The broadly-labeled “world music” or “world beat” musical genre was enormously popular from the late ‘80s through the late ‘90s and, for me as a musician, exciting and inspirational. Musicians from Mali to Croatia to Brazil found themselves collaborating with the biggest First World pop stars of the day to produce uniquely multicultural sounds. Peter Gabriel powered whole albums with African drumming and duets with singer Youssou N’Dour, a superstar in Africa and Europe. Paul Simon recorded a South African-influenced album with musicians from that country, and he and Michael Jackson also recorded separately with the Brazilian samba-reggae group Olodum (which I drummed with myself in Carnaval in the mid-90s). Sting, having soared to fame with a group that fused rock and reggae, toured with percussionists of African and Caribbean roots and scored a hit with Algerian singer Cheb Mami in “Desert Rose.” Audiences ate it up.
None of that would be possible today, or at least popular, because an ugly current of racial totalitarianism has taken hold among many young people who would condemn the Western artists for cultural appropriation. The opportunities for such musical blends to knit disparate audiences together are disappearing, replaced by a militant tribal defensiveness.
When musical artists mix genres and collaborate in a way that promotes unity rather than division, there is no faster way to break down barriers of race, nationality, and gender and move people beyond the barricades of politics. The exciting energy such a creative partnership can generate brings people together more quickly, harmoniously, and organically than any other artistic or activist endeavor.
Conversely, nothing is more certain to wedge people further apart than using a musical performance to sow division and perpetuate resentment in an audience that otherwise is primed to seek common ground.
While performing at the Halifax Pop Explosion festival last month, Lido Pimienta, a Colombian-Canadian singer and recent recipient of Canada’s Polaris Music Prize, began her set by repeatedly asking people of color, particularly women, to move to the front of the room and white people to move to the back, a demand Pimienta apparently makes often at her shows.
Rightfully, some whites in the audience found this blatant discrimination offensive. One white volunteer at the festival wasn’t having it at all, and resisted until Pimienta finally had the volunteer removed from the show.
In a subsequent interview with Billboard, Pimienta clarified that she never asks white people or men to leave her show (how generous of her) and explained why she asks women of color to move to the front of the stage:
As an immigrant, as an Afro-Indigenous person, as an intersectional feminist, as a mother and all of the other signifiers that qualify me as “other,” I understand what it is like to not see yourself in the media, to not see yourself in institutions and to not see yourself represented or reflected at a music show….
This simply reeks of the self-pitying victimization of identity politics. Non-white girls don’t see themselves reflected in the media or at music shows? They’re so culturally repressed they stand in the back of the concert hall while all the whites and men move up front? What absolute nonsense.
Instead of condemning her divisive demand and stressing that all are welcome, the Halifax music festival sided with the artist and actually issued an apology to her and a warning of sorts to other whites who might be inclined to resist being treated like second-class citizens: “We will not accept this behaviour,” declared the festival, referring to the white volunteer who refused to move to the back, “and neither should you. Be responsible for your friends—talk to them and support them as they move towards unpacking their racism. People of Colour deserve safe spaces and it is your responsibility to help. It is also ours.”
It’s unclear why “People of Colour” is capitalized, but now is as good a time as any to point out that the phrase is ridiculous regardless, since there is absolutely no linguistic difference between that socially acceptable term and the taboo “colored people.” Anyway, instead of privileging “People of Colour” with a safe space and forcing whites, who presumably paid as much as everyone else to attend (or who volunteered to work the show), to move to the back, the festival should have condemned Pimienta’s blatant discrimination and declared its commitment to provide a safe space for all.
It’s disheartening to think that this point isn’t starkly obvious to everyone, but it is impossible to fight racism with racism. One simply cannot resolve racial tensions by deepening racial divisions and stoking racial resentment and guilt.
To tell white people that they are inherently, unconsciously, and irredeemably racist, and that they need help “unpacking their racism,” is an ugly lie that is condescending at best and flat-out racist at worst. It is a strategy guaranteed to push people deeper into their racial camps.
Nonetheless, Pimienta was grateful for the festival’s support and promises to keep racially reconfiguring her audiences. “We’re on a necessary path, unlearning patriarchal western ‘civilization’ ways,” she says. “If we don’t speak up, we will never evolve.” The scare quotes around “civilization” are very revealing. Apparently she’s unaware that it is Western civilization that has elevated the individual beyond tribalism, and that has made such musical styles as her own indigenous, Afro-Caribbean synthpop possible.
Allow me to stress this point again: there is only one way toward a more just society that is not bogged down in racial tension—drop the baggage and start fresh. Obsessing over the injustices of distant generations, demanding reparations, claiming that people of color in America are oppressed by white supremacy, condemning all American history as racist, seeking racial payback through “reverse racism” (another meaningless phrase—there is no such thing as “reverse” racism)—none of this can possibly bring reconciliation. We must begin where we are and move forward by simply treating everyone as equals defined by the content of their character—not as identity groups defined by color, sex, and class, and arranged on a hierarchy of victimhood.
Here’s an experiment for Lido Pimienta to try at her next concert: drop the racial arrogance and invite everyone—everyone—to squeeze closer to the stage. Perform for everyone equally. Thank the volunteers, regardless of skin color or sex, who helped make your show possible. Say goodnight to all who came and wish them a safe, joyful trip home. I think she’ll be surprised how much better this serves her music and the people who listen to it, no matter what color they are.
Image: Facebook/Lido Pimienta