Orientalism, Beyonce, And Coldplay’s ‘Hymn to the Weekend’

By Noah Berlatsky

From Elvis and the blues to Miley and twerking, African-Americans in the United States are iconically the victims of cultural appropriation, not the perpetrators. The latest Beyoncé video, though, seems to reverse the polarities. In her guest spot on Coldplay’s Mumbai-set “Hymn for the Weekend,” Beyoncé dresses up as a Bollywood star, complete with “head covering, elaborately embroidered and beaded garments, bangles, a crown of flowers, henna, a full decorative neck and face piece, and thick kohl liner,” as Alexis Rhiannon wrote at Bustle. Bey even throws in hand gestures associated with Indian dance. No opportunity for Orientalism is overlooked.

Bessie Smith in a Salome-inspired gown

Beyoncé appropriating Indian culture may seem like a novelty, but the truth is that Afro-Orientalism has a long precedent. In the early 20th century, African-American blues performers like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey participated in a pop culture craze for Salomé, the Biblical Eastern enchantress (in)famous for the Dance of the Seven Veils. Salomé-inspired fashion included “harem pants, feathers, tassels, jewls and ‘lampshade’ tunics,” according to Paige McGinley in her study Staging the Blues.

Smith and Rainey picked up Orientalist tropes for a number of reasons. In the first place, Salomé was associated with lesbianism, so the costume became a way for both women to signal, and play off of, their own semi-public sexual preferences. The central appeal of Orientalism for black women, though, was precisely its unexpectedness; the East was seen as sophisticated, exotic.

Black women in America at that time, on the other hand, were stereotyped in popular blackface performance as ignorant rural hicks. As McGinley said, for Smith, Raney, and others, “role-playing of exoticized figures offered an alternative to the naturalized nostalgia of the plantation musical.” She added, “Naming themselves queen, empresses and madams, tent-show actresses turned away from the mammies . . . of the postbellum stage.”

Appropriation is usually seen as an illegitimate bid for authenticity; Eric Clapton pretends to be the reincarnated Robert Johnson in order to make his own blues licks seem more real. But Smith and Rainey were doing almost the opposite. They picked up Orientalist tropes as a flamboyant escape from naturalism. Neither was pretending to represent the authentic East. Rather, by picking up over-the-top fantasies of the Orient, they were undermining racist tropes that tried to nail them down to one stereotypical self. In a culture that denied them glamour, sexiness, and the ability to shape their own images, Orientalism was a way for African-American women to seize all three.

smith in a headdress
Bessie Smith in a feathered headdress

The use of Orientalism in “Hymn for the Weekend” is quite different however. For Bessie Smith, Salomé stood for over-the-top artifice. For Coldplay, in contrast, India is fetishized for its vibrantly foreign authenticity. The video is organized as a tourist trip, with Coldplay singer Chris Martin looking out from a cab at the Mumbai houses, gazing at its colorful residents engaged in unselfconsciously colorful dances and street performances.

Coldplay sees India much as early 20th century white Americans saw southern plantations. Both are figured as playgrounds for poor brown people to express their natural high spirits and simplicity of heart. People of color are happy to amuse you, white man. Let’s sing about it!

Beyoncé’s presence in “Hymn for the Weekend” makes the link between Orientalist tourism and throwback plantation music uncomfortably explicit. In the video, Beyoncé is presented not as a star in her own right, but as one glinting part of an exciting backdrop. She walks up a mountain in the distance; she peers out from a billboard; she looks down from a Bollywood screen as Chris Martin sits with the Indian audience watching.

Beyoncé barely even sings; the video treats her more like a sound effect and window dressing than as a collaborator. In the landscape of a Coldplay video, there is the white guy who tours, and there is scenery. If you’re not one, you’re the other. Beyoncé dons Orientalist tropes not (just) because she is appropriating Indian culture, but because, in the logic of the video, there’s no meaningful difference between being an African-American woman and being an Indian street kid. Both are different, both are non-white, both are there to be viewed by Chris Martin.

For Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, Orientalism was a way to demonstrate agency, and to show that, as stars, they could be anything they wanted, and did not have to conform to narrow racist plantation roles for black women. Beyoncé has used that tactic as well in the past, presenting herself on her Beyoncé video album as marital sex goddess, superpowered revolutionary, and doting mother, among other roles.

Perhaps dressing up as a Bollywood star is a continuation of Beyoncé’s determination not to be tied down to one image. But the video’s insistence on Martin’s perspective works against her. She doesn’t get to be a giddy shape-shifter, trying on different identities but constrained by none of them. Instead, she’s reduced to a marginalized marker of exoticism, a validating dollop of difference to highlight the eclecticism and daring of those white guys from Coldplay.

To say Beyoncé is appropriating Indian culture isn’t exactly wrong. But it misses the way in which the video consistently refuses to present Beyoncé as creator, artist, or agent. “Hymn to the Weekend” isn’t about Beyoncé using the Orient, like Bessie Smith before her. Instead, it’s about Orientalism eating Beyoncé.