September 1, 2015
The video for American singer Taylor Swift’s new song “Wildest Dreams” has been viewed more than 10 million times in the two days since it debuted.
The video was shot in Africa and California.
In it, we see two beautiful white people falling in love while surrounded by vast expanses of beautiful African landscapes and beautiful animals — a lion, a giraffe, a zebra.
Taylor Swift is dressed as a colonial-era woman on African soil. With just a few exceptions, the cast in the video — the actors playing her boyfriend and a movie director and his staff — all appear to be white.
We are shocked to think that in 2015, Taylor Swift, her record label and her video production group would think it was OK to film a video that presents a glamorous version of the white colonial fantasy of Africa. Of course, this is not the first time that white people have romanticized colonialism: See Louis Vuitton’s 2014 campaign, Ernest Hemingway’s Snows of Kilimanjaro, the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia and of course Karen Blixen’s memoir Out of Africa.
But it still stings.
Here are some facts for Swift and her team: Colonialism was neither romantic nor beautiful. It wasexploitative and brutal. The legacy of colonialism still lives quite loudly to this day. Scholars have argued that poor economic performance, weak property rights and tribal tensions across the continent can be traced tocolonial strategies. So can other woes. In a place full of devastation and lawlessness, diseases spread like wildfire, conflict breaks out and dictators grab power.
Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” are a visual representation of what the Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina writes about in his Granta Magazineessay, “How to Write About Africa.”
“In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.”
Why be encumbered with the African people or show them in your “Wildest Dreams” video when they are busy mutilating each other and their genitals?
The bigger problem is that many Americans have never had an African history lesson. So we don’t totally blame Taylor Swift, but the people behind the video should have done a little more research. They should have wondered how Africans would react.
To those of us from the continent who had parents or grandparents who lived through colonialism (and it can be argued in some cases are still living through it), this nostalgia that privileged white people have for colonial Africa is awkwardly confusing to say the least and offensive to say the most. Allison Swank in her critique of the 1985 movie Out of Africa explains it well when she considers the character of Karen Blixen, portrayed by Meryl Streep: “The nostalgia her character creates for a time when an elegant, strong white woman could run a farm in Africa covers up the ugliness of that [colonial] idea. It undermines key colonial truths, like the fact that her ‘strength,’ or privilege, relies on the colonial order.”
Across the continent, we are in the middle of an exciting African boom and atechnological and leadership renaissance of sorts, led by the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the formerly colonized and enslaved. Waterfalls and mountains and majestic animals do not represent a full picture of our homelands.
Swift’s music is entertaining for many. She should absolutely be able to use any location as a backdrop. But she packages our continent as the backdrop for her romantic songs devoid of any African person or storyline, and she sets the video in a time when the people depicted by Swift and her co-stars killed, dehumanized and traumatized millions of Africans. That is beyond problematic.
And then she decided to donate the proceeds from advertisements linked to her video to the charity African Parks Foundation of America. If you travel to some of Africa’s parks, you’ll see the rangers and guides are black Africans.
So why not show them in the video?
James Kassaga Arinaitwe is an Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow and a Global Fellow at Acumen. He worked as a special projects manager at LabourNet, an organization in Bangalore, India, that seeks to improve the lives of workers. He tweets @JamesArinaitwe
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Originally published on NPR