…but even ‘benevolent’ stereotypes need questioning
Compliments of 2018 to everybody – a year which started on a sad cultural note, with the death of Poet Laureate Prof Keorapetse Kgositsile. But it also started on a dumb one, with a collective outbreak of the stupids around a green H&M hoodie: something that should sound a loud alert about the perils of all stereotyping – negative and ostensibly positive.
After H&M posted a catalogue image of a young black child in a green hoodie bearing the slogan “Coolest monkey in the jungle”, the stupids came thick and fast.
Multiple social media posts appeared from (mostly) white people, pointing out that they’d been called ‘monkeys’ when they were young and, ergo, the H&M advertising was not racist. False logic. I, too –being white and growing up in Lancashire – was called a ‘cheeky little monkey’ more times than I can count. That does not give me any right to whitesplain other people’s hurts. The words ‘monkey’ and ‘jungle’ carry particular freight now: the freight of racist chants from Roma, Spartak Moscow, Millwall and more against black players at football matches; the freight of ‘the Jungle’ – the racist label applied by white Frenchmen to the Calais informal settlement of desperate, mainly African, refugees. Dammit, H&M and their marketing folk are based in Europe; they should be aware of and sensitive to all this.
Further, the green hoodie was not the only one on offer to be modelled at that shoot. There was also an orange one, bearing the slogan ‘Survival expert’. And the shoot director chose to allocate that one to…the white kid. Perhaps not enough comment has considered the breathtakingly colonialist assumptions of that other choice?
If the hoodies and models had been switched, no racism would have been expressed. Come to think of it, H&M also have a rather nice turquoise ‘Time to Change the World’ hoodie. Why not ask the young black child to model that? There are always choices. H&M made the racist ones.
So the EFF was absolutely right to call H&M out on it all. Unfortunately, because no publicity is bad publicity (ask the man with nuclear button envy currently Tweeting from the White House toilet), the form of their action may have actually attracted sympathy for the retailer. Along the way, the EFF succeeded in terrorising a highly vulnerable economic group: young women of colour working in a service industry. A silent but beefy picket line outside H&M shops would have drawn more focused attention to the issue, without that hurt. Many of us would certainly have respected that picket line, and not crossed it to spend our money there.
And shop assistants don’t have much say in their bosses’ policies. Giving H&M employees as much assistance as possible – covert, if necessary – to organise, unionise and build links with their international counterparts, might be one way to shift that imbalance of power.
But it requires little effort to agree that racist stereotypes are bad. Far more challenging is how we deal with stereotypes that might appear benevolent.
One such is the stereotype of African culture as ‘ancient’ or ‘timeless’. Certainly, that can be a true acknowledgment of sophisticated cultures ignored by colonial versions of history. But it can also be used – and has been used – to relegate Africa to the past and abstract it from history, and hence from the right to change. Apartheid ideologues used it to deny the African kingdoms they reduced to ‘tribes’ access to modern levers of power. SAMRO under apartheid (not today) used it to deny royalties to African composers working in traditional genres, on the grounds that no origination could be involved in their work.
The image appeals, though, to a certain kind of romantic-hippie music-buyer. Much has been written about the search for, and romanticization of, difference in the commercial ‘World Music’ industry (see, for example, https://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-00571846/document ).
That romanticisation is a lie. No African composers working in the modern era are mere carriers of “ancient, timeless tradition”. They are applying fresh creative intelligences to what they have inherited, what their communities have done and experienced right up to today, and everything to which their contemporary lives have exposed them.
For a wonderful example of this, listen to the new double album release from percussionists Ronan Skillen and James van Minnen, and singer iNdwe – The Cave Project: Meditations and Lullabies (Rootspring http://rootspring.co.za/the-cave-project-lullabies-meditations/ ). It has everything the romantic-hippie music buyer might be drawn to: stark rhythms and bow songs recorded in the historic Steenbokfontein Caves. The music is compelling: the acoustic qualities of the caves make it possible to distinguish all the nuances of textural difference and expressive language between frame drums, didgeridoo, cajon and more. iNdwe’s songs with uhadi deal with contemporary as well as traditional themes. The whole project was workshopped between the three and, as Skillen says, it was not the ancient-ness of the caves but the novelty of setting and collaboration that served as “a completely new territory of music … and certainly an eye opener regarding how to perceive and relate to African (traditional) rhythm patterns.” Certainly it is music that could be used for meditation – on the website, the inspiration for that is explained – but it also unfolds a novel, beautiful, and exciting (there are grooves galore) soundscape that invites active listening.
More modern African composition can be accessed at the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival, which runs from next Saturday January 20 to Sunday February 4 (full details at http://www.join-mozart-festival.org/home/ ). On Saturday January 27, three new composers – Cara Stacey, Arthur Feder and Nomapostile Nyiki – present their work at the Goethe Institute at 3pm. On Wednesday January 31, pianist Paul Hanmer premieres his Mass for the First Peoples at the St Francis of Assisi Church in Parkview at 7:30pm. By attending, publicising and discussing such recordings and events, we can move away from a pattern of simply reacting to the latest piece of crassness from international capital – given their oppressive class role, why are we even surprised by it? – to proactively asserting Africa’s rich contemporary creativity.