve replayed this music video 10 or 15 times on that last day in India. The song itself is infectious with the kind of electric tingle that seeps into your veins and bleeds warmth and positivity. I made my dad watch it. I made my mom watch it after he was done. Then I posted it on Facebook and Twitter. My cousins had already seen it by the time I got to them, and they’d also shared it with anyone and everyone. We were (and still are) excited that two mainstream artists appreciate our culture and immersed themselves in it.
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The Internet felt differently. Coldplay and Beyoncé are now being criticized and accused of cultural appropriation. Appropriation happens when a privileged group or individual borrows practices, traditions, clothes, and so forth from a marginalized group and is praised for being cool and unique, while the marginalized culture is looked down upon for participating in the same (their own) customs.
Let’s use the example of a bindi, or as the kids on my elementary school playground called it, “that red dot on your forehead.” I never actually wore one to school, but my peers teased me about it anyway. So years later, when I saw Selena Gomez flaunt a bindi in her “Come Get It” performance at the 2013 MTV Movie Awards, I was less than thrilled. When Selena wears a bindi, it’s mysterious and alluring. Meanwhile, I still fear getting an angry pimple on my forehead lest it resembles a red dot.
The distinctions between cultural exchange, appreciation, and appropriation are sometimes blurry. For me, how a video (or performance or song or whatever) is created influences whether or not I consider it to be offensive.
From what I’ve read about HFTW’s production, clear efforts were made to respect and celebrate India’s culture. The video features residents from Mumbai’s Worli Village, and even though Coldplay and Bey are doing their thing, it’s the kids that bring life and excitement to the song. In other videos accused of appropriating Indian culture — Iggy Azalea’s controversial “Bounce,” Major Lazer and DJ Snake’s even more controversial “Lean On” — India and its deep-rooted traditions feel like a prop or a fashion accessory. Whereas in HFTW, the musicians feel secondary to the community in which they’re performing.
“On the day of the shoot, the guy that was tasked with turning on the lights for us turned out to be the lifelong projectionist of that same theater,” HFTW director Ben Mor told Black Dog Films about the local movie theater employee who appeared in the video. “He said he had been working in that theater for over 30 years! We asked him to demonstrate to us how he turns on this ancient Arclight Projector, and we watched in awe as he had that thing ready to go and spooled with film in seconds flat.”
There’s a degree of appreciation in HFTW that “Bounce” and “Lean On” don’t possess. All three videos have similar themes, employ Indian dancers and were filmed on location, but HFTW does the best job of keeping cultural context intact.
When the video opens with sadhus (Indian holy men), the god Shiva (one of the major deities in Hinduism) and a temple in the background, the influence of religion in the country is clear. The Holi festival is portrayed in the streets, which feels way more appropriate to me than something like The Color Run, which uses colorful powder without any mention of Holi. The classical Bharatanatyam dancers are dressed in traditional costumes. Mudra, the hand movements Beyoncé makes, have religious significance in Bharatanatyam. I doubt Bey has read up on Hindu mythology recently, but my mom and my roommate — both of whom are trained in Bharatanatyam — told me many Bollywood actresses do this type of choreography on the big screen.
Let’s get one thing clear, though. If you were to visit India today, it wouldn’t look like it does in HFTW. The country is certainly much more than just dancing in the streets with floating sadhus and fire-breathers, and I understand how these images reiterate outdated stereotypes. HFTW stitches together the most enchanting, most sensational parts of India and its history, so of course the result is over-the-top. (As are most music videos, regardless of their setting.)
This doesn’t bother me! For once, media is focusing on the positive aspects of India, like its sense of community, playfulness, and free spirit. I love “Slumdog Millionaire,” but the India it focuses on is full of poverty and crime. And I love “Quantico” star Priyanka Chopra, but her single “Exotic” with Pitbull is all about how sexy and — you guessed it — exotic Indian girls are. #ProblematicFaves
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When I watch HFTW, I feel like Coldplay are visiting an extra-magical version of India as tourists and learning about the culture as they go; the viewer shares this experience with them. Maybe this is because I know Chris Martin’s activism directly helps India. He’s an ambassador for local NGOs and has spoken to Indian politicians about social justice and ending poverty. Or maybe it’s because two Indian fashion designers, Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla, created Beyoncé’s hand-embroidered and sequined outfits. Or maybe it’s because Sonam Kapoor, a Bollywood actress, appears in the video.
Maybe it’s because I know that in 2012, Coldplay were criticized for cultural appropriation for their “Princess of China” video with Rihanna. Following that screw-up, I like to believe that the band and their director proceeded more carefully with HFTW. They thought about how this video would land with Indian fans: “I sincerely hope that our love and respect for the culture and people of India comes across loud and clear in the video,” Mor said.
Are there facets of HFTW that could be perceived as cultural appropriation? Sure. Nobody can dictate what you can and can’t be offended by. Yet as I watch the Internet rise up and point the giant cultural appropriation finger at Coldplay and Beyoncé, I question what the end goal is. HFTW may not be perfect, but it’s a big leap forward compared to past videos, and no one seems to be acknowledging this progress.
Right now, HFTW has been viewed over 21 million times and that number grows every day. Because of Coldplay and Beyoncé, hundreds if not thousands of people, many of whom may never have the opportunity to visit India in real life, know that Holi exists and what it looks like. (Snapchat accomplished the same feat when they featured the festival in their Stories section. Some people tweeted that it looked just like The Color Run. *sigh*)
Diversity is a beautiful thing, and the conversation surrounding appropriation versus appreciation is ongoing. But if we continuously label everything that draws from another culture as appropriation, I fear artists will stop looking to other cultures for inspiration entirely. The way I see the HFTW video, Coldplay and Beyoncé are inviting their fans to celebrate, experience, and learn about India with them. In an increasingly global society, that counts for