• Subscribe to The Spark

    A curated newsletter full of dinner-table worthy topics, thought provoking stories, promo codes and the spiciest memes straight to your inbox.

Did We Just Culturally Appropriate Beyonce’s ‘Formation?’

cultural appropriation
4 min read

by Sanjana Lakshmi 

Last month, social media was abuzz with discussions of Coldplay’s latest music video for their song “Hymn for the Weekend.” My Facebook newsfeed and Twitter timeline were filled with think pieces about the problematic and Orientalist nature of the video, and I completely agreed. The video exotified the lives of poor slum children for profit and portrayed India as a country with only one religion, Hinduism. There was no portrayal of Sikhism, Islam, or any of the other religions that South Asians practice; instead, we saw children throwing color in celebration of Holi (and really, why are white people so obsessed with Holi? It’s as if that’s all brown people do) and Om signs and meditating sages.

But one of the more controversial parts of that video was Beyoncé’s appearance. She was dressed as an ‘Indian’ bride, her outfit complete with elaborate jewelry and clothing, mehndi on her hands, and a bindi on her forehead. Desis on my newsfeeds were offended and immediately took to decrying what they saw as Beyoncé’s appropriation of Indian culture.

And I don’t totally disagree: the video and Beyoncé’s appearance were clearly set in an Indian context and Beyoncé was obviously supposed to be an Indian bride. While people have argued that this is not cultural appropriation for a myriad of reasons—that it was appreciation; that many African cultures utilize mehndi and bindis as well—the fact remains that both Beyoncé and Coldplay are profiting from a culture that isn’t theirs, and many desis were rightfully offended by the video and by Beyoncé’s participation in it.

[Read Related: The Discussion We Need to Have: Cultural Appropriation vs. Cultural Appreciation]

Not long after the video for “Hymn for the Weekend” was released, Beyoncé debuted a new song and video of her own. “Formation” is a song very intentionally made by and for black people; it is a song about loving one’s black heritage and black culture. Yet merely a few days after think piece after think piece about Beyoncé’s cultural appropriation and disrespectful behavior towards Indian culture, I saw desis all over the place quoting, “I’ve got hot sauce in my bag, too!”

This is not to say that one cannot simultaneously critique and appreciate an artist, nor is it to say that people must be 100 percent problematic or 100 percent always politically correct. It is to ask who we are as South Asians to critique Beyoncé’s appropriation of South Asian culture and not a week later sing along to a song that wasn’t made for us. I don’t feel like I can or should sing about “Jackson Five nostrils” or “baby hair and afros”—it’s not an experience that I have lived. As non-Black people of color, there are certain things about “Formation” that are not for us. “Formation” isn’t about us, and that’s okay.

That’s why it’s ironic and quite frankly somewhat inappropriate to dance along to her song with our own routines. “Formation” is a song about black power, black culture and black movement—it is not a song for us to understand through our own dances or our own culture. It is not a song for us, period. 

“Formation” reminds us that we need to be centering black voices and black people in the movement for change. It is black folks who are being incarcerated and killed by the police on the streets at alarming rates, and we need to listen to them. We need to allow their songs praising their culture and heritage to be their songs. I am by no means saying that non-black people of color shouldn’t dance along to “Formation” if it comes on at a party, but if we understand that it is a political song with a political message, we need to understand that its theme of empowerment is quite specifically meant for black people.

[Read Related: Ayesha Khanna Shows Dance has no Boundaries With her Kathak Rendition to Coldplay and Beyonce’s “Hymn for the Weekend”]

And we need to understand that solidarity means stepping aside and letting black voices and points of view be heard.

So, yes, Coldplay partying and singing about getting “drunk and high” in the midst of poor children from Indian slums is a real problem; Coldplay pretending that India = Hindu is a real problem; Beyoncé’s participation in exotification and Orientalization of what is portrayed as Indian culture for profit is a real problem. But that doesn’t mean that desis should try to take part in a dialogue that isn’t theirs by co-opting “Formation.” It is a song for Black people, not for us.

sanjanaSanjana Lakshmi is an undergraduate student who wants to change the world, originally from the Bay Area and now studying political science and legal studies at Northwestern University. She dreams of one day dismantling capitalism, along with, patriarchy and structural racism, and obviously she can’t to this single-handedly, so please join her. But, in the meantime she hopes to help her community in any way she can. Lakshmi is particularly passionate about gender justice, but cares about all kinds of human rights issues as well. She also enjoys Indian food, falafel, mint chocolate chip ice cream, hiking, hanging out with her dog and her family, and sleeping.