Musical Tourism, Ethical Consumption and other blog resonances pinging through my mind

Around the neoworldmusic/”global ghettotech” (Wayne, I confess to disliking this term) blogosphere and beyond, ethics of consumption remain a high priority. This is the commandment of self-reflexivity upon one’s subject position taught in liberal arts programs amongst other places: think about your subject position (class, race, gender) when engaging in critique and analysis, and results in a lot of intellectual labor devoted to the divide between the privileged position of the educated middle class listener/writer and that of the producer of the music: poor/ghetto/third-world. I’ve certainly done plenty of soul-searching about my own relationship to enjoying reggaeton or funk carioca or merengue de calle or whatever, though that usually comes after the thrill of initial engagement and discovery, and is usually far less enjoyable. It’s penance though, right? The price I pay for free music from people I will most likely never meet (though I feel less inclined to pay this price for downloading Justin Timberlake mp3s, and I’ll probably never meet him either). 

There’s really no shortage of “UR DOIN IT WRONG” examples of engaging with world music, and you’ll see the specter of the tourist (an increasingly perjorative term among the cultured) lurking in the shadows. “[A]t best a musical tourist” Eric Grady inveighs against Diplo, who has been the poster-child for UR-DOIN-IT-WRONGitude for so long he’s had to form an NGO to keep the booty-bass-intelligentsia at bay. The often-excellent Greg Scruggs calls him out along with serial offenders Sublime Frequencies for scrubbing out the names of artists on their mixes.

“If indeed they are “explorers” on the “urban frontier” of Rio de Janeiro seeking to “portray” a particular “moment,” then they are uninformed explorers who make no effort to explain the parameters of that moment – where, when, why.”

SF aren’t explorers, they are vaunted musical tourists, giving us a mere snapshot of the favelas, forcing us to provide our own contexts based on our own prejudices. Over at Dutty Arts, gex reminds us once again that we should translate the lyrics of what we hear if we are to listen (and DJ) in good conscience. We should be active listeners if we are going to travel into the third word internet, instead of being passive tourists who rely on paid bilingual intermediaries — tour guides — such as Diplo and SF. Ethnomusicology, a heavy influence on the global ghettotech discourse, has been hating on musical tourism for years now.

Which brings me to this interesting post on tourism as a particular mode of consumerist existence, broadly put as “a certain nostalgia for objects, coupled with a strange identification.” Cultural logic of late capitalism, y’all! This is of course what most of us word music consumers steeped in the liberal arts tradition want to avoid: we should be anti-tourists, cultivating a fair, ethical, meaningful relationship with music. But there are problems with this stance as well, things that niggled at me before Traxxus’s post crystallized some (and I do mean only some) things for me. It’s a desire to be the “heroic exception” to mindless consumers looking for the next cool thing (*cough* hipsters *cough*), but one that’s highly problematic in the academicky parlance of our times.

“Incurable observers who run up against their own limits respond, like marketers, with another absurd fantasy, that newness depends on the rearrangement or rejection of old categories (which were impositions to begin with), or that we need to ’stop being’ tourists, critics, adventurers, consumers, and replace them with something new and improved, though assembled from their remains, that the future is determined aesthetically by committee. Oblivious to the creativity it pretends to value, this brand of criticism kills the living and mystifies the dead.”

We try to shuck our inherited identity as tourists or consumers or Orientalists or neocolonialists, and build new identities in their places. Ethical, authentic identities that will assure us that our musical choices match up with our liberal politics — no Boom Bye Bye, no simple indie/thirdworld mashups, no missing tracklists, no mistranslations, no middle class appropriators. But this faith in the progressive power of self-fashioning is itself part of the problem, and anyway, we are all tourists now.

Calling Diplo a “neocolonialist” is missing the point. Diplo is not occupying any foreign countries, installing client regimes or coercively extracting resources. That he got big off a bunch of music made in the favelas is a symptom of neocolonialism, not a cause, and becoming ethical consumers isn’t going to change it (I’m actually more skeptical of the NGO angle). Sublime Frequencies certainly exoticizes its subjects (and I would love tracklistings on several of their releases including C.V), but they don’t actually have much effect, good or bad, on the music scenes they (inaccurately) document. Spank Rock doesn’t have much sway over the sounds of Baltimore’s clubs, and the favelas aren’t rocking Bonde do Role. The case could be made that they help provide a small part of an ideological screen to an influential class of Westerners which allows Western governments and corporations to continue to exploit the places where this music is made. But I wonder if castigating the middle class appropriators is rooted more in a desire to fashion ethical identities for ourselves than in correcting inequality. The increasing appropriation of the third world in music of all levels of popularity reflects our neoimperialist economic situation, in which Western (musical) economies are propped up by the exploited (creative) labor of the Global South, but I’m not sure to what extent it causes or creates it.

I’m not sure if I have some overriding point or position, more like nagging thoughts I tried to collide in a way that would help me make some sense of this. I agree with the sentiments of the bloggers mentioned above, and respect a lot of their writing. I don’t want to help reproduce exploitation or exoticization, I want to understand where the music I like comes from, what the lyrics are (even if most of them are about sexy girls), I want struggling artists to be compensated for their work. I want music to support the political causes I value. But I also want to be realistic about the limitations and pitfalls of the ethical consumerist approach to political problems. And hey, maybe get rid of some of this anxiety around one of the chief pleasures in my life.

21 Responses to Musical Tourism, Ethical Consumption and other blog resonances pinging through my mind

  1. w&w says:

    thanks for the thoughts, gavin. for the record, i dislike “global ghettotech” myself. i proposed it initially because it seemed to get at the fetishization of the global south ghetto in all of this, as well as the loosing (and i mean loosing, unlike many bloggers who write that when they mean “losing”) of the meanings of ghettotech once it became a snarky myspace pulldown identification. it’s a cynical, sardonic term and one that i didn’t intend to catch on. oddly enough, it quickly became a resonant shorthand for a lot of folks (myself included), in some cases still sarcastic/ironic, in some cases not.

    anyhow, that said, you voice some provocative things here. the question of fashioning ethical identities vs. correcting inequality is a good one, resonant with walter benn michaels’s recent screed. but it seems to me that some of your questioning here also leads us to a throw-up-our-hands (and party?) dead end. as you note, the (third) world will continue turning — and churning out beats — regardless of how diplo or SF wants to represent it, but part of me — a nagging part — wants to believe we can leverage the power/interest generated by such activity toward something, i dunno, better? something like ethical consumerism perhaps, but more like a p2p world in which we can forge direct relations of collaboration & support with the artists we admire, wherever they may be.

  2. […] Musical Tourism, Ethical Consumption and other blog resonances pinging through my mind « UNFASHIONA… “We try to shuck our inherited identity as tourists or consumers or Orientalists or neocolonialists, and build new identities in their places … that will assure us that our musical choices match up with our liberal politics” (tags: worldmusic global ghettotech blogging ethics colonialism poco blogpost critique) […]

  3. Gavin says:

    Thanks for the response, Wayne, and the book rec. I think GG is maybe an accurate term, but careens off my ear in the wrong way. Anyway, hope I don’t come off as that bitter kid in the back of the class hurling darts (though I was that guy not so many years ago).

  4. w&w says:

    not bitter darts, liquid swords, knamean.

    that polemic by WBM is definitely worth checking — and from a chicago perspective to boot!

    maybe it’s fitting that we’re as uncomfy with the terms that describe this set of practices/engagements as we are with the situation itself and the way it calls attention to the chasms of race and class that create some real distances between a lot of the bloggers/DJs on one side and the artists/producers on the other (tho i hesitate to imply too stark a dichotomy). we can attempt to refigure all this by talking about pleasure and sound and tourism-as-tourism, but maybe in the end the approach wherein we call a spade a spade would lead us right back to the frankness, if vagueness, of “ghettotech.” i dunno. i prefer it to “shanty house” at any rate.

    it’s worth asking what strikes our ears as right or wrong, what rings true or false

    still chewin on all of this, thx…

  5. […] its own here (for a few reasons), but inspires some further thinking re: the whole whirled debate we’ve been having (which I’ll get to in a […]

  6. Birdseed says:

    Lucid summary of the whole Tourism in Music debate, dude. You highlight one aspect which I think is important to bear in mind in the comparison between this “virtual” tourism and actual physical tourism – the near-zero-impact of “our” listening on them. In normal tourism the impact of the visitors on the local economy and culture is usually highly significant – their tastes (via their money) will dictate a large part of the cultural output, for one.

    In that sense I guess the “liberal involvement” school of cultural interaction might actually be more like traditional tourists – going in trying to understand the “unspoilt” and ending up “spoiling it”. Maybe there’s an advantage to being allowed to be anonymous…

  7. Gil says:

    I think the point was missed here entirely about SF “scrubbing the names off the tracklist”. Carlos Casa (who compiled the Proibidao CD) told me that the artists/DJs requested being anonymous for their own security and that SF originally wanted the names credited but understood the situation and agreed to go anonymous. Anyway, if this is true, SF could have noted that on the liners but perhaps this wasn’t made clear. This would totally justify the “name scrubbing” to me.

  8. Gavin says:

    Gil, good point. I wondered if that was part of it.

  9. […] – also recently @ Unfashionably Late […]

  10. […] this blog post about the same thing I’m talking about here. They use the terms “Musical Tourism […]

  11. […] Keita’s photos here,  you can  read a great meditation on ethical consumption of music here, and you can get a nice bit on the tourist as flaneur here. Possibly related posts: (automatically […]

  12. […] accessories as well, right? Perhaps not to the well-meaning bloggeratti, who are exploring means of ethical consumption and creative interaction between the artists of the global south and enthusiasts of the imperial […]

  13. […] accessories as well, right? Perhaps not to the well-meaning bloggeratti, who are exploring means of ethical consumption and creative interaction between the artists of the global south and enthusiasts of the imperial […]

  14. soyluv says:

    fascinating post! and well said!

  15. […] prodding at any rate. The post is on par with his thoughtful and provocative ruminations on the ethics of musical tourism from almost exactly a year ago, and we can read it as something of a follow-up, a continuation not […]

  16. ovaksVaflof says:

    Interesting blogpost, did not thought reading this was going to be so great when I saw your title with link.

  17. Boebis says:

    really interesting, thanks a lot! Really interesting to link “global ghettotech” and SF records.

  18. […] think I was beginning to gesture at this in a previous post on ethical consumption. Western fans, DJs, labels, and producers of dance music from the global south (we’ll avoid […]

  19. Lots of interesting points here. Things that are constantly rattling around in my brain. I lived in Rio from 2001 – 2003 where my music geek flourished beyond what I thought possible. I became obsessed with baile funk as well as many other brazilian genres…however, what I discovered that pushed me in a new direction was the south american hip hop scene…and the appropriation by many cultures to remix american or “1st world” or “western” (hate to use both of these terms) in a more culturally relevant way….basically making it their own. I run an organization ( ) that examines this constantly and teaches high school and college age youth about global issues by bringing urban/hiphop artists from around the globe into the classroom to examine their work and the social issues they address. I am constantly at odds with who is ripping off who and if it really matters. I’m sure you have seen “RIP: a remix manifesto” by now. My point here is isnt’ this what music an art are built on to begin with…taking others ideas and building on them. Remixing them with your own??? modern Baile Funk developed from the 2 Live Crew / Miami Bass music that Cariocas were hearing on the radio…before that Baile Funk was a straight rip off of James Brown style funk…which is derivative of lots of other things. Are we being too self important? the appropriation is a 2 way street here. People from every cultural tradition around the world have been borrowing each others ideas since the dawn of time of. what is important? the fact that it is happening? or what is being said through the music? what does it mean when I have a tibetan refugee student who writes a rap about love and his journey as an immigrant to Akon’s “Smack That”…keeping the chorus the same.

    Its an interesting debate but one that I think is based more on our sense of self importance than anything else. hmmmmm…

    • Gavin says:

      Very provocative stuff, thanks for the comment. I think you’re right that there’s a kind of (neo-colonial?) arrogance to the “deabte” as it were around this stuff, since most of it keeps going on its merry way regardless of “first world” interference. At the same time, it’s worth examining who’s benefiting from the attention — when you have Western artists profiting off this stuff to a greater extent than the creators, it’s natural for well-meaning people to say, “Is there a more equitable way to do this?” When it comes to sampling/appropriation, the power differences are crucial.

  20. […] Mueller, Gavin. “Musical Tourism, Ethical Consumption and Other Blog Resonances Pinging Through My Mind.” Unfashionably Late. 21 June 2008. Web.… […]

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