It seems strange to say in a cultural climate where traffic to Iggy Azalea think pieces makes up 12% of the Internet’s bandwidth (not confirmed), but I feel like I can remember a time before cultural appropriation. Not a time before cultures were appropriated, but certainly a time before cultural appropriation, the concept, became embedded into society’s general consciousness. 24 years old now, this may just be a function of my age. I think back to where I was six years ago and I just know there was no way I was tuned in enough to pick up on the subtle details of racial oppression. I’d barely even begun to process the viscerally affecting, overt details. It’s a natural progression in the life of every young liberal, it seems. One fine day, we all grow up and learn that there are straight up levels to this marginalization shit. I can’t remember exactly how it happened in my case, but I imagine the revelation sounded a bit like this: “So, let me get this straight, the U.S. government uses racist sentencing laws to bolster profits of a private prison system AND WHITE PEOPLE STOLE JAZZ?”
More than just my age though, I’d venture that this blissful lack of awareness was allowed to persist because the issue of cultural appropriation had yet to really enter the broader cultural discourse. I’m not saying that the idea wasn’t out there and discussed widely by a minority of more-aware people, but it definitely wasn’t something I would have spoken about drunk at a party with a group of complete strangers (something I did this past weekend). Lacking the time, determination, and resources to try and back my hypothesis by gathering quantitative data, I’ll do the next best thing and prove how apathetic society was to the issue of cultural appropriation just one decade ago by examining Timbaland and Magoo’s unlikely 2003 single, “Indian Flute”
To begin, I should explain that the reason you don’t remember this song is because it wasn’t a hit. Having peaked at number 73 on the US R&B charts, I imagine that the only people who remember this song are myself and Magoo. Even Timbaland, who evidently wrote, produced, and performed this song, has probably purged it from his memory.
The video opens up on a Snake Charmer, whose hypnotic melody is evidently supposed to be providing the backdrop to the song, while simultaneously coercing a young woman to emerge from a ceramic pot. It seems like a strange choice for the video, as if Timbaland and Magoo were trying to trick the audience into thinking that they hit the studio with a real-life, snake-charming session player to gain additional legitimacy, but overestimated just how much currency this would be worth.
In any case, right from the beginning, the video is super racist. It’s not that snake charming represents an inherently harmful stereotype to Indian people, it just feels like an incredibly dated caricature. Like, if my Indian Father were to have approached a racist caricature artist in the 1980s and said “give me the usual,” I’m almost certain the guy would have depicted him as a snake charmer. Interestingly enough, the snake charming stereotype has become less prevalent over time, but there was a time when, based on media depiction, your average person would have thought Snake Charming made up 70% of India’s GDP. I imagine it led to a lot of confusing conversations like this one:
Guy 1: How come there is so much poverty in India?
Guy 2: That’s a really difficult question to answer. It probably has something to do with the country’s over-population, incremental job growth, underdeveloped education system, general lack of effective governance, and you know, colonialism.
Guy 1: Are you sure? Isn’t it just because everyone in India spends all their time trying to get snakes to come out of baskets?
Funny enough, the main melody of the song isn’t even from an Indian song. After doing some research, I learned that the song’s sample is from a Colombian song, specifically this one:
This means that the name of the song isn’t strictly accurate. They could have called it, “Indian woman,” “Colombian flute,” “Indian woman and Colombian Flute,” “Woman and Flute (because their ethnicities aren’t technically important for the naming of the song), and really any permutation of those words. The one title that doesn’t make much sense is, “Indian Flute.”
Then, of course, there is the repeated emphasis that Timbaland is clueless as to what the featured artist, Raje Shwari is singing. It’s actually the punchline of the song’s chorus, with Timbaland diplomatically explaining several times, “I can’t understand a word you’re sayin.’” Had the song been the big hit they’d hoped it would be, this would have been the part of the song that drunk partygoers would scream along to in the club — the equivalent of the Biggie’s “If you don’t know, now you know, n—-” The celebratory nature of the claim makes me a bit uncomfortable. It’s not like he’s saying “I can’t understand a word you’re saying, I wish I was more educated in foreign languages.” It’s kind of like he’s saying “I can’t understand a word you’re saying, but it doesn’t matter because knowledge of foreign language is unimportant when you’re American and I’m going to make thousands of dollars off this song regardless.” It just feels unnecessarily dismissive.
Finally, my absolute favourite part of the song is how Timbaland and Magoo both end their verses by rapping a phrase in Hindi, speaking with full confidence, completely unaware that their pronunciation is awful. I’ve always been fascinated by instances of people doing something with such bravado and then failing miserably. It really puts into context my own lack of confidence. I’m convinced that if I had even an iota of the bravado of Magoo, I would have progressed much further in life by now.
At this stage, I’d like to clarify that I’m not altogether that offended by this music video. Yes, it’s definitely shitty in parts, but I’d have to be crazy not to recognize that there are a million more serious issues that I could be directing my angst towards. I guess it just feels surreal to watch the video now because of the many eyebrow raising moments that I’m certain would spark a number of over the top, outraged think pieces if it were to be released today. All questionable elements of appropriation aside, the song is actually pretty catchy. I have a fond memory of being in elementary school, watching the video with some of my non-Indian friends, and thinking for one of the first times ever that Indian culture could be “cool.” If I had known at the time that it wasn’t exactly a positive representation, I’d like to think I would have felt less pride in my heritage at that moment, but more than likely, I would have thought “Fuck it, my friends think this is cool, and that’s way more important right now.”