All that we are not and will never become – Tropical Diaspora® Records’ position facing cultural appropriation
Let us begin by stating that the language in which we write is alien to us. But like any other means of communication language is also an arena of struggle. We use language as a weapon.
The culture of colonized people is managed in the metropolis of the Western world. It has been incorporated in the system of cultural classification of the West. Ethno, Afro, Latin, World… they are all names that give Westerners means of recognition and difference: while it is Afro, it is not from us. It seems to bear the stamp of cultural exchange, but it doesn’t; and we have a problem with that. Why is it so? – For the sake of the argument we consider the culture of the colonized as culture produced outside the West, or in the West but by non-Westerners, and opposite to the culture of the colonialist. It goes without saying that the West is mainly Europe and North America, excluding Mexico and all the regions inhabited by native people in those territories.
The current state of affairs is a system that has Europe as its center. Every system with a center has its periphery. Peripheries have been shaped by the appetite of the center, while the center works as point of reference for its periphery, we should say as a mirror in which the periphery looks at itself, although not as it is but as it should be. Through the technical means of reproduction, the channels of distribution and the fetishization of social media as the true public sphere holding promise of access, the colonialist tells the colonized: look at what we have achieved, don’t you want to be like us?
This system of center-periphery has been with us since modernity, since the dawning of capitalism. We go so far as to claim that it is a specific invention of modernity. And this has consequences, because modernity coincides with the so-called discovery of the African continent and the Americas. The ships of the slave trade came to be the experimental ground for the later development of the capitalist factory that would enslave thousands around the globe, while the mines exploited in the Americas will pay for the Industrial Revolution. The famous Potosí mines and the expression, still in use, vale un Potosí: be worth a Potosí, symbolizes a social and economic development with the help of which the center grew, and still grows, at the expense of the periphery. Stories about the sucking vampire and the sucked zombie are more than symbolic narratives. They graphically describe the global work place.
The white European who cares about the peripheries never sees himself as a colonialist but as savior. Why is that? Why does Europe posit itself as savior?
Europe is constructed as a culture of saviors, who know better about the Others in the periphery. Linnaeus’ classifications, Humboldt’s love for American flora collude with Rhodes’ passion for the telegraph and the portrait of Elihu Yale, whom the famous university is named after, while enjoying a cup of tea in the company of a fettered young African slave. Europe is the place of a culture that gives itself the right to known and to save. But, who is saved by Europe and of whom does Europa save her? Of course, Europe thinks that it saves the Others from themselves: from their corruption, their ignorance and atavism, their innate maladies… Recently, a young German philosopher stated the following: ‘due to its past Europe is best equipped to find an answer into achieving social justice and democracy for the future of humanity’. This is a strange statement for a philosopher. The young German thinker is full of ignorance. The poem of Ikwunga states clearly from where Europe took its equipment, it unveils the consequences of the philosopher blindness. It goes as follows:
Di bombs are made in London
But the bombing is in Congo,
The bombing is in Togo.
The tanks are built in Russia
But the shelling is in Angola,
The shelling is in Rwanda.
The jets are built in Germany
But the air raids are in Freetown,
The air raids are in Asmara.
The bazooka is from New York
But bazook is in Nigeria,
Bazook is in Mogadishu.
Cocoa grows in Nigeria
But we buy chocolate from Belgium.
Sugar cane grows in Jamaica
But the tea is sweet in Toronto,
Life is sweet in Toronto.
Diamonds rain in Sierra Leone
But they don’t have hands to catch them,
They don’t have hands to wear them.
Gold is plenty in Kinshasa,
Gold is plenty in Maputo
But they store the gold in Swiss banks.
Cotton blooms in Mali,
Cotton grows in Cameroon
But they beg for pants from Paris,
They buy used cloths from Paris.
Look at a compilation of so-called World Music, as it is typically done in the US or Europe. The production is the best, the edition is superb. Through the technical means of reproduction the colonialist asserts his supremacy, his domination. He cares. No complaint can be made. Surely, he knows how to do things right. A salsa song bears the name of its Western producer in a YouTube channel. African rhythms from Barranquilla are so recorded that the Westerner can recognize them as African. The sounds of the Amazonian forest become a myth to recover from oblivion, and when Dona Onete release a video clip the sharks of the music business go insane: which of them will take the credit for that? In the mean time, Bob Marley despised Eric Clapton’s version of ‘I shot the sheriff’ because he obviously understood nothing. The powerful cultural institutions of the European national states are happy to back this colonialist penetration in the name of the Other, because they know better. So we end cheering up Humboldt’s achievements as if they were our own.
The colonialist sees the native as prey. The native sees the colonialist as predator – rephrasing a famous idea about the life relations in the tropical forest by a renowned anthropologist.
But there is a catch. Because of the power that the West exercises through its networks of distribution that spread worldwide an ideology of healing and restoration, and through the technical fetishism it professes, World Music compilations become a standard about the culture of the colonized. They become coffeetable recordings, the opportunity to engage in intelligent conversations among white educated people while perpetuating myths of authenticity commonly attached to ‘primitive’ cultures. They reinforce the belief that you are well informed about the Other’s culture, the culture of the colonized. This is exactly what the Marco Polo’s syndrome is about. As the culture of the Other came to be know through the eyes of the well-known Italian merchant, we become disappointed when the Other doesn’t behave like Marco Polo taught us, and we demand from her to behave accordingly. World Music forces people to behave according to Marco Polo’s standards, so to speak. In the cultural encounter Westerners create stereotypes with the help of corporate money. Corporate beliefs are incorporated and become the engine, while the cultural politics of the European national states reaps the profits. Philanthropy as a bad joke.
But this is not the worst part of it. The worst part of it is that the acquired knowledge can be used to speak with the colonized about its own culture; in fact, to teach her about her own culture, to show her how her culture should be represented… cooked and swallowed. Eventually, it becomes the only means that the native has to speak about her own culture.
Colonialists have always granted themselves the right to represent Others, to measure them against their own scientific and artistic achievements. Record labels perpetuate this ideology when they create through recordings the plane where those featured are kept alive as Others, the strange subject of the colonialist curiosity and inquiry. By claiming the words World, Ethno, Afro or Latin the colonialist gives the impression of universality. But this is a misrepresentation. Through these recordings the colonized learns to act as African, as Latin, as Native in the eyes of the white supremacist. It means, the colonized has been stripped of her own humanity and universalism in order to become a puppet.
All this is what Tropical Diaspora® Records isn’t about, and will never become.
We would like to thank Frantz Fanon, always a source of inspiration.