Toxic Westernised Perspective Through World Music

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Written by Jenna Dreisenstock

We all have preconceived notions regarding countries around the world and assumptions of their residents; this is something we certainly cannot deny, especially if we have never visited or lived in those countries ourselves. We are only really ‘informed’ via news stations or fiction we see on television! An important thing to remember is that all media is very carefully curated; this includes documentaries, as unfortunately journalism doesn’t always live up to the objective, powerful truths we should expect; justice or real information in exposing and sharing the truth, often turns into a competitive game of profit between journalists and media outlets alike. With our assumptions and influence of an oversaturation of curated opinions: comes an insidious form of discrimination in the music world, one that I have noticed presents itself in such a heavily unconscious manner it may be invisible to most. As Westerners, why is it that we are so quick to brush off music before even listening to it – if we see the country of origin isn’t something we are particularly familiar with.

This raises a lot of ethical questions, because of course it does. The first aspect of this subject to examine would perhaps be taking a good, hard look at our preconceptions regarding what (we think) we know about other countries and the individuals who reside in those countries. Speaking earlier regarding the heavy curation of media, we have to recognise the institutional discrimination that presents itself so surreptitiously – the use of  very specific, veiled language and carefully chosen footage that may push network agendas and biases. This usually takes the form of demonizing specific groups of people, whilst normalizing toxic behaviour of another (one) group of people. This is based on a systemic foundation, so expecting and understanding media as something so heavily curated that very easily manipulates the public perception of a situation is imperative. In saying this, it must be asked then – what assumptions and opinions do we form regarding places that are labelled ‘foreign’ or ‘exotic’?

For me, the answer RACISM quickly springs to mind in bold, flashing lights. Why is it that we are more likely to take an artist who creates fantastic electronic music from the UK, more seriously than an artist who creates brilliant electronic music from India? Music from anywhere in North America as opposed to the entire continent of Africa? This isn’t always the case, so please don’t get me wrong. However I have noticed this continuing pattern; and what brought it to my attention was – myself. How quickly I’ve skipped past films on Netflix that are uploaded originating from ‘foreign’ countries such as India – despite my love for film and ‘foreign’ films (the definition is so skewered at this point, honestly). Why have I been doing that? What are my preconceived notions of what the films are going to be like? And even so, shouldn’t I take the time to seriously consider my assumptions and check them out anyway? Damn right I should. Perhaps the most hypocritical part is that when I speak of ‘foreign’ films, just like with music – foreign tends to refer to Russia, Germany, Norway and so on. 

The same way I seriously need to check my own preconceived notions of media originating from other countries, we need to talk openly about the assumptions that have been ingrained in us and how we respond. A, perhaps, silly example that springs to mind is an old episode of The Simpsons, in which Homer visits Apu at his home for dinner. I’m not sure if I need to elaborate on who these characters are, but for those who don’t know Apu is Hindu, a South Asian character in the television show The Simpsons. At his house, Apu offers Homer a drink and suggest they put on a record by his favourite Indian musician to relax to. As Apu places the needle on the record, the preconceived (and problematic) notions those of us who are not South Asian have are evident: the music starts playing a fast-paced, chaotic and rather brash noise and I believe that’s perhaps what we all expected (awfully problematic).

However, Apu then apologises, stating the record was playing backward and after flipping the record over and the music begins to play for the second time, we hear soulful velveteen vocals with the influence of smooth jazz and lounge music akin to Frank Sinatra. Regardless of our thoughts on Apu as a character, this was a very clever moment of satire as suddenly our notions of what a South Asian person enjoys listening to were completely broken. This is bittersweet, as it raises both the question of misconceptions as well as – does music from a country like India have to sound ‘Western enough’ to be focused on and celebrated?

What about the very foundations of music that began outside of the West and was stolen (once again I am referring to appropriation, not appreciation.)  as an ‘exotic novelty which allowed Western artists to rise to fame? I am, without a single doubt, referring to The Beatles and their use of ‘exotic’ sounds such as using an instrument known as a sitar, which gained them a huge amount of attention. Despite working closely with famed and celebrated Indian sitarist and composer Ravi Shankar, if we were to ask the general western population if they know who The Beatles were, as opposed to if they know who Ravi Shankar was – it’s easy to make the assumption that more people will know The Beatles. Isn’t it?

This can delve even further into different territories, in which people can end up fetishizing a group of people based on the ‘appeal’ of what we ‘know’ of their culture and public image. K-pop fans who are not Korean, I’m looking at you. It’s a similar situation with anime fans who are not Japanese. You can find some seriously creepy festishization (ultimately, dehumanization) in these communities. There’s a huge difference between appreciating, celebrating and taking part in mutual cultural exchange and enjoying traditional as well as region specific media as an outsider – as opposed to dehumanising artists of another culture, ethnicity, race or religion simply because they are ‘different’ from what we have experienced as outsiders.

It’s absolutely imperative we challenge our assumptions of media from countries that do not take up half as much space as Western countries in the public eye. It’s integral we are constantly questioning ourselves when it comes to the media, staying informed; recognising and working on unlearning toxic behaviour that has been ingrained in us – whoever we are – and most importantly break apart the racism that has so terrifyingly shaped the way in which we consume modern media and music. Incredible music exists in all parts of the world by all different types of people, and to simply brush that off because of our problematic assumptions – that’s a terrible loss to every single music lover in this world, and a sickeningly clear image of a heavily bias Western perception that is imposed on humankind; and man, is it suffocating.