When Taylor Swift”s music video for “Wildest Dreams” debuted during the MTV Video Music Awards, I wondered if the uncomfortable undertones of British Colonialism would ping the Internet”s controversy radar. It took a few days, but it finally happened. And – as always with a thorny issue like white imperialism – the lines were drawn in deep in the sand.
On NPR, native Kenyan and Ugandan authors Viviane Rutabingwa and James Kassaga Arinaitwe discussed the sting of seeing the fantasy of white colonial Africa play out yet again.
Swift has played dress-up in loosely defined historical time periods before. “Love Story” ostensibly takes place in medieval times while “Mean” oscillates between Vaudeville and the 1950s. So without any context – thanks public education! – for exactly how much the pop culture ideal of early 20th-century Africa is whitewashed, the glamour of playing Elizabeth Taylor Light™ in an “exotic” location probably (egregiously) seemed like harmless fun.
This is further cemented by the wording of “Wildest Dreams” director Joseph Kahn in response to the allegations of racism.
“This is not a video about colonialism but a love story on the set of a period film crew in Africa, 1950. The video is based on classic Hollywood romances like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, as well as classic movies like The African Queen, Out of Africa, and The English Patient, to name a few.”
I am Asian American, the producer, Jil Hardin, is an African American woman, and the editor, Chancler Haynes, is an African American man,” he said. “We collectively decided it would have been historically inaccurate to load the crew with more black actors as the video would have been accused of rewriting history.
There are two things that stick out here. One, “Africa” is not a homogenous, interchangeable place. It”s 11.67 million square miles of various environmental biomes and home to 1.1 billion people of diverse cultural backgrounds. But if you say “Africa” to the average American, the mental images conjured would most likely correspond to those in Swift”s video due to decades of pop culture osmosis from the likes of “Out of Africa,” “Heart of Darkness,” and “The African Queen” which gloss over the reality of systematic colonial oppression in favor of angst and adventure.
The other problem with this statement is it”s sort of missing the forest for the trees. While I”m sure there is an argument to be made that filming on the African Savannah would require hiring local people, the larger point to be made is “Out of an infinite number of options, why did you even think it was a good idea to choose this historical setting?”
South African writer Tauriq Moosa perhaps summed it up best on Twitter:
Once again, it's fine to represent aspects of people of colour like their lands but not the people themselves. Cool.
– Tauriq Moosa (@tauriqmoosa) September 3, 2015
To illustrate the tone-deafness of this video, let's replace generic “Africa” with a setting more familiar to most Americans: the Antebellum South.
The stage is set. Taylor Swift is dressed in the sumptuous, decadent finery of pre-Civil War aristocratic daughters. She catches the eye of her love interest from across the room during a party. What follows is a montage of a happy summer fling: meeting behind a magnolia tree at night, running through a field of cotton before collapsing on the ground in a fit of giggles, lounging on porch swing with a pitcher of lemonade off to the side. We then move into the fight/breakup. Perhaps Taylor Swift realizes her lover is already engaged. Perhaps they fight by the magnolia tree, their carved their initials in the background. In the end – due to the social constructs of the time – Swift must let her lover go to marry the other plantation daughter to which he was promised. All of this filmed in a soft hazy nostalgia. Not a single slave is seen. Or if they are, they embody the stereotype of the “Happy Slave.”
Of course, Taylor Swift would never do this because it would outrageously offensive to the realities of history. And yet, because the atrocities of British colonization in Kenya and other African nations are not as well-known to Americans, “Wildest Dreams” is able to paint a romanticized and ultimately racist view of how life was for those living under colonial rule.
If you”d like to know more about how our understanding of British Colonial Africa is skewed through the lens of white privilege, White Women Writers and Their African Invention is a good place to start. In it, author Simon Lewis covers a lot, but the snippet that is important to this conversation involves the opening line of “Out of Africa,” which was the inspiration for “Wildest Dreams.”
Let us start where Blixen [played by Meryl Streep in the film] starts, with the farm which she had. The opening sentence of “Out of Africa” establishes her having (or having had) the farm as the point of departure for the whole book, without any history of prior possession, without any reference to negotiation or purchase, and without the slightest hint that settlers” rights to their farm might have been “secured by murder and sustained by extortion.”
That kind of erasure was prevalent in writing of the time. Over the years this narrative coalesced into the modern white colonial fantasy visualized by “Wildest Dreams.” I sincerely doubt Taylor Swift or her team meant to uphold an ideal that erases the inhuman acts committed in the name of Queen and country. But they did.