Arabs need to confront anti-blackness, and Myriam Fares' Goumi proves it
This week Lebanese pop-star Myriam Fares released her latest music video after a six-month break. In Goumi (Get up), Fares homogenises African cultures, turns significant cultural clothing into fancy dress, wears an Afro-style wig, and, most damningly, blacks up.
It opens to the sound a of lion roaring, toads croaking and birds chirping, one wonders where this mystical land is supposed to be - the savannah? The rainforest? The jungle? Apparently it's all same to Fares' production team and it's a posture that is reflected, offensively, at every level of this music video.
Approximations of Africa - that famously homogenous land - feature throughout the clip. Set among exotic trees that we shall assume is supposed to be the jungle - but it is probably a garden centre in Beirut - Fares and her crew dance barefoot with ankle cuffs, headwraps and neck hoops. There's even an elephant necklace just in case we didn't get the Africa theme memo.
Fares appropriates the social status neck rings of the South African Ndebele people, her hands and forearms are painted red, while the otjize of the Himba people in Namibia is an ochre pigment used for skin protection. The singer and her back-up dancers paint their faces in white and gold dots, reducing the culture the Ethiopian Karo tribe to a fashion statement that is more reminiscent of Coachella than Africa.
None of these cultures are accurately appropriated either, and there's a reason for this. Because to assume the production team behind Goumi have any notion who the Ndebele, Himba or Karo peoples are - or the fact that they are from completely different countries - is generous. It is more likely that they saw neck rings and face paints in a travel photo, or on the catwalk, and thought it would look edgy.
|One wonders where this mystical land is supposed to be - the savannah? The rainforest? The jungle? Apparently it's all same to Fares' production team.|
The result is a video that is a hodgepodge of approximations, and a shambolic mess of appropriation, ignorance and racism. I mean, there's even a totem pole in there.
But Goumi’s gravest crime is the blacking up of Fares' entire body as she strikes poses in a turban that perhaps is aiming for the Nigerian Ichafu headwrap, but comes closer to re-raveled toilet paper. But that's no obstacle to this team, because they weren't aiming to accurately capture any real country in Africa, just an estimation of the continent from the perspective of an Edwardian child.
How many people were involved in the concept, production, shooting and editing of this clip? That not one person interceded and called out the explicit racism in blackfacing is significant.
Because Arabs have an anti-blackness problem which is almost entirely ignored by non-black Arabs. Black Arabs face microaggressions, racism and stigma that permeates into culture, employment and even language. In Arabic, black people are routinely - and even 'jovially' - nicknamed slaves, or "abeed", a term that perplexingly remains non-taboo.
|The result is a video that is a hodgepodge of approximations, and a shambolic mess of appropriation, ignorance and racism.|
Rather than joking about slavery, Arabs need to confront their history with it. The brutality that many Arab nations suffered at the hands of white colonialists does not absolve them of the violence and subjugation they inflicted by enslaving African peoples.
We constantly hold Western nations to account for the echoes of Jim Crow-era racism, and for whitewashing the wealth, social standing and privilege that they continue to benefit from. We hold them to account for the appropriation of Arab cultures and clothing, and rightly so. But we should also be acknowledging and rectifying the toxic attitudes at home too.
Blackface must be included in this introspection, because Fares is certainly not alone in this abomination. A number of Arab actors have been criticised for blacking up on screen, notably Samir Ghanem in Azmi We Ashgan, a role in which he played a character of a low social class with dreadlocks, and was mocked by a non-black Arab as a slave.
Dark skinned characters are often typecast as poor, stupid or lazy in Arabic dramas. In Block Ghashmara, a character played by Kuwaiti actor Hasan al-Ballam appears in blackface, grotesquely mimicking a Sudanese accent and is portrayed as lazy.
Both Ghanem and al-Ballam apologised for their portrayals. Significantly, Fares, has not. Far from removing Goumi or acknowledging the damage it has caused, Fares appeared to bask in the notoriety of the clip, posting yesterday to her Instagram account "1 day 1 million 1 trending", referring to the wide dissemination of her music video. Her critics have also accused her of blocking them on social media.
|"Goumi" features some questionable aesthetics [YouTube]|
Goumi crossed so far beyond the line of cultural borrowing or celebration that one must assume that the production team did not know of its existence. You cannot imitate black communities in the same way that you mimic Western music trends. Art must take into consideration context, and the historical asymmetry of power between African and Arab nations.
Arab countries' attitudes towards dark skin smacks of colonial hang-ups. We echo antiquated white attitudes when we consider dark skin unattractive, when we plaster our billboards with blond-haired, blue-eyed models, when we tell our children to stay out of the sun to avoid tanning.
We need to address our attitudes towards dark-skinned and black people, as well as our appropriation of cultures that are not our own. If you have no affiliation with an item of cultural clothing, what are you doing if not playing dress up, if not making a mockery of a community?
Ruqaya Izzidien is a British-Iraqi freelance writer specialising in social and cultural affairs. Her work has been published in The New York Times, the Guardian, the BBC and Al Jazeera English.
Her debut novel The Watermelon Boys, published by Hoopoe Fiction is out now.
Follow her on Twitter: @RuqayaIzzidien
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.