Major Lazer’s “Get Free” and cultural appropriation

23 Aug

The video for Major Lazer’s “Get Free” was just released.  It’s a good track, and a good looking video. (Sorry for the link-out, but embedding is being all wonky for me right now.)

The first thing that strikes me about this video is its depiction of gender.  It shows the gender-specific sexualization of women in the nightclub scene (like many music videos do), but it gives us a few chances to see that this is not a simple thing but a complex reality that women deal with in a variety of ways – for example, a variety of candid shots of women dancing that are not particularly sexualizing and frame the women as people behaving in an environment rather than simply as body parts, and the inclusion of shots of women who aren’t “model perfect” (as with the apparently partially-blind woman shown above.)  Add to this the shots of a woman surfing and of a woman refusing a man’s advances in a nightclub (the last shot of the video), and the varied depictions of masculinity (the hip-shaking skinny dudes in the club, the boxers, the old guys just hanging out) and the video comes across as a pretty honest depiction of gender in the nightclub culture as a complicated, multi-faceted part of real people’s lives rather than a strictly-divided pseudo-pornographic masculine fantasy (like what we’re used to in pop music videos).  Kudos on that.

The other thing that strikes me about this music video is its depictions of race.  The musicians are both white folks from the US, but the people in the video are all black; beyond just this divide, the whole thing is presented in such a way that the music is identified with the black subjects of the video rather than the white musicians. It’s hard for me to think that Diplo is actually producing this music for the black people shown in the video, since the single has only charted in Australia, Belgium, the UK, France, and the Netherlands, where internet EDM audiences are stereotypically white (although I don’t actually know the demographics of Diplo’s fans.) I’ve noticed that a lot of the tropical bass scene’s aesthetic is tinged with producers from the US and northern Europe identifying with and appropriating culture from other place of the world in what seems like a grab for authenticity and/or novelty, and this seems like a very overt step in that direction (especially for a producer, Diplo, who has already been criticized for his arguably racist appropriations of Jamaican culture in developing the image of his project “Major Lazer”.)

On the other hand, in this interview where Diplo explains his take on the issue of cultural appropriation in his music and in tropical bass music in general, he sounds very aware of the potential problem and very committed to accurately representing the people and sounds he works with.  He points out the anthropological mindset he brings to his use of samples and collaborations around the world, and describes what he does as collaboration instead of appropriation.  As is pointed out in the interview, though, Diplo’s insight into the problem of cultural appropriation still doesn’t change the fact that he’s profiting off of the perceived exoticism of his global collaborators/sources, or that hundreds of copycat producers are further appropriating “exotic” music with even less context and profiting off of it.

It’s a shame, because I really like the sound.  Dem grey areas.

Thanks for reading!

(As a disclaimer: I’m a white dude who grew up in the US and am living in Detroit.  As such, white/black is the primary racial dichotomy that I see reflected in media, though I recognize that this is an incomplete way to talk about race.  I think it’s pertinent, though, in this case, because it the racial dichotomy apparent in this music video, especially since there is no context given to the video by way of descriptions of where it was filmed and how the people in it might identify.)


6 Responses to “Major Lazer’s “Get Free” and cultural appropriation”

  1. rinnis85 08/24/2012 at 04:43 #

    I have never looked at Diplo and his music like this. I think what he shows was shot to show the Jamaican dancehall scene (, and he grabs strong inspiration from older reggae and current reggae artist as there were a few cameos of some of the hottest Dancehall artist. It might seem like he is miss representing Black American Culture or, Black Caribbean Culture in this case, but he is simply grabbing his cues from what is already popular amongst this group.

    Also if you didn’t know, there are millions of American born Caribbean’s (most likely first generation American) dotted along the east coast, this music and scene has been big since the late 80’s. This results in reggae music being played on all of our hip hop stations (in NY at least)

    For myself, I was born in a part of the US where 40%-60% of the residents are of Caribbean decent, ( this type of scene was considered fun before I knew people criticized this level of dancing. I only knew people criticized it until I went to college. Dancing in Caribbean culture, is de-sexualized, you dance simply because you are trying to have fun without any intentions of taking her home at the end of the night. ( You should know that Afro-Americans and Afro Caribbean’s, have many different experiences growing up.

    For myself, I moved from NJ to Indianapolis. I went to a Major Lazer show hoping to hear tons of Dancehall reggae. I was one of few black people in the crowd, had that show been in NY or Philly, I feel the crowd would have been mixed a little bit more. But the fact is the Caribbean American Population in the Midwest is not as big.

    Diplo makes me happy because as I was born and raised around reggae music and grew into the Dancehall reggae music in Jersey. I was afraid that most Americans cannot understand dancehall reggae, but Diplo introduced this music to suburban whites. Now Im me happy!!

    • basspolitics 08/24/2012 at 05:41 #

      Thanks for the comment!

      I’d be interested to know how much credibility Diplo has in Jamaican dancehall culture – it’s easy for me to see how he could be an outsider, but I can also see how he could be accepted as part of the culture.

      It’s interesting that you point out that dancehall dancing isn’t as sexualized as it looks like – this was one of the points I was trying to make about the video. I expected it to be very sexualizing and tokenizing of women (because almost any video about nightclub culture produced in the US pop music scene would be,) but it didn’t come across that way. I was pleasantly surprised.

  2. Taylor Simmons 11/28/2012 at 11:17 #

    From a young teenage Black girl from the States, I really liked your analysis. I questioned this music video a lot because it depicts Black culture & people with a white woman singing lyrics of freedom. It was sorta ironic to me.

  3. Amber 12/15/2015 at 18:06 #

    I know I’m a bit late but I’ve been watching this video lately and was getting so irritated by it (though I love the song) that I actually did a search of “why is a white woman singing get free” lol, and this popped up. I agree with you and I’m glad I’m not the only one who noticed that this was off. ( I am mixed btw)


  1. Major Lazer: What, Exactly, Is the Mission? - 06/01/2015

    […] opportunism, maybe even colonialism. Many writers have done an excellent job discussing cultural appropriation in dance music, so there’s no need to rehash it all here. But I do wonder about a brown-faced […]

  2. Major Lazer: What, Exactly, Is the Mission? | medianderblog - 06/25/2015

    […] opportunism, maybe even colonialism. Many writers have done an excellent job discussing cultural appropriation in dance music, so there’s no need to rehash it all here. But I do wonder about a brown-faced […]

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