From pop superstars like Ke$ha to rock bands like No Doubt, white musical artists donning Native American costumes have become commonplace in American media. This cultural appropriation has come under fire in recent years, though, and is now associated with exploitation and insensitivity. Meanwhile, just as concern for cultural respect has entered the public consciousness, cosmopolitanism and globalisation also figure prominently in America’s modernisation. What does this mean for the continued portrayal of Native Americans and “native” peoples by Americans? This paper explores the interaction between “native” portrayals and the formation of an American identity in three contemporary music videos, especially where these agendas are also multicultural.
Ziff & Rao (1997) define cultural appropriation as “the taking – from a culture that is not one’s own – of intellectual property, cultural expressions or artifacts, history and ways of knowledge” (1). In other words, any artist who uses elements of another culture in their work is appropriating that culture. American musical artists have appropriated “native” culture in many ways, ranging from superficial imitation of aesthetic features such as costumes and artifacts to attempts at depicting “natives” as people, whether through portraying real Native Americans or “native” personalities without real-world cultural association.
The three music videos this paper examines – Lana Del Rey’s “Ride” (Mandler 2012), Skrillex & Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley’s “Make It Bun Dem” (Datis 2012), and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “Can’t Hold Us” (Lewis, Koenig & Augustavo 2013) – span this range of native appropriations. However, what these three videos have in common are their attempts to define an American identity. Portrayals of indigenous people have been used throughout history as a device for commenting on and shaping national identity (Borsboom 1988:419). In particular, natives have been portrayed as more “noble”, as Borsboom puts it, when employers of the trope desire societal change (431). Baird observes a similar phenomenon in America that transcends mere depictions of native culture: in its characteristic and continuous search for an American identity (1998:154), its media’s native depictions have gone beyond commentary and comparison to appropriation and emulation. Analysing the popularity of narratives where white characters are adopted into Native tribes, Baird describes the conceptualisation of the Native American as a “True American”, stating that “only by going backwards into history, back into tribalism, could the American hero hope to go forward” (154).
The music video for Lana Del Rey’s “Ride” is an example of how Native American culture is treated as emblematic of a true American spirit that deserves emulation. Directed by Anthony Mandler, the video appears to fall into the category of superficial and seemingly-inexplicable imitation of Native aesthetics – the white singer Del Rey wears a large feathered headdress (07:01) during a bonfire at the end of a video that showcases her living an otherwise non-“native” nomadic lifestyle, riding motorcycles and drifting from lover to lover. Mandley unequivocally celebrates this lifestyle – the video opens with Del Rey swinging on a tyre under a clear sky (00:10) and is mostly comprised of scenes of her enjoyable encounters with lovers on the road. When Del Rey puts on the headdress at the biker bonfire, it can easily be interpreted simply as symbolic of the freedom she enjoys, its exoticism making the alternative lifestyle more appealing.
Yet, other features of the video and Del Rey’s overall artistic image point to a more nationalistic intent. Del Rey frequently employs American motifs in her work, such as the American flag (Mandley 04:11; also see Lemoine, “Born to Die” 2011) and re-enactments of historical events (Mandley, “National Anthem” 2012). In “Ride”, this preoccupation takes on a deeper, more deliberate meaning: while extolling the freedom of the open road in the video’s ending monologue, Del Rey says: “I believe in the country America used to be (Mandley 08:51).” Hence this alternative lifestyle is not just something to be enjoyed and celebrated, but acknowledged as a lost aspect of the American experience that should be restored. Through association with Native American and hence indigenous culture, Del Rey’s drifter lifestyle becomes no longer simply deviant, but part of an American continuity, validating its place in the national identity.
Hence Del Rey’s “Ride” is a fairly straightforward deployment of Native American cultural features to validate alternative lifestyles as representative of a lost American identity, according to the Native American “noble savage” legacy (see Lewis, qtd. in Baird 155). However, what happens when the nationalistic vision presented in such videos becomes not just American but multicultural, as seen in “Can’t Hold Us” and “Make It Bun Dem”?
While many such as Ziff and Rao view cultural appropriation as the interaction between separate cultures, Rogers (2006) challenges this definition with his idea of transculturation. He debunks notions of cultural purity and originality, conceptualising culture as an interaction resulting from appropriation itself (494-495). Some recent music videos appear to acknowledge transculturation in their appropriation: The Knocks’ “Geronimo” music video recognises traditional Native American culture as valid despite “inauthentic” influences, depicting a day in the life of a Native American hoop dancer living in modern America (Pappas 2012). Moreover, Nelly Furtado’s “Big Hoops” music video employs different cultures to advance one transcultural idea expressed through the song, interspersing showcases of Western material beauty with that of Native American hoop and shawl dancers (Lutz 2012).
In his video for Skrillex and Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley’s “Make it Bun Dem”, director Tony Truand Datis appears to envision a multicultural America. Featuring a Native family standing up to an oppressive white police chief trying to evict them and their fellow residents of a lower-class neighbourhood to make way for a real-estate development, Datis deliberately subverts racial and ethnic demarcations in favour of social discrimination and class divide. Like “Geronimo”, Datis depicts Native Americans as integrated into modern American civilisation: they live in a modern house and wear contemporary clothing (Datis 00:15), though they remain recognisably “native” in keeping their hair long, drawing a ritual circle in their backyard, and maintaining their spiritual practices. In addition, Datis very pointedly emphasises the multicultural nature of the lower class, showing African American (00:46) and even white households (01:10) being evicted by the police in addition to the Native American family. In portraying several minority groups in identical situations, against the backdrop of large, billowing American flags (00:32), “Make It Bun Dem” appears transcultural in its uniting of ethnic cultures under an “oppressed” umbrella.
Even so, despite the emphasis on multiculturalism and the irrelevance of ethnic differences in relation to a more pressing conflict between social classes, the video’s Native Americans are still set apart from the rest. This is because Datis casts the Native Americans as not only members but champions of the disenfranchised: the Native Americans defeat the police chief by summoning a golden eagle spirit (03:26). The Natives are not identified further than simply being “Native” – they are given no tribe, with their identity only expressed through generalised visual tropes like long hair and a recurring eagle motif. Their spirituality is also caricaturised and simplified for maximum visual effect, with, for instance, the eagle spirit bursting from the Native boy’s chest (02:32). In short, Datis presents simplified, general “Natives” defined by their spirituality.
Hence even as “Make It Bun Dem” advocates progressiveness in terms of perceptions of culture and class in America, it continues to rely on stereotypical caricatures of Native culture. Once again, this is more akin to Borsboom’s descriptions of historical depictions of “noble savagery”, and seems strangely at odds with its transcultural message. A potent analogy for this apparent contradiction lies in Fish (1997)’s concept of “boutique multiculturalism”. Fish’s boutique multiculturalist believes in an “essential humanity” (379), in relation to which cultural differences are comparatively unimportant. He/she appreciates other cultures, but in a “superficial or cosmetic” (Fish 378) way. Nelly Furtado’s “Spirit Indestructible” music video, for example, celebrates a universal human spirit by having Furtado dress up in several sets of exotic-looking clothing and take part in vaguely spiritual bonfires and drum processions while she sings about this aforementioned spirit (Bertrand 2009). In a similar way, “Ride” and “Make It Bun Dem” appropriate Native culture to advance their ideas about American identity because they view it as less fundamental to identity than nationalism. They appreciate these aesthetic features superficially, ascribing them significance (freedom for Del Rey, defiance for Datis) that neglects actual cultural meaning.
We see this fluidity of cultural significance and the staying power of “native” spiritual tropes once again in Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “Can’t Hold Us”, directed by Lewis, Koenig, and Augustavo. Unlike “Make It Bun Dem”, this video does not attempt any overt social criticism; it simply features white rapper Macklemore travelling around the world with a flag bearing the name of his album, performing while backed by masses of people in several different locations. However, the rapper himself has built a reputation as a socially-conscious speaker for the people, tackling issues like LGBT rights in his song “Same Love” and consumerism in “Wings” (Macklemore, The Heist 2011) by framing them in personal narratives. Indeed, he advocates a kind of universal harmony, going beyond the “colour-blind ideology” adopted by white youths to validate their presence in hip-hop culture (Rodriquez 2006:abstract) by acknowledging his social background at the same time. Hence the globetrotting, crowd-rousing journey Macklemore takes in this video complements his overall image.
The video for “Can’t Hold Us” differs from “Ride” and “Make It Bun Dem” as it has an international setting, rather than a distinctly American one. However, its agenda is still nationalistic: though Macklemore’s album flag travels around the world, it is clearly derived from the American flag and ends its journey on the Space Needle in Macklemore’s hometown, Seattle (Lewis, Koenig, and Augustavo 05:53). In taking the lyrics “We give it to the people, spread it across the country” (02:28) and expanding it on a global scale, the video conflates universal and American identities, representing an interesting interaction between nationalism and globalisation.
Once again, the natives here are portrayed in a markedly different way despite the video’s largely multicultural overtones: just as Datis’ Native Americans stand at the vanguard of class equality, the video directors for “Can’t Hold Us” give Macklemore’s agenda of global harmony native roots. Along with most of the locations and peoples seen in the video, the ethnicity of the “native” person portrayed here is not specifically distinguished; his “nativeness” is only indicated through visual cues like his dark skin and dreadlocks, and the snowy forest he lives in (Lewis, Koenig, and Augustavo 00:00). Yet the native occupies a position that the other cultures do not: he gives Macklemore his album flag, which he digs out of the snow (00:19). Like “Make It Bun Dem”, the native’s portrayal is marked by its mystery and spirituality – the scene is dominated by extreme close-ups of the old native’s eyes (Lewis, Koenig, and Augustavo 00:17-00:33), his mouth movements are obscured to the point where it seems he is communicating more with his gaze than his words (00:29-00:30), and the whole encounter is set to a haunting string prelude exclusive to the video. We get the sense that the native has imparted something important, inscrutable, and highly spiritual to Macklemore, which he then spreads across the world and ultimately to America through his music.
Therefore, both “Make It Bun Dem” and “Can’t Hold Us” deliver their nationalistic messages from a standpoint of multiculturalism, but choose to symbolise such messages with native spirituality. Along with “Ride”, they capitalise on this exoticism’s powerful visual appeal as a convenient and beautiful way of symbolising an “other” beyond the American status quo.
This puts native culture in a peculiar place in these videos’ incarnations of the American identity: while they portray culture and nation through progressive lenses, natives are isolated from this advancement. Most cultures depicted in “Can’t Hold Us” integrate into a global identity – a dark-skinned man with a camel travels from the desert to the city (Lewis, Koenig & Augustavo 01:52) – while the spiritual shaman remains alone and unchanged in his snowy forest. The Natives in “Make It Bun Dem” are also separated – their house is the only one without an American flag, and is marked by etchings of eagles instead (Datis 00:14). These differentiations have a similar effect as that of “Ride’s” isolated appropriation of Native cosmetic qualities: the videos adopt native culture symbolically, but do not truly integrate it into the Americas that they imagine.
Therefore, these three videos continue the trends described by Borsboom and Baird in using native portrayals as key devices in the definition and formation of national identity. Even when their visions of America incorporate multiculturalism, they fail to achieve transculturation, continuing to appropriate native culture in a stereotypical and superficial manner. Ironically, native spirituality’s symbolic application to nationalistic agendas divorces actual native cultures from the American consciousness.
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Datis, Tony T., dir. “Make It Bun Dem.” Atlantic Records, 2012. Music Video. Perf. Sonny J. Moore & Damian R. N. Marley. YouTube. http://youtu.be/BGpzGu9Yp6Y. 1 Nov. 2013.
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Lemoine, Yoann, dir. “Born to Die.” Interscope Records, 2011. Music Video. Perf. Lana Del Rey. YouTube. http://youtu.be/Bag1gUxuU0g. 14 Nov. 2013.
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This paper might have been the best one I wrote in my freshman year, but I’m also pretty sure it was my worst – at least, the draft was. WCT Paper 3 marks the first time I’ve ever had to rewrite a paper from the ground up, an ordeal which taught me some essential lessons for the rest of my undergraduate career.
As a literature and media double major, I’ve always tried to analyse popular media with the same attention and rigour as one would a novel. This module was my first chance to do that in a formal academic setting, especially since we could write our last paper on “native” depictions in any media we wanted – I’d written on one music video for my first paper, so I thought I’d take it up a notch for the third. Besides, it was an excuse to loop some of my favourite songs over and call it work!
Writing this paper wasn’t nearly as enjoyable as coming up with its premise, however. I wanted to do (and thought I was doing) a good job from the start, but it’s harder than it looks to develop a personal interest in an academic way. That’s a problem I often have with the inductive method – if something already appears self-evident to me from prior observation, I end up cobbling together whatever I can find in existing literature to support it. The hot-button nature of the issue (cultural appropriation) only made that tendency even worse, because writers already treated it like indisputable truth. This encouraged me to be more deontic and prescriptive in my writing than I should have been. Ultimately, I had a lot of ideas, but didn’t come up with a coherent framework to make them meaningful.
As a result, my first draft was a complete disaster. The argument was scattered and unsubstantiated, a significant portion was lifted from my first paper, and one video (which I eventually replaced) had no relevance at all. Finally, I’d based my analysis on an unpublished master’s thesis, which was (in the exact words of my professor) “utterly inappropriate” – I didn’t know it was inappropriate at the time, but if I’d researched more carefully I’m sure I would have found something better.
Needless to say, I had to rewrite the whole paper. I felt terrible and guilt-ridden at first, like I hadn’t done my chosen topic justice, and that I’d let my professor down. However, I soon realised that absolutely no one was upset about this besides me. A bad first draft, after all, is much better than a bad final; and a reworked draft is almost always better than a good yet unrevised essay. In this case, finding new primary texts transformed my argument in a way I never anticipated, but which turned out to be exactly right. Fish’s boutique multiculturalism showed me exactly what I was observing, while Rogers’ transculturation explained what the videos tried and failed to achieve – the interaction between these texts allowed me to turn my thinly-veiled diatribe against the American music industry into the thorough analysis that my topic deserved.
I was finally proud of this paper when I submitted it, but now that I’m reading it again after a year, I can find plenty of sentences that make me cringe. I only had two weeks to write the second draft after all, so it can’t be helped. I’ve learnt that no piece of writing is ever perfect; they only grow like plants, and how green their leaves get depends on how much time you spend with them.