CAIRO â€" Growing up in the United States in the 1980s through the noughties made most of my generation pretty hard to offend. Not because America itself is offensive, though some might argue that point, or because it is so idealistic about free expression that people there respect individuality too much to be offended, but because we grew up watching so many sitcoms that piss all over family values; so many reality TV shows where mothers pimp out their daughters. We've become totally impervious, as a result, to pop cultureâ€™s shock and awe â€" like doctors being desensitized to blood.
I didnâ€™t get offended when Kurt Cobain announced that Courtney Love was "the best fuck in the world" â€" I envied her. When Lady Gaga wore a dress made entirely of raw beef, I simply got up to get more beer. I didnâ€™t get offended when Miley Cyrus emerged from preadolescence to start dry humping the floor of every stage, or when two years ago at Cairo's Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival, Yasmine Hamdan undulated sexually on stage to hundreds of horny young men. I undulated right back at her.
The point is, pop music could never offend me because I'm an MTV child. At least, that's what I thought until last week, when I saw the briefly ubiquitous " Hymn expand=1] for the Weekend" video (featuring Beyoncé) that the British band Coldplay released as part of their new flop of an album, A Head Full of Dreams.
You may well have read about this video or seen it for yourself by now. Hindu priests walk through ruins, levitate in midair and skim past a neon-blue child Shiva sitting on a stoop to set the scene for a long shot of U.S. superstar Beyoncé walking up a mountain with hennaed hands singing, "Drink from me, drink from me/Then we'll shoot across the sky."
Hindu practices become a single hodgepodge of decoration to embellish Chris Martinâ€™s sad, tired pop-rock. For Beyoncé, it's a misstep, a cringe-worthy collaboration. Sadly, it this isnâ€™t Coldplayâ€™s first offensively exotic video. In 2011, the group collaborated with Barbadian popstar Rihanna for "Princess expand=1] of China." Coldplay had a decent debut, Parachutes (2000), but the rest of their oeuvre has been a continual grasping for straws. Their last straw, it seems, is bedazzled Beyoncé.
Poor nameless Indian kids run through the famous annual Hindu Holi festival, adding its color to Martin's pale skin and intellect. While Bollywood actress Sonam Kapoor plays a fleeting cameo, Beyoncé plays a Hindu "angel." She looks more like a Victoria's Secret angel though, making clichéd attempts at mudras (symbolic hand gestures, often used in classical Indian dance) while singing three lyrics that drip repeatedly down her plunging neckline.
If any underlying theme can be taken from the song, it's something about achieving ascension and transcendence through intoxicants imbibed from Beyoncé"s boobs. The glaring disparity between rich white rocker gazing at Beyoncéâ€™s bobbling breasts and poor kids running through the streets barefoot is celebrated. It really can't get more Orientalist and exoticized than this, with Bey pliantly assuming the role of the object of the white manâ€™s gaze.
Us and them
Exoticism is a slippery slope, and anyone who knows anything about music, representation, and washed-out popstars knows that most of the latter are capable of nearly anything, especially exploiting the aesthetics of a persecuted race, a formerly colonized nation or a serious cause in order to sell records.
One of my favorite explanations of exoticism comes from Seismographic Sounds (2016), when the book's chief editor, Thomas Burkhalter, interviews Martin Stokes, who has been researching Middle Eastern music for over 30 years. When defining the differences between "exoticism, othering, primitivism, ethnocentrism, Orientalism and colonialism," Stokes says:
"They overlap and shade into one another, obviously. All human beings are "other." They find ways of categorizing themselves on the basis of some property of "sameness' from which outsiders are excluded, and seen as strange and mysterious (exotic). "Ethnicity" was once used to define outsiders. "They" have it. We" donâ€™t." Only in the 19th century did it become a positive quality, associated with the new nation states, who sought to construct ethnic identities for themselves where the great empires denied them.
Exoticism at Bergdorf Goodman's on Fifth Avenue in New York â€" Photo: Michael Owen
"Colonialism produced the modern lines across the map separating "us' from "them." These lines are still with us in one shape or another. Orientalism was the intellectual movement, seeking in "the Orient" the origins of things, and in Islam the cause of their stagnation: colonialismâ€™s task was one of protecting "the Orient" from itself, in music as in all other things. Primitivism looks the other way, to an Edenic vision of uncorrupted social and artistic life amongst those free of burden civilizations: Africans, Polynesians, Celts. These various terms are the keywords in the metropolitan fantasies that have shaped so much 20th-century musical life in the West, from Claude expand=1] Debussy and Béla Bartók to David Byrne and Brian Eno."
The deliberate use of exotic images that have nothing to do with the sonic textures of a song or the people singing it perpetuates this notion of otherness. In the Coldplay video, the priests, gods and Indian kids covered in paint are presented as purely mysterious or otherworldly, and thus separate from Coldplay and its audience. Exoticism here is just a commodifiable quality used to sell music.
Paintpall on the Sphinx?
There are also many cases of self-exoticism, Omar Souleyman being at the top of the list. His video "Warni expand=1] Warni" demonstrates how he force-feeds us his "Bedouin on the dance floor" routine until it becomes impossible for us, them, to take him seriously. It's a shame because his music isn't so bad and it would have been interesting to see him develop, but I doubt heâ€™ll escape the pigeonhole he has dug for himself.
Promoting the "us" versus "them" mentality helps enable wars, death and destruction. Videos like "Hymn for the Weekend" insist that othering is so much part of all of our lives and language that it's not worth talking about â€" it's a given. This clearly makes it more difficult to challenge racism, prejudice, sexism and all other dangerous binaries.
In Beyoncéâ€™s case, this also dilutes the power of her political statement against racism in her subsequent release, "Formation," and her Black Panther-themed Super Bowl performance. If she can thoughtlessly dress up as Chris Martinâ€™s Orientalist pin-up one minute, why should I believe her the next?
I was going to let this all slide until I got invited to a Facebook group campaigning to bring Coldplay and their Head Full of Dreams tour to Egypt. But now I worry they will come dressed as Pharaohs and play paintball on the Sphinx while tailed by homeless street children. Or shoot a music video on the Great Pyramid with a GoPro like the German teenager whose blog post has gone viral for doing what every privileged Egyptian has done in their youth.
In many ways, Beyoncé and Coldplay did me a good service in reminding me to again challenge the idea of "the other," and that exoticism cannot be reduced to ubiquity and banality, because it's a dangerous reality that is intertwined with all things exclusive. So thank you Coldplay and Beyoncé, for I, the proud MTV child, am finally offended.
Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
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