People were #NOThappy with Pharrell Williams after seeing him wearing a Native American headdress in a cover shoot in ELLE UK magazine. Fans (many Native Americans among them) and haters on Twitter, Facebook and blogs complained by using the #nothappy hashtag, condemning the singer and producer for appropriating North American culture and traditional dress for the sake of fashion.
To justify their decision, ELLE UK explained on their website: "We persuaded ELLE Style Award winner Pharrell to trade his Vivienne Westwood mountie hat for a native American feather headdress in his best ever shoot." They have since removed those words.
Pharrell himself apologised in a statement via his publicist: "I respect and honour every kind of race, background and culture. I am genuinely sorry.”
The feathered headdress, or war bonnet, is a sacred piece of attire worn only by warriors; it has great spiritual and symbolic importance. So, people who wear these headdresses to festivals as dress-ups, take note: if you weren’t already aware, you look like a racist and/or ignorant dickhead. When you’re carelessly using parts of other people’s culture in ways that are disrespectful and think they’re too sensitive for getting offended (I can barely hear you yelp, “Has political correctness gone mad?” above the sound of your privilege slapping me in the face), you’re part of the problem.
It might be a bit more difficult for some Australians to understand why this is so offensive as it doesn’t directly affect our community, but it’s not like we are exempt; cases of the appropriation of Aboriginal artworks are not uncommon.
At the beginning of this year, Melbourne cult designer label P.A.M. (perks and mini – whose name is also known internationally) was criticised for appropriating African and possibly Indigenous peoples’ culture in a video by art:broken titled p.a.m (it’s a white thing too); it spurred conversation in several Australian websites and publications.
Similarly, Chris Lilley’s latest spin-off TV show Jonah From Tonga has come under fire. While Lilley’s previous work had been praised as satire, the character of Jonah, played by Lilley wearing dark make-up, is a practice in blackface and there have been complaints that the show does not subvert attitudes and expectations enough to pass as satirical comedy. The Tongan community itself has expressed disapproval, with claims that the show is racist and inaccurately presents the Tongan community.
Why is this still such a trend? In the last few years we’ve seen Selena Gomez embraces Indian vibes in Come And Get It (see also: the live performance at the 2013 MTV Movie Awards) and blasé bindi-wearing (following in the footsteps of Madonna and a whole slew of other artists); No Doubt’s video for Looking Hot, which was criticised by the Native American community for not only being racist but also sexist (the band later apologised) (also, Gwen Stefani, after being called out for bindi-wearing as well as Japanese appropriation for your Harajuku girls bullshit, do you still not get it?!); Macklemore donning Jewface at one of his recent concerts; Avril Lavigne’s appalling video for Hello Kitty, filled with stereotypes and expressionless Japanese dancers-as-decorations (not to mention Avril acting all ~kawaii~ in a way that comes across as mocking); Katy Perry’s uncomfortable geisha-inspired performance at the 2013 American Music Awards; Miley Cyrus, Iggy Azalea (who is embarrassingly misinformed about Australia’s Aboriginal peoples; see also: Bounce) and Lily Allen’s appropriation of black hip hop culture; Wayne Coyne firing Flaming Lips’ drummer for 12 years after he objected to a photo of one of Coyne’s mates wearing a Native American headdress; …and that’s only the obvious ones.
There is no doubt that many of these artists are trying to pay tribute to these cultures, with most of them claiming they love [insert race here] people. It’s also important to note that many of the female artists listed above are arguably trying to do their bit for feminism – but sometimes it will be at the expense of intersectionality (Allen, Cyrus, Azalea, looking at you).
Oftentimes the art made itself – the visual aesthetics of videos, photography and costumes – are beautiful or stunning; that’s not the argument here. Art does not exist in a vacuum and while it can be a form of escapism, inevitably it reflects society. You can’t critique art without looking at it in a real-world context. Good intentions mean nothing if the execution and message are going to be offensive to the very people whose culture you’re supposedly trying to celebrate; and even worse is then telling said culture they should be happy or grateful and not offended by the fact they’ve been caricatured.
Yes, people of colour do need to be represented more in popular media, but not if it’s in a regressive way. If it’s ever unclear whether you’re stepping into potentially controversial territory or not, maybe just go straight to the source instead of ‘umming’ and ‘ahhing’ about something you have no experience with. (By the way, learned experience does not equal lived experience.) There are ways to appreciate or show appreciation for a culture without appropriating it – apparently this is difficult for so many people to grasp.Tags: concert, movie, music, producer, singer, tv