Neocolonialism, Authenticity, and the Ethics of World Music

Boima has a post on the neocolonial aspects of crate-digging that caused some furor when said crate-diggers descended on the comments section, but the result was interesting, and I’d like to weigh in on a few dynamics of contemporary global music the discussion crystalized.

The first thing that struck me was that authenticity is not the dead horse the popists beat to a pulp back in the early Oughts. Its spirit has migrated away from production — in which authenticity was ascribed to certain types of sounds and their presentation — into the realm of consumption.

The cataloging tendency tends to be a colonial one. Also, many of the DJs and label owners, perhaps because of its shared lineage with Hip Hop, have concentrated on Afro-Beat, or have given more weight to genres that are popular in the west like Rock and Funk. For African artists, these are generally styles that artists often used as tools, or influences to fuse with their own popular local styles. The reissue train has been slow to recognize larger genres in Africa like Soukous, Highlife, or Benga, unless they find an artist that has an added funk or rock influence. In the past the tendency was to look for “authentic” music that sounded more “traditional.” Are they now shying away from things that sound too … African?

Certainly a weird reversal is at work here. Previous critiques of world music accused compilers (and by extension, yuppie listeners) for exoticizing non-Western music, for fetishizing its lack of modernity, and finally, for ascribing authenticity to what was essentially constructed for Western tastes. We have moved to a new periodization. Boima criticizes compilers (and by extension, hipster listeners) not for exoticizing Africans, but for disregarding actual tastes of Africans in favor of music that sits alongside American funk and rock more comfortably. Now hybrids — music that belies a fusion of African and Western — are inauthentic for not being “African” enough. “African-ness” is no longer a pre-modern essence as it was for first-gen world music. Now it’s been filtered through the analytic lens of our best science of consumption, market research: In the words of a recent Guardian article, “African music the actual African diaspora likes.” Actual. Real. Authentic.

The “authentic listener” is even more flawed concept than the “authentic artist.” For one, it’s difficult to pinpoint why particular music strikes someone in a particular way. Does that French DJ like Afrobeat because it’s exotic or because it’s Western-sounding? Unfortunately for both marketers and sociologists, demographics never match easily with musical tastes. But there’s a bigger problem: the frame of analysis. To examine and criticize individual actors in a tiny corner of the music industry, itself but a portion of the economy, is to miss what is important and revealing about the phenomenon Boima is commenting upon.

Boima makes an analogy between these vinyl tourists and colonial extraction: “it does seem that the current mad-dash for rare African vinyl could be analogous to Europe’s 19th Century Scramble for Africa, a mad-dash for rare African minerals.” He gets raked over the coals in the comments by the diggers, who don’t exactly appreciate being associated with violent exploitation. They argue variously that they listen to a wide variety of African music, that they make little money, that they are actually helping some of the artists on their compilations. Boima is taken to task, and rightly in my view: his resort to the “authentic listener” is just a shaky defense for an argument that was falling apart even before the diggers pile on in the comments section. Even if we had a bunch of European DJs releasing benga and soukous, we could still use this argument. Whenever “non-Western” music is released to “Westerners,” it provokes anxiety for the more multicultural-minded. It even pushes left-leaning people into defending things you wouldn’t think they would: property, nation, the buying and selling of culture, “tradition,” and yes, authenticity.

What Boima gets right is his analogy. There is a connection between Westerners crate-digging in Africa and 19th Century colonialism. But to narrow in on a tiny section of Western operations in Africa, and castigate the individual operators misses the point. The heritage of imperialism, which is not the past at all, but our very real and ongoing present, is not their fault. The presence of Western music and technology in Africa, the infrastructure that enables tourists to fly there, the economic imbalances that allow a European of modest means to purchase thousands of rare records, the lack of distribution channels for commodity export on the continent — these are larger, structural factors. Even on the level of desire — for the rare, for the exotic, for the familiar, for the exotic-but-not-too-exotic, for the authentic — are conditioned and manufactured by a system that has compressed time and space, thrown disparate peoples together, and fused and warped culture in uncountable ways. The practices examined in the debate, and the debate itself, are symptoms of much larger, much more insidious processes: actually existing imperialism. The crate-diggers are in a sense enabled in their task by Leopold chopping off hands in the Congo and by Shell dumping oil into the Niger Delta. They are part of this story. But they are not the villains.

This historical perspective is obscured by another problem lurking in current world music (fuck it, that’s what it is) discourse — the version of authenticity it draws upon. The authenticity-as-essence (especially pre-modern essence) argument is pretty much dead, so we can leave that in the dustbin of shitty NPR shows. But the more ethical stance that Boima raises — the one of responsibility, of being an ethical musical tourist — is alive and well, and also problematic.

Philosophers of the liberal tradition such as Charles Taylor and Lionel Trilling argue that authenticity relies on a kind of relational stance towards others, one of mutual recognition and sincerity. Without getting too theoretical, these positions rely on a long tradition of thought about the liberal subject — self-contained, self-directed, individualist, tolerant. If I am a good liberal subject, and you are a good liberal subject, then we can find a way to behave ethically, authentically, towards each other, and make the world a better, more civil place through recognizing each other as legitimate beings. But if I don’t recognize you, if I “fetishize” or “exoticize” you, or improperly represent your cultural artifacts, I’m acting unethically. You see this argument pop up all the time; one of the commenters, “wills,” states

if we continue to fetishize the psychedelic African past at the expense of a more mature, nuanced relationship with the present (and other eras), we might end up stuck in graceland (or on some blog).

There’s no shortage of advice on how the proper relationship you should have with African music. The problem is, no one knows what it means. How do you listen to something in a “mature” and “nuanced” way? How is releasing a compilation of Afrobeat “fetishizing” and making an mbalax remix of Akon not? These words are what Adorno would call the jargon of authenticity — they are essentially meaningless, erected only to set arbitrary boundaries. As a good dialectical materialist, Adorno has no patience for this stuff about mutual recognition and ethical stances. The liberal subject position assumes that we have ultimate control over our actions, which leaves out the history that inflects and conditions so much of who we are and what we do, the travels we take, the art we consume and how we react to it, the blog posts we write. We are not independent, self-contained actors in the world; we move through larger structures that determine more than we care to admit. And so any critique of transnational production or consumption, especially if you want to politicize it (as you should) has to discuss this, and not haggle over the tastes of individuals. The “colonial tendency” is both ours and not ours — it is there, we must acknowledge it, but attempting to ameliorate it in ourselves while ignoring actual imperialism just makes imperialism function more smoothly. Our responsibility is not to our taste — it is to ending the neocolonial project.

This starts at home.

3 Responses to Neocolonialism, Authenticity, and the Ethics of World Music

  1. […] Is it world music? Gavinsays, fuckityesitis. […]

  2. […] Is it world music? Gavinsays, fuckityesitis. […]

  3. […] Is it world music? Gavinsays, fuckityesitis. […]

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