“The Atlantic” writer aims to shame indie rock band

Arcade Fire’s “Reflektor” album promotion image (Photo credit: Arcade Fire / JF Lalonde)

The beautiful thing about soccer bloggers is that they have to understand not just the sport, but the country in which it is being played.  With that comes a deeper understanding of culture and racism, among other things.

So as I was perusing Twitter tonight, I found that a few of my favorite writers were outraged about an article about the band, Arcade Fire, on The Atlantic‘s website.

And when I read it, so was I.

(I am begrudgingly linking the audience to this story here. )

Hayden Higgins, the author of the story titled “Arcade Fire Exploited Haiti, and Almost No One Noticed,” made several statements in his piece claiming that the band used Caribbean-sounding music and Haitian costumes to get people to buy their new album, “Reflektor.” He also said that even though their intentions were sincere, there music has perpetuated stereotypes.

What? What?

First of all, there are ZERO examples  that the music has caused people to view Haiti solely in the way that the band has “portrayed” the island nation. Not one quote from a listener, a fan, an ignorant American, no one. When you’re going to make such a bold statement about a band like that, you better be able to back it up.

He didn’t.

Second of all, Régine Chassagne, one of the current and founding members of the group, is Haitian. While she was born and raised in Montreal, Canada, her parents had fled from Haiti during the dictatorship of François Duvalier.

That’s not difficult information to find.  In fact, he even says so:

The band has a longstanding relationship with Haiti, starting with member Régine Chassagne’s ancestry (her parents fled the nation during the Duvalier horrors). They have been dedicated supporters of Partners in Health, which works to eradicate disease in Haiti.

But he then relies heavily on another article that makes a similar claim, which he gives credit to because that writer is from the Bahamas and therefore must be an authority. He claims that because people generally don’t know about Haiti’s history or the band’s connection to the small island, Arcade Fire’s usage of Haitian influence promotes stereotypes.

No, that’s not it.

It is not Arcade Fire’s job, as a musical group, to educate ignorant folks about the world. In fact, as a journalist, that’s your job. By you writing this article, you’ve stripped down their message to a false core and completely disregarded the fact that this band has a strong bond to this country that they shared through their music. They’re not promoting stereotypes, they’re promoting their culture, and while it may be a more upbeat and fun part of their culture, that’s not to say they’ve used to it solely for profit.

You cannot make that assumption. You just can’t.

He then goes on to say that Mashable failed to credit the film, “Black Orpheus”,  which provides the footage in Arcade Fire’s lyric video for their song, “Afterlife”, on YouTube.

Arcade Fire has mentioned that film’s influence on their album several times, yet it is their fault that Mashable didn’t check it out themselves, or even watch it all the way through to understand that it’s based on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Mashable instead assumed that Arcade Fire produced a “mini movie music video”.  They have songs on the album called “Hey Orpheus ” and “Oh Eurydice”, for God’s sake. Higgins says:

The mistake was probably unintentional, but so much of racism’s evil occurs in the space between conscious choices, the space occupied by assumptions.

Yes, the mistake was unintentional, but that’s not racism. That’s just bad journalism. I’ve seen “Black Orpheus” and I can’t wrap my mind around the idea that Higgins may have seen it as well.  I loved that movie. It was made in 1959. You can tell it’s an old film and not just some kind of filter effect. The band is not to blame.

But here’s the kicker: He compared their work to Miley Cyrus’ performance at the VMA’s:

That performance was lambasted as racist: Cyrus, a white woman born into riches, propagating pernicious myths about black women’s sexuality while stealing from bounce music to lend herself a commercially advantageous “danger.” If Arcade Fire’s appropriation is less egregious, it’s still analogous. In both cases, a mainstream artist gains by drawing from the margins of popular culture, while the initial producers of that tradition remain on the periphery.

Miley Cyrus gained from that performance because she was paid to put on a show at an awards show. To bring viewers to MTV. To hype up the show as “one of the biggest nights in music.”

Arcade Fire is a indie-rock band that tastefully went back to its roots to continue to produce music for its fans.  Chassagne may be from Montreal, but she’s certainly not a daughter of a country music star who had everything handed to her on a silver platter. To compare Arcade Fire to a tasteless teenage rebellion is disrespectful to not only the band, but the point their music and what they stand for. It’s people like Higgins that promote racism and stereotypes by over-analyzing all the wrong things.

If you’re going to compare Arcade Fire to Miley Cyrus then we must also throw under the bus Shakira for her “Hips Don’t Lie” Bollywood-infused performance from the 2006 VMA’s. Or is that irrelevant because she’s a person of color?

He continues his tirade to quote a website named Stereogum which said, “[Arcade Fire’s] decision to incorporate bits of Haitian music leaves them very open to … cultural-appropriation charges. … But what a beautiful, revelatory song [‘Here Comes the Night Time’] is.”

He fails to present the rest of the quote, which says, “but what a beautiful, revelatory song it is — a song about personal discovery that sounds like personal discovery, like human beings caught up in the endorphin-rush of learning what their hips can do.”

That’s the point of the the Kanaval masks in the album promotion. The masks, which are worn during Haitian Carnival, are apart of the great tradition that is meant to be fun. It’s for the people to celebrate and be who they want to be during the festivities.

That is not cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation is when a white girl asks to borrow one of my mother’s saris for Halloween. To wear as a costume. For one night.

Cultural appropriation is Selena Gomez performing around the world wearing a bindi on her forehead, promoting the “Middle-Eastern” vibe in her new single for three months.

They took part of one of their cultures and infused it with another. They do not glamorize it the way our teeny-bopper heroines do. They use these authentic masks to share their culture. With pride. Not for profit.

Moving on, he shames Arcade Fire basically for not knowing better and not allowing the Haitian people themselves to represent themselves in music:

Arcade Fire may see themselves as using their position of privilege to promote Haitian art to masses of people who would not otherwise be exposed to new cultures. Nevertheless, there’s a troubling dynamic in play when Arcade Fire alone—rather than the people of Haiti together—is the sole arbiter of what is worth passing on in Haitian culture, and when the way it’s passed on will only perpetuate stereotypes about the country.

Are we just going to completely ignore the fact that Chassagne is in fact Haitian?  It is not Arcade Fire’s fault that other musicians from Haiti haven’t emerged as successful as them. In case you forgot, they’re still very much dealing with the impacts of that earthquake in 2010.

Higgins started out the article with the following:

Months before Arcade Fire’s new album came out, I learned of its existence when social media pointed me to a website with some chalked, black and white patterns spelling out “Reflektor.” The designs seemed strange and foreign, and I was intrigued about what the music might sound like—not because I knew what the accompanying imagery meant, but precisely because I didn’t.

This, of course, was the intended effect. It turns out those designs were inspired by Haitian vevegraffiti, used in syncretistic Vodoun practices to summon the Loa (angels or spirits, messengers to the deity). But presented out of context, to the typically unknowing fan like me, they connoted something else: mystery, exoticness, esotericism.

It seems as though Higgins thinks that by pointing out his own ignorance, he is now qualified to discern what racism is and what is culturally inappropriate.

But instead, he perpetuates the stereotypes by declaring the group’s intentions to bring fans in with their foreignness. He assumes that they wanted to profit off the Caribbean aspect of their music, not their composition, not their lyrics. Just the foreign beats.

It’s honestly upsetting to me that a publication as well-known as The Atlantic would publish this story, not only because of its general wrongness, but there are a whopping total of three sources in this story, none of whom were spoken to personally. Two are blogs, and the third an academic.

This piece is not meant to inform the public. It’s shaming.

It’s to make you feel guilty for liking music that has a tint of culture in it that you didn’t recognize.

What you do with that is entirely your call. You can either prove Higgins’ unverified claims right and think Haiti is all about drum beats and face masks, or you can do some reading and appreciate the music on a deeper level.

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